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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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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.

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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.

She sought advice from colleagues and plodded along. In the end, CARE programs built 1,938 homes in Sri Lanka and 1,776 in Aceh, repairing nearly 400 more. They also reorganized their emergency response, creating an emergency shelter team in Britain. So when Austin arrived in the recovery phase of Haiti's earthquake in May, she was not as daunted. By the end of October, CARE had built 495 transitional shelters in Haiti.

And CARE is not alone. As the aid industry seeks to improve its response, it is starting to put more emphasis on preparedness and risk reduction. That might include more training of local staff in disaster-prone areas, prepositioning supplies in places hit by hurricanes annually, reforesting hillsides, or working with governments to have disaster recovery scenarios in place.

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