Coordinating the earthquake response: lessons from Leogane, western Haiti
by Stephanie Julmy February 2011

The earthquake that hit Haiti on 12 January 2010 lasted just a few minutes, yet is estimated to have killed 222,000 people and left over 300,000 injured. The damage was such that 2.3 million people were displaced. In Leogane, the closest city to the epicentre, 80%–90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Institutions that would normally be at the centre of a disaster response were devastated: more than half the hospitals in the affected area were destroyed or damaged, while 60% of governmental, administrative and economic infrastructure was destroyed. The international community was also affected, with the UN alone losing 101 of its staff.

The international response was enormous, and Port-au-Prince was soon inundated with international relief organisations, international armed forces, corporations, civil-society groups, faith-based organisations and private citizens from around the world. To support the coordination of the relief effort, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) deployed staff specialising in humanitarian affairs, information management, needs assessments, donor relations and reporting. In addition to its main office in Port-au-Prince, OCHA opened three sub-offices, including one in Leogane on 24 January, 12 days after the earthquake.



By the time the Leogane office was established, around ten field hospitals were functioning in the city, and a rapidly growing number of NGOs were distributing relief supplies. With organisations too busy distributing life-saving relief items to carry out assessments, there were countless requests from aid organisations for guidance on where to distribute relief and on sectoral priorities, and for information on the overall situation. Local authorities also wanted help coordinating their response.

In collaboration with the provincial authorities, OCHA established coordination mechanisms in line with the coordination framework implemented in Port-au-Prince. It also chaired cluster meetings for the first few weeks until cluster leads set up a presence in Leogane. This initially included three priority clusters (Health, Food and Emergency Shelter), the inter-cluster coordination forum and a coordination platform with the local authorities. The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) cluster had already been set up by DINEPA, the Haitian ministry for water and sanitation, which was managing coordination throughout the country in collaboration with UNICEF. Other clusters, including Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM), Early Recovery and Protection, were rolled out as and when lead agencies deployed to Leogane.

From the outset, the cluster approach in Leogane proved critical in ensuring improved partnerships among international humanitarian actors as well as with national authorities, facilitating information sharing, enhancing coherence and limiting duplication. Health was a case in point. With limited access to resources, and limited specialised staff, health providers and field hospitals were overwhelmed with patients and desperately in need of a functioning referral mechanism with other field hospitals. Coordination meetings at the sub-national level facilitated this process and allowed for a market-style exchange of equipment and health specialists. The cluster approach also ensured the application of standards and guidance agreed at the national level, supported equitable response and encouraged joint activities, for instance joint needs assessments. The inter-cluster coordination group in turn facilitated coordination between clusters on cross-cutting issues, and ensured agreement on the priorities and strategies for response.

The late arrival of dedicated staff to lead and manage the clusters in Leogane (including cluster coordinators and information management focal points) had several adverse effects. Most importantly, it led to delays in developing concise overviews of needs and gap analyses. NGOs were asked to lead some of the clusters instead of the global cluster lead agencies, but limited capacity and the lack of staff dedicated to coordination meant that those that accepted did so only for limited periods. In the first two months, cluster leadership in some clusters changed frequently. In the case of Protection and Early Recovery, delays in the deployment of cluster leads made it harder to address cross-cutting issues and incorporate protection and early recovery into other areas of activity at an early stage.

National NGOs and civil society organisations often have a comparative advantage in early response due to their links with local communities and authorities. In Leogane, many of the clusters involved representatives from local NGOs and civil-society groups. In this the Protection cluster was exemplary: it called upon its existing – and extensive – network of contacts from local organisations involved in protection, ensuring a collaborative approach between international and Haitian actors. In many cases, however, local groups were involved thanks to their own initiative rather than a concerted effort by cluster leads to engage them. Cluster leads should place greater emphasis on ensuring adequate participation of national NGOs and civil-society organisations from the outset, and engage them as equal partners in decision-making and implementation, rather than seeing them merely as implementing partners.

The interdependence between the many aspects of the humanitarian response underscored the need for inter-cluster coordination to enable effective information sharing and decision-making on topics that did not clearly fall under any one cluster’s ‘responsibility’. In the case of shelter provision and rubble removal, for example, this was addressed in the inter-cluster coordination forum and through bilateral meetings between the Shelter cluster and Early Recovery cluster leads. A number of non-humanitarian actors (including foreign militaries and the private sector) had a critical role to play in rubble removal, and rubble removal was a necessary first step before humanitarian organisations could begin providing transitional shelter. Coordination with foreign militaries was considerable and effective. OCHA rapidly deployed a Humanitarian Civil–Military Coordination Officer, who initiated dialogue and facilitated interaction between humanitarian and military actors. However, relations with the private sector (both local and international) were very limited in western Haiti, at least in the first two months after the earthquake. Humanitarian practitioners would benefit from clearer models for engaging with the private sector to support the provision and distribution of assistance.


