13 Jan

The images of destruction and human suffering coming right now are nothing short of heartbreaking. And true as that is, even writing the words just now feels like I’m contributing to a cliché – one that we’ve heard a hundred times, just in the 12 months. The disaster in Haiti is but a few hours old and already it is it’s own buzzword. Within a few days the news crews will pack up their gear and go home, the aid agencies will have replaced the “Give to Haiti NOW!” appeals on their homepages with different appeals for different places, and we’ll have all moved on to the next thing.

But while Haiti is still fresh and emotive for us, let’s take a few minutes to think about what some of it means.

Death Toll: Many see the number dead – the death toll – as one of the most direct indicators of how bad a disaster is. And while the death toll is not the only way to quickly gauge how bad a disaster is (it’s possible to have a very big disaster, but with a low death toll), if there is a high death toll, you know that it is pretty bad.

At this point the estimated death toll in Haiti ranges from 30,000 to 100,000 . And even at the low end of that estimate, it is still a big number. Typhoon’s Morakot, Ketsana and Parma, plus a tsunami in the Samoa Island Group, plus both of last Fall’s earthquakes in Indonesia, combined did not reach a death toll of 30,000.

I’ve written before that even just one person perished is already a tragedy. 30,000 dead (and it’s probably far higher) represents a sea of human suffering few can comprehend.

First response. We’re seeing it as clearly now in Haiti as we’ve ever seen it: The first phase of an emergency response is carried out by ordinary citizens in their own neighborhoods. Now, a day after the earthquake, the most nimble international aid agencies are just getting “feet dry” on Hispanola. By the end of this weekend, there will be a veritable feeding frenzy of INGOs, large and small, scrambling to scale up operations (some will start up presence in Haiti for the first time this week). It will be all but impossible to find a hotel room in Port-au-Prince. All of those agencies will make dramatic statements about their life-saving relief work.

But remember: At this moment people are being dug out and pulled alive from the rubble by their neighbors, husbands, mothers, and cousins…

Aid agencies, donors, and governments – do respond to disasters, but add priority to Disaster Risk Reduction and Disaster Mitigation before disasters happen. This is where the lives get saved.

Weeks 2 through 156. In about two weeks the news coverage goes elsewhere, the short-timers head back to Miami or Santo Domingo, and all the agencies switch out their “Haiti” appeals with something else. That’s not really criticism, as much as recognition of how the world works. But understand now, that this will not be a short term response and recovery operation. Four and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, parts of the Mississippi River Delta that are still recovering (and this is in one of the most technologically advanced, richest, and – cough loudly – “civilized” countries on the planet).

Anticipate a long recovery. Three years, absolute minimum. Aid agencies, if you cannot commit to three years of sustained recovery programming now, do Haiti a favor and give your relief budget to an agency that can. Donors, make your donation flexible enough to be used for “recovery” over the next three years. At least.

Protection. It does not occur even to many relief and development workers that protection is a big issue and need in emergency response. Disaster zones are almost always very dangerous places, both from physical threats in the environment and from the threat of abuse or exploitation at the hands of other people. The rule of law is very frequently compromised and security very poor in the aftermath of a disaster (an example I often use is, again, Hurricane Katrina: witness the looting and violence that took place in New Orleans in the days and weeks following the hurricane). Anyone who was even a little bit vulnerable before the disaster is extremely vulnerable after.

Support organizations that build protection into their relief programs.

Sexy. @Alanna_Shaikh has written a very good article on health issues to expect in the aftermath of a large disaster. Check it out, here. Yet again, the focus of international agencies needs to be on the medium and long term. Key relief interventions starting right now need to be water/sanitation, shelter, food, and protection. You need to be asking some hard questions and insisting on answers if your organization or the one you want to donate to is proposing something quite different. (An exception would be MSF, which provides primarily medical care – also needed in the days immediately following an earthquake.)

Everyone wants to pull survivors from the rubble or rush dehydrated babies to the MSF tent. But by this Saturday, the far less sexy interventions will be needed far more.

17 Responses to “Post-Aftermath”

  1. morealtitude 13 January, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Great article bro. Punchy (why can I never be this succint?), timely and relevant. Re: Long-term recovery- yes, absolutely agree, agencies MUST be ready to engage in that long-term need. This city is going to need to be rebuilt from the ground up.

    Likewise appreciate your shout-out to the people in their neighbourhoods pulling people from the rubble- they will safe far more lives than all the rescue teams, aid agencies and government donations over the next 18 months combined.

