As long as it takes

25 Feb
Disasters don’t just go away.

Nagorno-Karabakh, July 1998 - four years after the end of the armed conflict...

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.

Sichuan Province, China - March 2009: ten months after the earthquake

Sichuan Province, China - March 2009: 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.

Banda Aceh, Indonesia - March 2006: 15 months after The Tsunami

Ampara, Sri Lanka - March 2006: 15 months after The Tsunami, people still camping near the rubble of their houses.

Aerawaddy River Delta, October 2007 (6 months after Cyclone Nargis). Relief food and NFI distributions still taking place.

Six months after Cyclone Nargis, people in Bogale still need relief food distribution.

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.)

10 Responses to “As long as it takes”

  1. Amelia 26 February, 2010 at 5:44 am #

    Amen brother! I also thought the ALNAP article was useful but not because it was emergency VERSUS early recovery (either/or) but rather could be understood as emergency and early recovery (plus/and). In protection programming we count on 2 weeks as being an introduction and a good month before we can actually find out all the terrible stuff that’s going on. I am fed up of people assuming that if we haven’t provided psychological counselling to an entire grieving population in 4 days, then, well, we just aren’t ‘doing anything’. As for emergency being over… well, 1 bag of 25kg rice (very significant though that is) does not a response make…. I want to shove all the armchair experts and journalists into the camps, for about a week and ask them if the emergency is ‘over’…!!!?! Harrumph!

    • J. 26 February, 2010 at 8:46 am #

      Ah… Amelia – truly a pity that you and I aren’t in charge…

  2. Abdellatif 26 February, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    I stumbled across your blog on the Aid worker’s network, great blog…and this is really a timely topic in my opinion…

    I have a question if you don’t mind me asking: from your experience, what is usually the biggest hurdle preventing full-fledged reconstruction from taking place in a more timely fashion? is it the shear-scale? economics? technical expertise? political will ? all of the above? it seems to me that once emergency response starts, it really never ends!!



    • J. 28 February, 2010 at 9:14 am #

      I’d say “any combination of the above, highly dependant on the context..” Vague enough for you?🙂

      I think it’s important to keep in mind that every disaster is different, as is every context. Significant challenges to reconstruction in, say, Myanmar, would be quite different from those in Haiti, and quite different yet from those in Pakistan…

      It’s important to stay clear, I think, on the differences between rapid-onset emergencies (like the earthquake in Haiti) and slow-onset or chronic emergencies (like southern Sudan) which seem to drag on forever.

      To your observation: “… once emergency response starts, it really never ends!!” I think it speaks to a basic misconception on the part of many about just how long reconstruction really takes and what’s involved in reconstruction. Whether we’re talking about Port-au-Prince or New Orleans, a large-scale disaster is not something that just kind of goes away after a few months of food distribution and housing projects.

  3. Sterling 28 February, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    great post again! your pictures of Sichuan remind me of what Cairo looked like a year ago after the ’92 earthquake (and I’m sure it still looks like it). the story is here:

    i’m sure it’s a combination of 1) the Egyptian gov’t; and 2) the lack of international awareness and response in the early 90s. i was barely a person at the time, but i’m guessing the NGO and aid work wasn’t nearly has hyperactive as it is today. is that true?

    my point is: i agree with your point and i agree with abdellatif.

  4. Ian 1 March, 2010 at 4:11 am #

    But J., doesn’t the recent earthquake in Chile mean that the one in Haiti is now over?

  5. p.pilot 11 March, 2010 at 4:16 am #

    The Philippines, post-flooding, would make another good example. A full three months after the floods, several places were actually still flooded. Almost six months after the floods, thousands of families are still displaced, with thousands more living in homes that almost aren’t there anymore, with very little or no options, even temporary ones, being presented to them. This, while everyone else has moved on to reconstruction. Who are we to say that these needs aren’t urgent, just because the rest of the population have moved on?

    What you wrote about a hard line between Emergency Response and Early Recovery not existing made me chuckle. It reminds me of countless meetings, where someone would at some point use the acronym ‘E.R.’, to which someone else would inevitably ask (no matter what the sentence content was), ‘wait, do you mean emergency response or early recovery?’.

    • J. 11 March, 2010 at 5:26 am #

      The Philippines at three months post- Typhoons Ketsana et al is another great example. One I nearly included in this post. You’re right, of course: As of late November, 2009, there were still entire neighborhoods under 2 meters of water and families crammed into “temporary” relocation centers, 8 square meters per family.


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