Assessing needs

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team’s rapid assessment provided preliminary information regarding needs. In areas affected by the earthquake it was assumed that everyone was in need of life-saving relief, including food, water and shelter. As a result, few organisations carried out their own assessments in this first phase, instead focusing all their resources on responding to immediate survival imperatives.

The situation was rapidly changing, however, and information was needed on where people were going, where they were staying and what they needed. The joint inter-agency needs assessment had yet to start. In order to obtain information on the situation in the area, OCHA called on EU Civil Protection Team (CPT) assessment experts deployed with UNDAC to conduct visits in Leogane and surrounding districts, along with district representatives. The purpose of these field visits was to obtain, and maintain, a clear picture of the evolving situation, including the location and approximate population of informal camps and needs per sector and geographical area – information that was not available anywhere else at the time. This was vital for supporting and guiding decision-making in the first weeks. Based on these visits, which OCHA alone would not have had the capacity to undertake at that time due to insufficient staff, OCHA was able to guide humanitarian partners towards certain locations, issues or vulnerable populations.

The Rapid Interagency Needs Assessment in Haiti was ready six weeks after the earthquake. Unfortunately by this time the information was no longer timely. Moreover, it had not been consolidated or presented in a way that could support decision-making at the sub-national level, which was what aid agencies and organisations in the field needed. The assessment was carried out in ten communes of the larger Port-au-Prince area (which included Leogane), and in 44 quadrants selected in the rest of Haiti (a total of 217 sites in 54 ‘communal sections’). In the larger Port-au-Prince area, assessment teams collected information for every communal section. This approach was appropriate as there were considerable variations in the extent to which people were affected across the different communal sections. In Leogane for example, three communal sections – where the city of Leogane was located – were very badly hit, while the remaining ten communal sections were considerably less affected. Needs too varied considerably. However, the assessment report did not provide data disaggregated by communal section, but only compared the larger Port-au-Prince area with the rest of the country. This was interesting from a global perspective, but was unusable by people in the field, who had to make operational decisions based on needs on the ground.


Ensuring equitable distribution of aid

In the first weeks of the response, the bulk of the aid brought to western Haiti was distributed in spontaneous settlements, as opposed to other areas such as where people had set up temporary structures in front of their houses. Furthermore, certain communes received more aid than others: the commune of Leogane received more aid than the nearby commune of Gressier, for example. This caused secondary population movements that could have been at least partially avoided had humanitarian aid been more equitably distributed between camp and non-camp settings, and across affected areas. People quickly understood that if they wanted to receive relief items, a camp was the place to be. Spontaneous settlements began to mushroom in size and pop up near towns and on the sides of roads, in places where aid workers could not fail to notice them. The number of camps in Leogane started to increase, while in Gressier they decreased. This underscored the critical role of cluster leads in ensuring that cluster partners distribute aid equitably from the outset of an emergency response. Although humanitarian organisations often talk about ensuring equitable humanitarian assistance, this was not properly discussed until secondary population movements began, by which time it was already too late. Cluster leads must also ensure that information is collected and analysed in a way that is disaggregated between camp and non-camp settings. This was not systematically done, at least in the first few months.



The Haiti earthquake response is probably one of the most challenging emergencies the humanitarian community has ever faced. The extent of the destruction overwhelmed the international aid system. From the point of view of western Haiti, several lessons were learned from the response. In terms of coordination, humanitarian agencies largely underestimated the magnitude and complexity of the disaster, and consequently did not allocate the proper resources to it, including in affected areas other than the capital. While the cluster approach proved its value in managing and coordinating humanitarian assistance, the need for sufficient cluster coordination staff from the onset was underscored, with gaps resulting from delays in some staff arriving in the ‘deep field’. The earthquake response also highlighted that cluster leads should place greater emphasis on ensuring that cluster partners distribute aid equitably from the outset of an emergency response. Finally, although the Rapid Interagency Needs Assessment collected a wealth of information from around the entire country, analysis of the results remained too general to provide the information to support and guide decision-making at a sub-national level.


Stephanie Julmy worked for OCHA in Leogane during the first two months of the Haiti earthquake response. This article has been written in a personal capacity, and the views expressed do not represent those of the UN.