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Looking back, moving forward: Applying the lessons learnt from the Haiti Earthquake response

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Sir John Holmes – Director of the Ditchley Foundation and former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Ross Mountain – Director General of DARA and Director of DFID’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review.

Linda Poteat – Director of Disaster Response, Interaction


Wendy Fenton – Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

As part of its role as a neutral forum for debate, the Humanitarian Practice Network convened a public meeting on 26 October 2010 to discuss some of the lessons arising from the response to the earthquake in Haiti in January this year. The three speakers were Sir John Holmes, Director of the Ditchley Foundation and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Ross Mountain, Director General of DARA International and Director of Director of DFID’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review; and Linda Poteat, Director for Disaster Response in the Humanitarian Policy and Practice Unit at InterAction. The meeting was chaired by Wendy Fenton, HPN Coordinator.

Several key themes emerged. All three speakers highlighted the scale of the disaster, and the very difficult circumstances surrounding the response: the complex urban landscape; the extent of the destruction, which affected aid agencies as much as the general population; a weak and dysfunctional government; insecurity (noting this was perhaps overplayed); the vast array of aid actors involved, including a very large military presence; and significant media attention to the response. Aspects of the response were done well, such as search and rescue, immediate medical care and disease control, water and food provision, emergency education and cash for work; the Flash Appeal mobilised funds quickly, and overall the relief effort succeeded in its primary objective of saving lives. Even so, some areas of the response were much less successful, notably shelter and land issues (an ongoing problem), camp management and civilian protection.

On a more fundamental level, all three speakers identified weak leadership of the response as a crucial failing. Sir John noted that, while the cluster system was set up quickly, a great deal of time was wasted in discussing whether the Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator roles should be combined or separated (they were in the end combined). Local involvement was minimal, in part because cluster meetings were almost exclusively conducted in English (Haiti is a francophone country), and held in locations local actors found hard to reach. On the question of urban versus rural contexts, Poteat noted that the humanitarian sector faced very different challenges, for instance in sanitation, waste disposal and camp management and security, which agencies were ill-equipped to meet.

Turning to lessons learned, the speakers agreed that preparedness was key, in the technical sense of stockpiled supplies such as shelter materials, and in terms of leadership. One practical step, suggested by Mountain, might be to establish a standing surge capacity, to ensure that the right people were in the right place at the right time. There was consensus too on the need to build the capacity of local actors and community networks before a disaster strikes, and to ensure much greater local engagement in the mechanisms of response, including the workings of the cluster system. Poteat noted the need to improve and streamline unmanageable multi-sector needs assessments, and Sir John called for more funding to OCHA, more effective links with early recovery efforts, greater investment in the clusters, greater donor involvement and steps to improve civil/military coordination.

Many of these issues were taken up when the meeting was opened to the floor. Staffing and very high turnover rates were noted as a significant obstacle to institutional learning, as was a general absence of ‘soft’ skills, notably the ability to manage cluster meetings effectively and build consensus and agreement between agencies. The question of new technology was raised as a way of enabling local community engagement, for instance using mobile phones to keep beneficiaries apprised of their aid entitlements and to make it easier for them to give feedback. The issue of local involvement was also raised in relation to questions of preparedness and the importance of disaster risk reduction. It was pointed out that Southern NGOs rarely receive funding from Northern counterparts or donors until a disaster strikes, by which point it is too late to start supporting them and building their capacity to respond and engage with the relief effort.

The meeting also discussed problems of corruption and government transparency, in Haiti and elsewhere. Sir John explained that opinion had been divided on the wisdom of working through the government, with the US seeking to use the Interim Commission to bypass ministries and replace the government, and the UN arguing for a small Commission and greater support to existing structures in Port-au-Prince. In Sir John’s view, while noting the challenges involved, there was no alternative to working through the government, even though it had been decimated by the earthquake to the point that the Prime Minister had no way to interface with the international relief effort in the early stages of the response. As donors look increasingly to reconstruction, work in this area had to be done by the government.


The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people and affected almost one third of the Haitian population. Over 300,000 people were injured and 2.3 million displaced. Government institutions and international organisations were also affected, inevitably slowing down and hampering the humanitarian response. Much of the early media coverage emphasised the slowness and inefficiency of the response. Subsequent reviews and real-time evaluations, however, have recognised that much was achieved despite the extensive challenges posed by the context. 

This event launches Issue 48 of the Humanitarian Exchange magazine 'Lessons Learned from the Haitian Earthquake Response’.  published by the Humanitarian Practice Network. In the lead article, Sir John Holmes highlights both the achievements and the shortcomings of the response, reminding us that the lessons learned must not just be reflected on but also applied.

Other contributions illustrate the significant benefits of sustained dialogue and interaction between military actors and humanitarians, discuss the need to empower poor individuals and communities to help ‘build back better’ and review methods of information collection and management, including the use of social networking to facilitate communications. Articles in the Issue also examine innovative approaches to addressing post-earthquake water, sanitation and hygiene needs, lessons learned from the rapid deployment of a specially designed modular and mobile field hospital and efforts by aid agencies to promote flexible, incremental approaches to land and housing tenure security.