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The Haiti catastrophe: Lessons learned from previous operations

Written by Ben Ramalingam


In a recent interview, the US government's two top envoys for the Haiti disaster response, former Presidents Clinton and Bush, urged that international aid efforts be accompanied by both patience and realistic expectations. This call – drawing on their respective experiences of the Indian Ocean Tsunami response, and more controversially, Hurricane Katrina – is a sensible one.

International aid is not about making miracles happen. It is about the attempted delivery of life-saving and livelihood-restoring assistance to people in dire conditions, in ways that are equitable, impartial and according to needs. The international humanitarian system does this job reasonably well, and is slowly getting better, as a forthcoming ALNAP report, The State of the Humanitarian System, highlights. But it is also relatively under-resourced. According to the highest available estimates, a total of $18 billion was spent on disaster assistance in 2008, in over 50 natural disasters and conflicts around the world. To give some perspective (and at the risk of a cheap shot), this global annual expenditure is some $2 billion less than the anticipated amount that will be paid out in annual bonuses and compensation to the executives at a single top-tier investment bank.

These resource issues do not seem to prevent high expectations of humanitarian assistance. People, organisations and governments are moved by images of suffering, and are compelled to react by providing assistance. Expectations are that such assistance will fully address the suffering – that a kind of ‘humanitarian perfection' will be achieved.

But international assistance is almost always inadequate when compared to needs. At a global level, for every well-publicised Haiti or Myanmar, there are scores of underreported, under-funded emergencies. Within specific contexts, aid is also limited by a plethora of logistical, infrastructural, social and political challenges. In Myanmar in 2008, following Cyclone Nargis, there was a highly publicised build-up of aid at Yangon airport, the military rulers seemingly indifferent to the plight of their people.

In Haiti, the situation is even more problematic. The infrastructure has been devastated, with reports suggesting that many roads are impassable, telecommunications remain down and government bodies - which would usually play a vital role in any response - are virtually non-existent. The Port-au-Prince area was a densely populated urban setting, which makes disaster relief work much more complex to plan and manage. Many agencies on the ground have lost staff, resources and facilities. And most importantly, the earthquake hit a population already experiencing chronic vulnerability because of decades of political strife, compounded in recent years by hurricanes and floods.

A few days into any emergency, operational responses hit a turning point, when aid starts to flow and be scaled up. Decisions made at this stage can influence the course of the aid response for months, possibly even years to come. At this critical stage of the proceedings in Haiti, the key is not to point suspicious fingers at the agencies whose staff are struggling around the clock to get aid channels up and running. Rather, the focus should be on bringing lessons from previous emergencies to the table, and testing their relevance and applicability in the unique Haitian context.

In ALNAP, we have worked towards such real-time learning for many major emergencies over the past few years. Our research on earthquakes suggests a number of important considerations for agencies in the operational setting in Haiti.

These include:

  • the importance of recovery starting as soon as possible, without prolonging the relief effort;
  • the longstanding issue of coordination, within specific delivery sectors such as health, water, shelter and food, and also across the response as a whole;
  • the importance of not overstating the risk of disease or perpetuating other ‘disaster myths';
  • the value of using cash as a form of assistance;
  • the importance of involving local populations in the response, and of taking longer term perspectives on restoring livelihoods;
  • to not rebuild vulnerability, but to try to upgrade new constructions to resist future hazards;
  • to not expect disaster response to resolve the political problems in Haiti – aid cannot be expected to solve issues such as corruption, poor governance, underdevelopment and social inequalities which made Haiti's population so vulnerable in the first place.

All of these lessons, however, take time and consideration to be implemented. They call for all parties involved – local populations, civil society, governments, the military, media and aid agencies – to work together constructively to put affected populations needs first and foremost, and to make sure the overall response is as good as it can be, given the circumstances.

Ben Ramalingam is Head of Research and Development at ALNAP (www.alnap.org), a sector-wide network of the major international humanitarian agencies, housed at ODI.