    As an aside- any rescue team that is not already feet-dry in Port-au-Prince (it’s currently afternoon of day 2 local time)- think carefully whether it’s worth getting onto your plane. It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mobilize your high-tech team, and the chances are you won’t find anybody alive this late in the game.

    And yes, protection- especially in a nation like Haiti with a dubious track record of human rights abuses, social unrest, child rights and downright criminality. Need to protect aid staff, but most of all need to work out ways to make sure aid and its recipients are not abused.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. As always a pleasure dropping by Big J.


    • J. 13 January, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

      Well, look who we’re hearing from today!

      Yes, I emphatically agree: any rescue team not already on the ground should not bother even mobilizing at this point.

  2. Jen Kuhn 13 January, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    God help us all… This is the time for action. Humanity first. As my “Grandma Brooklyn” used to say, “there but for the grace of God go I”…. Please, do what you can.

  3. placenta sandwich 14 January, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Thanks for this post. Friends are posting things on facebook like “where can I send medicine and bags of rice??”, and I get that they want to do something “more specific” than send money but seriously bags of rice?! Yet I get the feeling of being a Debbie Downer if I mention the “send money not stuff” pleas that are all over aid blogs, not just now but regularly…

    Anyway, I had a question for you. Can you provide any insight on appeals like the following, which cite local priority-setting as the basis for requesting deliveries of Stuff?

    “The Haitian Alliance is a group in Atlanta with years of experience of doing relief work for their people. Project South will work with our organizational partners to support their relief efforts. 100% of your donations today and tomorrow will be used to cover shipping cost for medical and other supplies to Haiti. They are working with local communities in Haiti to do an assessment of supply needs and in the next 24 hours we will update you which supplies are needed and where the drop off points will be.”

    Does that mean they’re doing the requisite fact-finding and supplies really will be best obtained via US drop-boxes? Or should I still caution friends to stick to the list you shared? Thoughts?

    • J. 14 January, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

      First, thanks so much for reading and for your comment. Several answers, all strictly my own opinion (hard as it is to believe, there may be others who see things differently).

      Yes, indeed – “send money, not stuff” is a message that many people simply do not want to hear. But it is really (really really) the message right now. The best organizations have direct relationships with suppliers of GIK. For pharmaceuticals, for food, for clothing, etc. And when they get it, they get it by the truckload – literally. Individual citizens donating… whatever, basically become “middlemen” (ahem – middlepeople…) who essentially increase the cost/lower the value of whatever it is that is being donated.

      Local priority-setting: this is one of those areas where emergency response and relief stand out as quite different from long-term community development. In the first days after a disaster the needs really are: water, shelter, food, basic possessions (clothing, a pot for cooking, a toothbrush…). Out of context this statement could sound pretty uncool, but, dang – water is water. We know based on years of repeated experience what the needs are going to be heading into an earthquake response. Assessments tell us proportions and highlight coverage gaps.

      My list: Well, of course I think I’m right🙂 Look, there are lots of organizations in Haiti that don’t suck besides those I’ve mentioned. I can tell you based on personal observation and interaction in the field that the organizations I’ve listed will spend your donation well, disaster victims will get helped in a manner that meets or exceeds relevant international standards. Other organizations might be just as good. Perhaps even better. But I can’t speak to them.

      • placenta sandwich 14 January, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

        I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts. Thanks! Now, off to rain on someone’s parade…😦

  4. Mo-ha-med 14 January, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    So we’re currently in first response, and I have no doubt that that there’ll be a reasonable amount of support and financing. This said, the mediocre reaction from some parties (IADB gave out 200,000 USD? What is that, the organisation’s lunch budget for a day?) worries me greatly about the recovery/reconstruction phase, when Haiti is back to its unfashionable self once again…

    • J. 14 January, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more. In terms of being on anyone’s “give a flying…” list, Haiti was even sub-Yemen prior to this week.

      When I first read about IADB’s measley $200k, I assumed it was a misprint. Ridiculous.

      You in Haiti now?

      • Mo-ha-med 15 January, 2010 at 10:49 am #

        Oh no… I wouldn’t be of great help in an emergency response situation anyway!

        Well. Thanks for a great article! Will head over to read part 2 at once.🙂

  5. John Bent 17 January, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    It is a very sad time for brothers and sisters of Haiti. With recent tragic incident in Haiti killing over 100000 people, donations can help them to recover soon. We have created a small website which provides easy links to all Non Profit organizations for donations like Red Cross, Unicef etc You Can Help Haiti! Thanks, Prayers.


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