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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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But globally, over time, coordination between agencies has improved vastly, aid experts say. For example, during 1998's hurricane Mitch in Central America, where Wright also served, he says NGOs were tripping over each other in some places while leaving gaping holes in services in others. OCHA's cluster system, rolled out in the past few years, places other UN agencies and international NGOs in charge of various aspects critical to relief and recovery, such as nutrition, camps, or sanitation.

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"The cluster system has improved the way coordination is done," says Jan Kellett, who worked for 10 years in recovery, from Sudan to Afghanistan, and now is program leader at the British-based Global Humanitarian Assistance, which tracks humanitarian funding.

But not everyone in the growing field of players participates. Participants must assign staff full time to meetings and other administrative tasks – which effectively excludes smaller organizations without the manpower. "It takes bandwidth; it takes discipline," says Wright. "It can feel, when you are in it, that you are doing a lot of sitting around in meetings not getting stuff out to people."

Coordination was tested to its limits during the Haiti relief effort. As aid workers describe it, any group of well-meaning Americans who bought plane tickets, donned matching T-shirts, and stuffed supplies in their suitcases could come and call themselves an agency.

"The bulk of people that went to Haiti had no idea how we coordinated ourselves," says Daniel Wordsworth, president of American Refugee Committee, which plans to teach the coordination system to individual doctors, nurses, carpenters, architects, and other volunteers this year. "People were screaming that there was no coordination. But organizations that had experience were very committed to working within the established system."

What happens after media leave?

As the humanitarian industry has grown, so, too, have expectations – of donors, recipients, and societies at large – about what humanitarian aid can accomplish and how fast a problem can be solved.

When the media coverage – both by the traditional press and real-time citizen journalism – is as relentless as it was in Haiti, touching heartstrings from Ohio to Oslo, outsized expectations emerge.

Sometimes the media just don't cover a disaster heavily – as in the devastating flooding in Pakistan last year, which easily affected millions more people than the quake did in Haiti. But CNN, for example, mobilized to Port-au-Prince immediately after the quake, and its nonstop coverage for weeks is widely considered to be what spurred the massive individual giving and later the billions promised by donor governments.

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