I know that I’ve gone on about CNN and Cooper and Gupta a lot over the past month. It’s not just because they obviously misunderstand emergency response (they do), but more because what they, among others, said in the early days following the earthquake continue to reverberate in the aid world. Donors of all sizes and type, and senior level INGO decision-makers are reacting to the emergency in Haiti right now based on two critical misperceptions created by The Media. Namely, that the aid community was slow to respond, and (I think ironically) that it is already time to begin the transition from relief to long-term development programs (the “reconstruction of Haiti”).
Let’s take a look at Haiti in the context of other big disasters in recent memory:
“Aid slow to reach Haiti”
Post-tsunami Aceh: It took four days for the first outsiders to get into Aceh. It was another day before the outside world had any meaningful understanding of the extent of destruction and death caused by The Tsunami.
Post-earthquake Sichuan: The only outsiders who got in were those who were in Sichuan at the time of the earthquake. It was weeks (months?) before non-Chinese aid workers made it into the earthquake zone.
Post-cyclone Nargis Myanmar: It took a solid two weeks for all but the most randomly lucky foreign nationals to get visas to Myanmar. Once in Yangon, it took another two weeks – minimum – for anyone to get permission to travel to the Arewaddy River Delta region. It took basically three weeks for aid from outside to make it’s way to Myanmar.
Post-Katrina Louisana: By the end of week one, those who had not been evacuated were falling ill in a football stadium, looting athletic shoes and flat-screen TVs from department stores, or firing rifles at helicopters. Still no sign of FEMA.
Post-Earthquake Haiti: Foreign journalists and aid workers began arriving in Port-au-Prince the day after the earthquake. By day three, despite a great deal of chaos, relief food and NFIs were arriving in Haiti both by air and overland and distributions were happening.
Getting external aid in any significant quantity to the scene of a large disaster takes from one to two weeks. It just does. Anything less than that is gravy.
From where I sit, it seems clear that the response in Haiti actually got up and running quite quickly.
“Think about the long-term now.”
What exactly does “long-term” look like?
Rural Sichuan in February, 2009 (10 months after the earthquake). People still living in transitional shelter and receiving relief distributions. Mountains of rubble still visible. Some people moving back into damaged buildings.
Tsunamiland, March 2006 (15 months after The Tsunami). Tsunami damage to infrastructure still plainly visible. People still living in tents in some parts of Aceh and eastern Sri Lanka. Relief food and water distributions still taking place. Random body parts (mostly bone) still occasionally being found in rubble or washing up on beaches.
Aerawaddy River Delta, October 2007 (6 months after Cyclone Nargis). Relief food and NFI distributions still taking place.
Port-au-Prince, late February 2010 (5 weeks after the earthquake). Despite the fact that massive food distributions still are needed, and that whole camps of people have little more than strung up bedsheets as shelter, many voices now proclaim the emergency response over and reconstruction underway.
* * * * *
Yes, I’ve read the ALNAP earthquake response lessons learned document, and yes, I did catch the part on page 6 where it says that the emergency response phase should not be unduly prolonged. I am not suggesting that anyone continue straight relief distribution indefinitely in Haiti.
Just because the cameras have stopped rolling doesn’t mean that the emergency is over. Moreover, what we’re actually seeing in Haiti now very strongly reinforces the fact that there is no hard line distinction between emergency response and early recovery. It’s important that we learn the lessons of previous large disasters and accordingly manage our expectations around how long emergency response and recovery actually take in the real world.
(all photographs by J.)