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Are humanitarians learning the lessons from Haiti?

Young women at Jean-Marie Vincent camp for displaced families in Port-au-Prince sell charcoal and fruits. March 2010 Nancy Palus/IRIN

Listen to locals, tap into existing capacity, coordinate needs assessments, find strong leaders and provide transitional shelter - not just tents. These are some of the lessons to have emerged from the 2007 tsunami evaluation, numerous earthquake responses and the latest Haiti real-time evaluation, begging the question: when will the humanitarian community start applying these lessons learned.

“There is still a tendency not only to reinvent the wheel, but also to turn it the wrong way,” notes the Haiti Real Time Evaluation (RTE), written in August 2010 but just published in October.

What worked

Some things did go right in Haiti, say both the RTE and Sir John Holmes, former under-secretary general for humanitarian response at the UN, and currently director of the Ditchley Foundation.

At a Haiti applying lessons-learned forum hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) on 26 October, Holmes outlined some relative successes. Search and rescue teams worked efficiently; medical care, with a major contribution from Médecins Sans Frontières, was strong, as were the World Health Organization’s disease control efforts; water distributions were prioritized, with thousands of cubic meters distributed by May 2010; organization of food assistance, after initial hiccups, meant food aid reached 3.5 million people; and emergency education efforts were good. Further, some 57 percent of the US$1.5 billion revised humanitarian flash appeal was funded.

It is easy to criticize, said Holmes and important to remember the extreme challenges such large-scale crises pose. “There is a glib narrative that the humanitarian community doesn’t apply the lessons it learns, but it is important to remember there are some things that are just hard to get right,” he said.


But at the operational level repeat problems emerged. Needs assessments were incomplete and duplicative; transitional - as in medium-term - shelter was not provided at scale; sanitation solutions were inadequate; and the overall protection response- particularly to sexual and gender based violence - was weak.

Process-wise, few agencies informed local communities of what they were doing or why they were there; and while they coordinated closely at first with what was left of the national authorities, this coordination dwindled over time, according to the RTE.

Most coordination meetings for each sector, or “cluster”, took place in English, marginalizing locals who spoke only French or Creole; and many national staff were barred due to too-tight security measures, says the RTE.

Perhaps most frustrating, after the stress laid on improving leadership in the humanitarian sector over recent years, was the poor leadership exhibited at the top of the UN system, but also among cluster heads. It took several weeks for the UN to decide whether to appoint a humanitarian and recovery head or to merge it all under one leader; and to appoint the right person for the post.

The UN humanitarian country team was only convened a full three weeks after the disaster hit, notes the RTE.

“Mega-disaster” constraints

However, observers must not overlook the major challenges unique to the Haiti context, pointed out all three speakers at the ODI forum. The scale of destruction made Haiti a “mega-disaster” said Linda Poteat, director of disaster response at US NGO network Interaction, with government officials killed, rubble-strewn streets and few suitable buildings to hold meetings in. Thirteen out of 16 ministries were destroyed.

This was a disaster in which the responders were also the victims, she pointed out - “National staff had lost their homes and lost family members - they had to make sure they were okay while being called on to work 16-hour days; many skilled ministry staff were dead - including the chief, government-NGO liaison.”

Rather than being put to work, some staff should have been sent away immediately, given the levels of trauma they were experiencing, Holmes told IRIN.

The urban locus of the Haiti disaster posed a huge challenge to the humanitarian community, which is still geared up primarily for rural response, and is only now beginning to address urbanization challenges, said Ross Mountain, director of independent group, Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA).

“You can’t dig a latrine in the middle of a city,” said Poteat. “Camps are hard to secure in urban spaces. Populations kept on moving around - from camps to villages and back, so it was hard to keep track of them.”

Urban crisis response is the focus of the latest World Disasters Report.

Further, widespread media attention brought hundreds of small NGOs to Haiti to try to help out, many with little emergency experience; in addition to the hundreds of reporters seeking instant stories and a strong US military presence, said Holmes. “There were even more actors there than usual... This can further hamper coordination efforts... We didn’t get leadership quite right, but it was not as wrong as some think,” he said.

Amid this chaos, and amid reports that the already-weak government was struggling to respond amid heavy staff losses, many aid agencies bypassed local structures, said Holmes. “Yes, we should involve local actors more, but at the same time - it is hard to get that right,” he said.

Improving leadership

Agencies need to be more “ruthless” when it comes to appointing the right people to leadership roles, said Holmes. “It doesn’t always matter if someone has the right local knowledge - if they are not used to large-scale disaster response, then they must be replaced,” he told IRIN.

Mountain agrees humanitarian leaders need to be tougher. “You have to sometimes be unpopular and take risks - you cannot be guaranteed success,” he told IRIN. “There is no robust-enough system in the UN to address this dimension of leadership.”

Appointing and training the right leaders has been at the forefront of humanitarian reform over the past few years, but the wide-scale impact is yet to be felt, implies the RTE. Stronger surge capacity rosters - which NGOs and UN agencies are getting better at setting up in advance - should be developed at a wider scale, said Mountain.

On the coordination front, clusters need to shift from simply sharing information, to setting strategy, said Poteat. This has long-time been a recommendation in humanitarian response, yet is still not practised across the board. One sector to do this well was shelter, she said.

And while coordinating with military actors may be difficult for humanitarians, they have to face up to the challenge, said Holmes. In Haiti, the US military was looking for a strong humanitarian-led coordination structure, yet this was slow to emerge. “We need more policies and scenario-planning done ahead of time when it comes to CIMIC [civil-military-coordination],” he told aid workers at the ODI.


The RTE recommends aid agencies hone their approach to large-scale natural disasters in urban settings. “We will see more of these disasters - the Haitis, the Pakistans, linked to climate change - in the future,” said Mountain, “and we do not have the tools we need to deal with them. This is a warning that we need to prepare,” he said.

Other recommendations include vastly improving protection and water and sanitation responses in crises; to use new technology more effectively - for instance using SMS applications to distribute cash, or satellite imagery in needs-assessments. As Mountain told IRIN: “Everyone talks about satellite imagery being available to map needs, but where is it? Whenever I’m on the ground, I can’t access it.”

Holmes posed the question that in scenarios where thousands of aid agencies are turning up, “maybe the NGO community needs to put more effort into certification [of quality players] and even amalgamation in some cases.”

And in terms of approach, agencies should finally try to grasp the lesson that taking an inclusive, participatory approach does not necessarily slow down response, but can indeed make it quicker, said the RTE.

These lessons are not necessarily new - the challenge is how to apply them. Holmes suggested an independently-run follow-up matrix outlining actions aid agencies must adopt in the next disaster, so they can be held to account. Poteat suggests more future-oriented scenario planning - for instance for a large-scale megalopolis-centred disaster. “Rather than always looking backwards, we need to prepare for the future,” she said.

Following the discussion, UN humanitarian sector heads and aid agency representatives in Geneva met in Geneva to discuss how to turn the evaluation’s findings into actions.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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