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.