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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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As always, the TV crews pack up eventually, and people assume "problem solved." When the tragedy comes back into the spotlight, as Haiti did after cholera emerged in October, viewers were shocked to see Haiti looks much as it did Jan. 13, the day after the earthquake.

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But that doesn't mean failure, aid experts say. "Most people see an emergency, see aid workers rush in and do stuff, and ... six months later, they think it is all over. But the amount going into long-term aid [for disasters, globally] has been going up," says Peter Walker, a veteran aid-industry worker and now director of the Feinstein International Center. Typically, two-thirds of spending runs for more than three years; a third of spending for more than eight years, he says. "Humanitarian aid just keeps people alive. It does not change why they got there in the first place."

If any example illustrates a disconnect between expectations and realities, it's the housing situation in Haiti, where little permanent housing has been built since the quake, says John Ambler, senior vice president for programs at Oxfam America. "The housing issue really goes back to fundamental problems of land title. People cannot just rebuild. Owners of land will not let them rebuild," Mr. Ambler says. "It shows how difficult it can be to address recovery efforts when the basic rules of the game are not well organized."

These kinds of roadblocks aren't exclusive to the developing world, says Irwin Redlener, a physician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. He points out that five years after hurricane Katrina in the United States, there are at least 20,000 children – 60 percent of those displaced – suffering mental-health problems or still living in temporary or unstable housing divisions.

Genocide sparked relief reforms

It was the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s that brought the kind of soul-searching that leads to reforms. Despite the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) across the country, more than 800,000 people were slaughtered – some in operations plotted in NGO-run refugee camps. "The genocide happened with aid agencies sitting there," says Mr. Walker. "The sense of failure and guilt that came out of that was just overwhelming."

Aid groups began to ask themselves: How can we do better? How can we be more accountable to donors, the beneficiaries we assist, and the societies our work affects after we're gone?

A flurry of standards and accountability initiatives was tried, such as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP), which in 2003 became the sector's first self-regulatory body to ensure accountability to beneficiaries.

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