accessibility & help

Now is not the time to judge the Haiti response effort

26 January 2010

Downcast boy in front of rubbleTalia Frenkel/American Red CrossTwo weeks on from the Haiti quake, journalists are reporting scenes of chaos and questions are naturally being asked about why the relief effort is taking so long. Alastair Burnett, British Red Cross recovery operations manager, explains the complexities of helping the people of Haiti get back on their feet:

Aid is getting through but with a population of around three million, the needs are massive. Red Cross teams in country are focusing their efforts on reaching the most vulnerable first.

This means identifying who they are and providing relief as quickly as possible, but also in a way that ensures it also gets to those who are most vulnerable, and not just the strongest. There are clearly many more in need than those we are currently reaching, however we are scaling up our response constantly and the more funds we get the more we are able to do.

Emergency response

Several people queue for relief items in HaitiTalia Frenkel/American Red CrossAid agencies have mobilised across the world and the size and speed of the current international response is crucial to saving lives. But we’ve all seen the shocking images of hundreds of thousands of lives torn apart by the devastating earthquake. With so many people in such desperate need, the response is never going to be quick enough.

Even as the emergency response gathers momentum, past experience tells us we must also take the time to think about long-term recovery as early as possible.

Perhaps the real question is, long after the dust from the initial relief effort settles will we have supported people so that they are better prepared and more resilient to the next disaster?

Future disasters

For make no mistake, there will be another disaster. There is a horrific inevitability about events such as this recent earthquake, as Haiti sits on a fault line and has a long history of humanitarian crises.

Strengthening communities’ ability to both prevent and cope with disasters is a concrete way to save lives, protect livelihoods, and prevent such shocks from crippling the poorest countries’ development.

This is essential in Haiti as the current earthquake is just one of many devastating blows for a country still reeling from other disasters. Recovery and reconstruction programmes following hurricanes Faye, Gustav, Hannah and Ike which pummelled the country in August and September 2008 have barely concluded.

Humanitarian crises

A girl leans on a box of Red Cross relief itemsTalia Frenkel/American Red CrossBut we can’t just blame natural disasters for Haiti’s woes. Poverty and a history of violence and political instability have exacerbated Haiti’s vulnerability to humanitarian crises. This poverty translates into the urban shantytowns and shacks on hillsides hit by the earthquake where the most vulnerable live.

Even before the quake, basic services such as healthcare, safe water, and sanitation to much of the population was scarce. Aid agencies, in collaboration with international donors and local authorities and communities, need to start thinking about how to end this tragic cycle of poverty and disaster.

Lessons learned

The humanitarian community has learned many lessons from previous disasters such as the Bam and Pakistan earthquakes and the 2004 tsunami; the question is whether we will implement them in Haiti.

We know that recovery efforts must help people to be prepared for future disasters, not just earthquakes but floods, hurricanes and food security and health risks. We also know that we need to consider all a community’s needs, such as linking where new homes are built to future sources of livelihoods, as well as access to safe water and sanitation, and providing people with the skills, cash or assets to get back on their feet.

These are things the British Red Cross has done in Indonesia after the tsunami and in Bangladesh after past cyclones.

Long-term recovery

The immediate international relief effort is vital to save lives, particularly when, as in Haiti, the local capacity is overwhelmed. But recovery needs long-term planning, it needs real community involvement and to look at some of the broader needs affecting the country. This will require continued commitment from governments, agencies and donors.

The real moment to judge the response to Haiti’s earthquake will be long after the cameras and the headlines have moved on. Will donors and agencies stick to the task? Will we have acted on the lessons from previous experience?

Rightly our success in terms of responding to this emergency will be judged not just on the first weeks but also on what we leave behind – will communities be stronger, more resilient and better prepared? Watch this space.

Read more about the Haiti Earthquake Appeal

Watch a video about what we are doing in Haiti