Post-Aftermath II

14 Jan

The blogosphere and twitterverse are positively awash right now with lists of which organizations are responding to the earthquake in Haiti, recommendations (including some from me) about who will do the best job, and strident opinions about what to do and not to do to help. The feeding frenzy is full-on. God help Haiti.

Let’s think a little bit more about some of what’s going on in Haiti and what it means, not just for the current emergency response, but for emergency responses overall:

Is disaster response a specialty? There has been a lot in the literature over the past several years about how disaster response and long-term community development should be thought of together, not separately; about the relief-to-development continuum, or now it’s a spiral or mandala. And I agree with much of that discussion. It makes perfect sense on a number of levels to see disaster response and long-term development as linked.

But I think we need to remain clear in our own minds that while there are strong, obvious links conceptually, on the practical, operational side, relief and development are very often vastly different. And even more to the point, we should not assume because this organization or that one is good at one, that it’s also good at the other.

For the next 60-90 days, the relief effort in Haiti is going to be a lot about moving large volumes of stuff (food, water, meds, a zillion different kinds of “kits”…) from point A to point B. It is going to be a largely about logistics, and about an organization’s ability to manage logistics on a large/rapidly expanding scale, under massive pressure in a highly degraded security environment. Doing these well requires a number of very specific organizational capacities. (I’m hoping that someone can put up a few great posts specifically related to logistics in the context of disaster response. …yes, I’m looking specifically at you, Michael.) (UPDATE: and…. Michael came through as hoped🙂 )

I wholeheartedly agree with those who say (and I’ve said it myself) that we need to support those organizations that were present in Haiti prior to the earthquake. This may make me unpopular to some, but I have to add that even prior presence does not automatically equip an organization to be a competent or effective participant during emergency response phase.

Plays well with others. One of the most important organizational attributes to have in the context of a large relief effort is capacity. But what is capacity? It can mean a great many things to a great many people. There is financial capacity – cash on hand; There is human resource capacity – how many people you have on the ground; There is logistical capacity – you own or have access to transportation and storage and distribution networks; There is technical capacity – you have technical experts on your staff… And those are all important. But what about the capacity to coordinate?

There is no delicate way to put this: Haiti is going to be a coordination nightmare. There are literally hundreds of INGOs, including many that few of us have heard of (and even a few that didn’t exist before last week), just now “mobilizing” and “evaluating.” By next week they’ll all be in Haiti, tripping over each other, sticking stickers with their logos on things, “claiming” territory and beneficiaries, and writing proposals.

Good coordination is in everyone’s benefit, most of all those living in the disaster zone. Good coordination means that efforts are duplicated less, and that gaps are filled more. Good coordination improves security and safety for everyone. Good coordination deepens impact almost automatically. Good coordination means better NGO accountability.

Guys – go to the coordination and cluster meetings.

Piece of the Pie. Sadly, for Haiti, it’s close to the United States. And you can get your visa at the airport. Which means that pretty much anyone who wants to go there can. Which means that all of the little Mom ‘n’ Pop charities that couldn’t get visas or afford the airfare to go set up shop in places like Myanmar, China, Pakistan, are right now chartering flights into Haiti (or DR – they’ll drive over from there) in search of a piece of the action.

There’s one argument which says: this is a massive relief effort. The need is so great that no matter how much aid we throw at Haiti, it won’t be enough. Whatever we have to give, they need. Every contribution helps, no matter how small.


There’s another argument which says: this is a massive relief effort. Those organizations who will do the most good are those who those with established capacity (people + stuff + the ability to distribute it), who coordinate well within the community, and who stay focused on the primary needs.

Those of you right now massaging your organizational strategies and mission statements to include Haiti; crafting arguments around why your widget is the thing that will save Haiti further misery; explaining to your board why your $60,000 is better spent starting a discreet relief operation from scratch… you know who you are: time to have an honest conversation with yourself about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

I Decline. I wrote yesterday that committing now to three years of sustained programming is one litmus test of whether an organization should respond to a large disaster like the one we’re seeing now in Haiti. I still think that, but I’ll share some additional train of thought as well. What if there were organizations that said:

“We will not respond to this disaster. We’re not present in the country (or maybe we are), we do not have sufficient capacity to scale up a response. We will not accept donations or apply for grants related to this disaster. Our hearts go out to those affected. Here are organizations that we think will do a stellar job…”

(I don’t think I have ever seen such statements. No one wants to declare themselves irrelevant during a media blitz.)


