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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Genocide sparked relief reformsSkip to next paragraph
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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.
A set of standards called "Sphere" was created in 1997 by a group of NGOS and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement to improve the effectiveness of the aid response. In a handbook translated into at least 20 languages, Sphere sets out minimum standards for latrine installation, caloric needs, and daily water requirements, among other necessities.
Donini, who also served in Afghanistan with the UN in the early 1990s, says the system has institutionalized crisis response. He remembers crises erupting in Afghanistan in 1990 when groups came in with different sets of plastic sheeting or types of latrines. That, he says, meant some beneficiaries did not receive the same quality of care as others: "If you are measuring need using different measuring sticks, it creates confusion.… It does not allow verification that all vulnerable groups are receiving the required assistance."
And yet, while Sphere provides a meaningful barometer for NGOs, the standards aren't adjusted for each country or disaster, and so a "cookie-cutter" approach is often unrealistic in the heat of tragedy. In Haiti, for example, each family in the tent cities should have a living space of 15 feet by 12 feet. But by the time aid organizations reached the Port-au-Prince camps, shelters were already set up in far more cramped spaces.
"That's the kind of thing that if you planned it out, you could meet the standards," says Fitzgerald. "But when you're confronted with an environment like Terrain Acra, which grew up spontaneously, it's not realistic. In order to meet [standards], I'd have to plow a path through the middle and destroy a bunch of tents, and I just can't do that politically."
And no one is going to require that he does – a drawback with Sphere and HAP and other efforts to hold humanitarian groups accountable. Nobody requires participation or punishes failure to adhere to standards, says Walker. The industry is slowly moving toward discussions about international certifications "with more teeth," he says, and perhaps even licenses to practice.
Emotion sells; prevention, not so much
When Sally Austin was dispatched to Sri Lanka for CARE International to head relief and reconstruction programs after a massive earthquake triggered tsunamis across 14 Asian nations on Dec. 26, 2004, killing 230,000 and destroying 400,000 buildings, she found herself with thousands of homeless people and no experience building homes.
"In terms of bricks and cement and trying to get into construction and all the challenges, there was nobody in CARE that I could turn to for support," says Ms. Austin, who now heads emergency operations for CARE International in Geneva.