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Haiti earthquake anniversary: the state of global disaster relief

On the first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, global disaster relief is under the microscope. A $15-billion-a-year industry with 250,000 workers, the stakes are high – but from each tsunami, quake, hurricane, and drought, we learn what works and what doesn't.

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The humanitarian business is booming, says Antonio Donini, who worked with the United Nations for 26 years and now studies the evolution of humanitarian aid at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "From a marginal activity in conflict [zones] with the International Red Cross and a few others present to alleviate the suffering of combatants, it has become a huge enterprise" that mobilizes billions of dollars a year and employs 250,000 people.

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But, Mr. Donini adds, "professionalization has not followed the growth. There are efforts to create better performance, there are standards … but it is still a work in progress."

The industry, increasingly technically competent and efficient, is still bogged down in key areas, including coordination, local partnering, accountability, and preparedness.

Too many helping hands?

In early February, a convoy of aid workers in supply trucks set out across Port-au-Prince, rumbling for three hours over and around debris to an impromptu camp that OCHA reports indicated was in urgent need of food.

But when the convoy rolled up to the camp, the aid workers were flabbergasted to see a small group of volunteers, unaffiliated with official relief efforts, already handing out food, unaware of the larger network of coordination by OCHA, says Jeff Wright, a World Vision worker who was in the convoy.

Untold masses of well-intentioned individuals who descended on Haiti exacerbated one of the biggest challenges in the aid world: how to coordinate all the helping hands.

When the earthquake struck, the biggest international groups – Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Oxfam ­– were on the ground, as always.

"The critique of coordination coming from a lot of small and amateur aid providers tends to be that they say, 'We are out there actually helping while big NGOs are coordinating.' But the irony is that they are creating problems," says Mr. Wright. "The volume of need for food distribution was so great.... We [did] not want to be double-serving anyone."

A lack of coordination between NGOs in the Haitian camps resulted in such lapses in services that six months after the earthquake, 40 percent of camps still had no access to water and 30 percent had no toilets of any kind, notes Mark Schuller, an anthropologist at York College at the City University of New York who studied conditions in the Haitian camps last year.

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