Issue 48 - Article 1

Learning the lessons of Haiti

July 18, 2010
John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
Canadian army medic Richard Robichaud treats a lady at a makeshift hospital of the Belgian First Aid and Support Team (B-FAST) in a suburb of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince January 18, 2010

Many humanitarian organisations have been working intensively over the last six months to help the Haitian authorities reach those affected by the devastating earthquake of 12 January 2010 as quickly and effectively as possible. This edition of Humanitarian Exchange dedicated to the Haiti earthquake is an opportunity to step back and take stock of what has been achieved, to look at where we could have done better and to set out some of the lessons we need to learn. This exercise is not theoretical – it has real and lasting value, so long as the lessons we have identified are actually applied on the ground. The aim is both to ensure that we help to save more lives in Haiti in the months to come, and to improve our response when the next major disaster happens – as it will, even if we cannot know where or when.

Successes …

A huge amount was achieved by the authorities and the international community in the weeks and months which followed the tragedy. Many lives were saved, and are being saved today, because of the relief effort. One of the most successful search and rescue efforts ever pulled many from the rubble even when all hope seemed to be gone. Approximately four million people received food assistance, 1.2m regular clean water and 1.5m temporary shelter. A million Haitians have benefited from cash for work programmes. No major epidemics have struck. No second disaster has followed the first. Most schools have been helped to restart, even without school buildings. Agriculture has been assisted. Protection has been provided to some of the most vulnerable in difficult camp contexts. And all of this has been done against the background of an extremely difficult and complex starting-point.

Overall, therefore, I believe we got a lot more right than wrong. This was the most significant disaster requiring a large-scale international response since the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. Haiti was unusual – almost unprecedented – because of the devastating effect on local capacity of all kinds and the difficulties of the urban, capital city context. It was a major test of the capacity, resources and response readiness of the global humanitarian community. That we passed that test for the most part is also the view of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the primary forum for humanitarian dialogue and decision-making among humanitarian partners – the United Nations, NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. In its six-month review of the Haiti response, published in July, the IASC noted that ‘despite the challenging operating environment, the humanitarian operation to a large extent achieved its immediate objectives, and responded effectively to the critical needs identified’.

… and failures

Nonetheless mistakes were made, and lessons need to be learned if we are to do better in future. Coordination and leadership were challenges from the beginning, in chaotic circumstances where so much local capacity had been destroyed or disrupted. The cluster mechanism kicked in straight away and helped improve the coherence of the effort within the first days of the earthquake. It may not have solved all the problems – and we were all frustrated by how long it took to get some parts of the relief effort moving with the scale and speed necessary. But by common consent, without it we would have struggled to get anything moving at all in crucial areas like health, shelter and water. Nonetheless more resources were needed, particularly from lead agencies, but also from OCHA on the inter-cluster coordination side, to make these mechanisms work even better. Moreover, the influx of many hundreds of humanitarian organisations, many of whom, while well-meaning, were not necessarily professional and well-informed in their approach, posed a huge challenge to coherence. A new system of certification of capacity and experience needs to be looked at.

The presence and assets of powerful military entities, particularly MINUSTAH but also from the US and Canada, presented both opportunities and challenges. Humanitarians required the support of the military in facilitating the transport and distribution of assistance, and dealing with basic problems like running the airport and repairing the port. The establishment of coordination structures engaging both military and humanitarian actors was critical to the success of the operation. But keeping all these actors, including the major bilateral donors, pulling in the same direction was a huge challenge. We need to learn how to work together more effectively and naturally in such circumstances. The current architecture is too focused on the humanitarian organisations themselves.

The international humanitarian community meanwhile did not show itself to be sufficiently sensitive to the concerns and capacities of local civil society, and did not listen closely enough to what the people whose lives had been destroyed by the earthquake were saying. This mistake has been made before, for example in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami five years ago. It leads to misjudgements about what is needed and errors in strategy which then have to be corrected. In this case it was compounded by too much use of English in the coordination mechanisms and difficult access for local NGOs to the UN base where most meetings were being conducted. This is an area where we really must do better. The humanitarian community simply cannot afford not to work with national and local structures, to the fullest extent possible, however daunting and complex an operation may be.

The operation in Haiti also showed gaps in the humanitarian community’s range of experience and knowledge. We need to look in more detail at methods for identifying the most vulnerable in a disaster operation and in distinguishing between those affected by the disaster and those – the majority of the population in Haiti – suffering from more systemic forms of deprivation. The related and perennial challenge of strengthening linkages between relief and longer-term recovery and development still requires further work. We also urgently need to learn how to better adapt our response to urban contexts, and to identify the necessary expertise, tools, knowledge and partnerships to be able to operate effectively in such environments.

Challenges ahead

There is no question that the hardest part still lies ahead. Even if Haiti is spared a direct hit by a hurricane, massive humanitarian needs remain. On my last visit to Port-au–Prince, in July, I visited the Ancien Aéroport Militaire, a camp sheltering 48,000 people, and Fort National, a hilly area of the capital very heavily damaged by the earthquake, where rubble removal is under way to allow building of transitional shelters and the beginning of return for the displaced from areas like Champ de Mars. I saw people coping with extraordinary patience in the midst of what is still terrible devastation and very harsh living conditions, despite the availability of basic services. But the challenge just to take care of humanitarian needs on a daily basis remains enormous, and will continue well into next year. More resources are needed from donors to keep this relief operation running.

People also need to see hope and the beginning of change for the better. They ask how long they will have to stay in the camps. More employment, more schools and safer housing are major priorities. Shelter is at the forefront of people’s minds. The almost 1.5m people still living in tents or under tarpaulins are in a very precarious situation. Security in some of the camps is a huge problem, given gang presence and intimidation, and sexual violence is increasing. Meanwhile, contingency planning for hurricanes needs to be intensified. Arrangements and incentives for people to return to their houses, and for more transitional shelters to be built, urgently need to be resolved. Rubble removal needs to be accelerated dramatically – as of July only 250,000 cubic metres, out of more than 20m, had been moved. Humanitarians are working closely in all these areas with the government, as we need to. But we have to maintain and indeed increase the momentum. More children must be encouraged back to school, disease prevention efforts must be sustained and stepped up, agricultural renaissance must be nurtured and investment for sustainable jobs found.

We owe it to the devastated population of Haiti – and to all communities affected by disasters – to act on the lessons we have learned with speed and determination, and to strive constantly to improve our response. Meanwhile, the biggest lesson of all remains the need to reduce the risks of disasters before they happen, through measures like enforced building codes and ensuring that people do not live in flood-prone areas, and to prepare for them more systematically, not just to respond effectively to them afterwards. If building Haiti back better means anything, it means making sure that its people are never again as vulnerable to disaster as so many were on 12 January 2010.

John Holmes is the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.


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