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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For UNICEF, that has meant more sophistication in supply operations, so that its warehouse in Copenhagen, Denmark, is not the starting point when a tragedy hits halfway around the world. Emphasis on preparedness has often meant the difference between life and death, says Patrick McCormick, a spokesman for UNICEF, especially in places prone to cyclones, like Bangladesh. He says cyclone death tolls have decreased dramatically over the years.Skip to next paragraph
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There is a clear upward trend in donor country contributions to disaster prevention and preparedness: It increased threefold in 2008 to $325 million, according to data from Global Humanitarian Assistance. But prevention yields much less anteing of donations than an outright disaster evokes in emotional donations.
Is aid part of the problem?
Goodwill can cause real problems if it's administered with a tin ear to local knowledge and concerns. For example, when international relief agencies swept into one devastated area after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, they offered more replacement fishing boats than had been lost by fishermen, despite concerns about overfishing in the area, notes a 2007 tsunami aid assessment report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, a multiagency body.
"International action was most effective when enabling, facilitating, and supporting local actors," the report states. "International agencies often brushed local capacities aside."
Some of the boats weren't constructed well and proved unsuitable in the long term.
The victims in the tragedy were later surveyed, and their satisfaction with how humanitarian groups met their needs progressively declined as the response phase turned into recovery.
Similar studies on local perceptions of humanitarian assistance across 12 countries, from Afghanistan to Nepal, in 2006 and 2007 by the Feinstein International Center, found that the values underpinning humanitarian action are accepted across religions and cultures.
But, says Donini, "the bad news is that the baggage that aid agencies bring – the big white vehicles, the top-down nature of activities ... creates tension between insiders and outsiders."
Aid experts say that recovery is always most successful when the national government or military plays a strong role. "They know the context, they know exactly what people want and need," says Mr. Kellett. "If you have national ownership of human recovery you will have better delivery. They are staying around. They are not an international group arriving and then going on to the next disaster."
But on the ground, he says, especially when governments and NGOs are among the victims of crisis, that ideal is hard to put into practice.
Haiti has been particularly fragile in this sense. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it was already highly dependent on aid before the quake. The temblor decimated an overcrowded city full of shoddily built houses and slums and decapitated an already weak government, destroying ministries and the presidential palace, and killing scores of government workers.