“We will not participate in the initial emergency response. Although we have established presence in-country, emergency response is not one of our core capabilities. We will begin to phase in recovery programming in these sectors (__, ___, and ___) after 90 days, in close coordination with…”

(I actually think that this would be the responsible stance for some of the organizations currently in Haiti to adopt. They’re good organizations, ones worth supporting. But emergency response may be a capability that they don’t have.)


“We will participate in the initial emergency response phase only. Because we do have strong response capacity and because we do recognize the very great need created by this disaster, we will participate in the initial surge of response. After 90 days, we plan to initiate an intentional, phased withdrawal during which we will hand over any remaining response assets to these competent, trusted colleague organizations…”

(This was actually my employer’s stance in a previous disaster response. When I communicated that to a major institutional donor, the person was visibly perturbed and said, “It’s too bad I didn’t understand that before. I wouldn’t have funded you otherwise.” Which I think is too bad, because I actually see this as a very reasonable stance to adopt in some instances.)

14 Responses to “Post-Aftermath II”

  1. Alanna 14 January, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    Architecture for Humanity is actually giving response #2 on their site, which really impressed me.

    • J. 14 January, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

      Wow… cool. Architecture for Humanity gets a thumbs-up from me!

  2. Rachel 15 January, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    “Friends of the Earth” (who have offices in Haiti that were destroyed) sent an e-mail out on the 13th suggesting that people donate to DWB, PIH, or ICRC…

    Also, my friends who work for the NGO Tostan (Senegal/West Africa) have had up as away messages (on business gmail accounts) that a donation to PIH would be a good idea.

    It is not quite the same, I know, as those are not disaster response organizations, but I still appreciated the fact that they used their resources to fundraise for other NGOs…

  3. Sterling 15 January, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    i’ve read your haiti posts in addition to alanna’s and saundra’s. i love them all, and i thank you for providing all that information about orgs you personally support, in addition to the info about InterAction.

    i hope NPOs and NGOs takes these things into consideration when updating their websites because i don’t know if many donors are looking for this kind of insight.

  4. Mo-ha-med 15 January, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    A common pool of sorts (or, in UN-speak, a multi-donor trust fund) would be a good face-saving idea for any organisation that knows it doesn’t have the capacity to be efficient but don’t, as you say, “want to declare themselves irrelevant during a media blitz”.
    But is this a possibility, from a logistical PoV?

  5. Texas in Africa 15 January, 2010 at 10:02 pm #

    Here’s another small organization that’s providing the “We don’t do this, but here are some good groups that do” line. Wouldn’t have known about them were it not for the link:

    • Texas in Africa 15 January, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

      Also, finding this and seeing everyone else’s findings made me unreasonably happy. These have been long days, what with on top of work having to explain to everybody and his brother things like why taking a group of teenagers to Haiti right now to dig out survivors is an incredibly bad idea.

    • J. 15 January, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

      Thanks for that link: It’s my first time seeing/hearing of this group. It takes a strong sense of mission focus organizationally, and maturity/humility personally to be able to come out with a message like this following a disaster with the media visibility such as we’re seeing right now in Haiti.

  6. Wayan @ Inveneo 18 January, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    I’m proud that we at Inveneo took the initial stance of “We will not participate in the initial emergency response,” even though we were just about to invest in Haiti with our usual model – ICT deployment via local capacity building.

    Since then, we were approached by organizations with a Haiti presence who defined a very specific, achievable project they needed us for, and we were able to roadmap a transition into our long-term country investment model.

    More here:

  7. EL 21 January, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    CUSO-VSO in Canada is saying option 1.

  8. Kathryn 29 January, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    “Please contribute to organizations with immediate relief capability,” etc.

    Bias alert: my husband is the development director for this non-profit. I thought it was brave of his organization to wave off donations.

    I’m attempting to be brave enough to forward this to my shoe-sending friends.

    And what do you say to San Diego school children collecting socks?

    • J. 30 January, 2010 at 5:56 am #

      To the San Diego school children collecting socks, I say, “good for you, caring about kids your age in other countries… let’s not lose that, but let’s get smarter about what to actually do as you get older, okay?”

      But to the teachers, parents, whomever… who thought that socks needed to be collected, I say, “get a clue already. Whatever made you think that this would be a good idea? I think earthquake survivors have more pressing concerns right now than sock. And anyway, it’s a tropical country: most people I see are wearing sandals or flip-flops.”


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