Issue 35 - Article 5

Humanitarian relief in chronically vulnerable urban and peri-urban contexts: responding to Tropical Storm Jeanne in Gonaives, Haiti

November 21, 2006
Abby Maxman, CARE

Tropical Storm Jeanne struck Haiti on 18 and 19 September 2004, unleashing torrential rains resulting in landslides and flooding that killed 3,000 people and left many more homeless. Gonaives, the country’s third-largest city with a population of 200,000, was worst hit. Flood waters inundated the city and made the primary road to the capital, Port-au-Prince, impassable. This was without doubt a devastating disaster. But it was underpinned by a complex social, environmental and political crisis, exemplified by the controversial ousting of President Jean Bertrand Aristide the previous February.


The immediate response

CARE was the largest aid organisation in Gonaives, and as such was a leader in the relief response. Following an initial rapid assessment, CARE delivered its first aid distribution (of bread) 48 hours after the disaster. Dry food and water and hygiene and sanitation, health, education and psychosocial support programmes followed.

In the tense atmosphere of the early days of the response, cultivating good relationships and establishing communication with local neighbourhood leaders, including in some cases armed gangs, was crucial to the smooth functioning of aid distributions. Perforce, CARE worked closely with the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, to secure food and water distribution sites. Public information was distributed via radio to help dispel rumors and misgivings about the relief effort, but there were still protests at distribution points, often by men resentful of the policy of distributing only to women. The presence of MINUSTAH troops prevented any major outbreak of violence, but vandalism and theft were ongoing problems. Attacks on vehicles and the attempted looting of convoys limited the number of distributions, and distributions had to be suspended when troops took a much-needed rest day. CARE’s compound quickly became known as one of the few ‘resource-rich’ sites in Gonaives, and there were frequent outbreaks of violence on the streets outside. Ultimately, CARE had no choice but to station MINUSTAH peacekeepers within its compound full-time.

CARE was called on to share its facilities and warehouses with other NGOs supporting the response. Although long-time partners in Haiti, such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Save the Children US, Oxfam and World Vision International, were outstanding models of collaboration and support, CARE’s warehouse was also used by countless government actors, and local and international NGOs, posing a major challenge to control and accountability efforts. Meanwhile, in the absence of a functioning local government, CARE came to be seen as the de facto authority and information source, fielding inquiries not only from the media but also from members of the public, such as families concerned about missing relatives. Although UN coordination fora existed throughout the response, several agencies failed to participate or respect agreements set out in these fora. Well-meaning agencies with no knowledge of the context or pre-existing relationships with the local population created a climate of competition – among humanitarian agencies and within the affected population itself. The Haitian diaspora responded with concern, but much of the support came in the form of small-scale, in-kind contributions, such as used clothing and canned goods, which piled up at shipping points, causing logistical problems and generating negative publicity around the NGO effort.


Transition and reconstruction

CARE encouraged the transition out of immediate direct service delivery as quickly as possible. However, in the volatile atmosphere that followed the disaster there was notable pressure on the agency from the government, donors and peacekeepers to continue general distributions of food, water and supplies, and CARE’s original date of mid-October to shift from general to targeted food distributions was resisted; the move was ultimately delayed until November.

When the transition did occur, it was widely recognised to have helped in calming the situation by enabling local market practices, systems and economies to re-establish themselves. Despite pressure to continue traditional relief activities, by January 2005 all of CARE’s activities were focused on clean up, reconstruction and strengthening local capacity to facilitate a return to normal. One of the most successful mechanisms to facilitate this transition was a short-term cash-for-work employment scheme. While the scheme was widely viewed as an important factor in stabilising the volatile situation, it posed its own challenges in terms of control and wage structures, as other organisations were implementing similar schemes nearby.


Internal agency issues

Many of the 200 CARE staff based in Gonaives were left homeless themselves; all of them lost family members and friends, and the agency lost a colleague. Yet whatever shock and trauma they were experiencing themselves, staff were immediately required to respond to the needs of the larger community. Sleep-deprived and working in highly unhygienic conditions, they struggled to balance caring for their own families and friends with their commitment to providing fast, efficient emergency relief. Many felt guilty in the face of others whose situation was worse than their own, and were discouraged by the seemingly slow progress they were making, despite their massive efforts. The relentless hours left some feeling overworked and under-valued by the agency. To complicate matters, the crisis occurred shortly after a change of country office leadership, leaving some staff members unclear as to their roles, or with differing expectations concerning reporting lines and authority.

To address stress and declining morale among its staff, CARE developed a six-month pilot programme in coordination with a local psychosocial firm to provide stress management and counselling. Concurrently, a workshop series was set up for senior staff members, conducted by the Dutch Antares Foundation, focused on individual consultations, tailored stress management techniques and conflict management. Feedback from these processes indicated that they were widely appreciated, made staff feel valued and should have been put in place earlier. Funds from colleagues and bonuses proved more problematic. Disagreements arose over the criteria for these funds, and in the end they were distributed equally among all staff.


Challenges and successes

CARE worked at the heart of the crisis, and as such often came in for the kind of criticism that high expectations breed. Yet an external evaluation conducted in February 2005 recognised the timeliness, effectiveness, appropriateness and efficiency of CARE’s response. The evaluation also underscored the importance of long-term relationships and commitment to disaster-prone areas. Across the board, communities cited the importance and value, not only of CARE’s emergency response, but also of its work before the disaster. For example, neighbourhoods where CARE had previously supported the development of community management committees for canal and drainage clearance suffered significantly less damage and loss of life than surrounding areas. This illustrates the importance of having disaster preparedness and mitigation integrated into long-term community development, even in a difficult political context like Haiti. With this in mind, CARE, its partners and international donors have built on existing community relationships and invested significantly in rehabilitation and preparedness – long after the media attention has faded and many other agencies have left. What is essential now is continued commitment by the international community. Urban and peri-urban areas remain vulnerable to disaster.



CARE values the participation of multiple organisations in the response to Tropical Storm Jeanne. World Vision International, Save the Children-US, CRS and Oxfam deserve specific mention for their integrity, and for the manner in which they seconded staff and provided support in highly collaborative and constructive ways. The importance and value of timely and effective support from the UN peacekeeping mission and many bilateral and multilateral donors should also be recognised.

CARE is concerned to share the lessons from this response with other organisations, and to incorporate this learning into future preparedness and response activities. Of special note are the following.

  • There is a pressing need for a widely accepted and enforced NGO code of conduct for efficient information-sharing, coordination and collaboration to guide a coherent response. In the meantime, we must all commit ourselves to respecting the fora and mechanisms that do exist, and set individual agendas aside.
  • Ensuring the most rapid transition possible from relief to participatory reconstruction can significantly ameliorate volatile situations in complex socio-political environments.
  • Conversely, an up-to-date emergency organisational chart and regular staff training in standby job skills are vital for emergency response, to ensure that an organisation normally focused on long-term development can switch smoothly into disaster mode.
  • Investment in stress management and psychosocial support for staff as well as local communities should take place as soon as possible following a disaster.
  • The importance of a long-term commitment to disaster preparedness and prevention; effective approaches to managing environmental degradation; and on-the-ground knowledge, understanding and relationships with local populations cannot be overstated.

While these points have all been recognised in prior emergency response evaluations, the response to Tropical Storm Jeanne again illustrates their importance. A clear understanding of the standards set out in SPHERE, as well as good development practices, are prerequisites for all actors in emergency response.


Abby Maxman is Country Director, CARE Ethiopia. She was CARE’s Country Director in Haiti from August 2004 to July 2006. Her email address is:


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