HAITI: Humanitarian crisis resists amelioration

November 8, 2010

SUBJECT: Criticism of humanitarian operations.

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite rapid humanitarian aid mobilisation following the January earthquake, recent evaluations of the response have highlighted constraints that significantly impeded operations, ranging from the unique context to coordination and funding.

ANALYSIS: The January 12 earthquake triggered one of the largest international humanitarian response operations in history. However, the international community has been criticised for being inefficient and uncoordinated throughout the humanitarian response phase.

Operational context. The operational environment emerging from a major earthquake hitting a capital city struggling with poverty and social unrest and recovering from severe natural disasters itself is a unique context, which has caused significant humanitarian response challenges:

Urban setting. Urban areas have distinctive features in terms of population density, infrastructure, economic systems, livelihood strategies, resource availability and governance. Therefore, large disasters have a significant risk of creating complex humanitarian situations with high potential for secondary impacts in other parts of the country. This leads to major challenges targeting assistance, with a need for emphasis on issues such as building demolition, debris management, road clearance and emergency repairs. Despite these issues being well known and documented, the humanitarian community struggled to cope in Port-au-Prince.

Impeded capacities. The disaster severely affected the Haitian government and many international actors, particularly the UN. Lack of continuity planning from Haitian and international responding agencies significantly constrained the initial response. Apart from many essential staff members being killed, many others had to work on the response after losing family members and suffering severe trauma, hampering operational capabilities.

Logistics. Logistics proved a major holdup to humanitarian operations. The quake damaged the airport and port in Port-au-Prince. Once operational, large volumes of incoming humanitarian aid severely stressed ports, warehousing and trucking systems. Logistical challenges resulted in much aid ending up unused in warehouses for months, with critical aid diverted due to lack of logistical management capacity.

Security. UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) security regulations stemming from social unrest before the earthquake meant that movements beyond the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) logistics base at the Port-au-Prince airport were initially restricted and required military escorts. This resulted in mobility difficulties and restricted access for important initial assessments and aid distributions.

Number of organisations. The influx of over 1,000 international humanitarian organisations resulted in further complications coordinating the humanitarian response. International humanitarian coordination structures have little experience managing such a high volume while ensuring efficient decision-making. Furthermore, many international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had limited relevance to the humanitarian situation, knowledge of local context, and experience participating in a large coordinated humanitarian response.

Targeting. Humanitarian organisations have faced a range of challenges targeting beneficiaries. Given that humanitarian needs already were great among the poorest, aid agencies struggled to identify earthquake victims. This resulted in rising tensions between displaced people and slum dwellers, and raised questions of identification of displaced people. Moreover, targeting affected people in the capital has taken precedence over rural assistance, though over a quarter of the affected population has migrated from Port-au-Prince.

Language. Throughout the humanitarian response, language was an issue. Many organisations have struggled to identify staff with sufficient command of French. Most coordination meetings were conducted in English, excluding national and local participation.

Coordination. The task of coordinating humanitarian aid in a massive disaster situation has received much attention in Haiti:

Cluster approach. The UN cluster approach was rolled out in the response to the earthquake, aiming to strengthen coordination and response capacity by mobilising clusters of humanitarian agencies. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has coordinated efforts between twelve clusters, which UN agencies and other international humanitarian actors lead. Having established the cluster mechanism during the humanitarian response to the 2008 hurricane season, reviving it was relatively smooth. However, there were implementation challenges attributable to the sheer number of cluster members, OCHA difficulties shouldering overall coordination responsibility, and lack of satisfactory integration of national government institutions in cluster work.

Government coordination. International community support for the Haitian government was slow in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. While the government has been criticised for slow decision-making, allowing people and goods to enter the country tax-free has facilitated coordination efforts. However, coordination between the international humanitarian community and national and local counterparts within government and civil society reportedly has been particularly weak. This resulted in weak national and local ownership.

Civil-military coordination. While MINUSTAH staff decimation, and inability to use mission assets to travel to affected areas, initially constrained civil-military coordination of humanitarian operations before MINUSTAH's mandate was adjusted, international military contributions proved valuable. The United States dispatched some 20,000 troops to Haiti to support relief efforts and lead Port-au-Prince airport restoration. The Canadian military provided similar support to Jacmel airport. Significant military support for humanitarian operations demonstrated potential for the security sector to be a key actor in humanitarian response and reconstruction efforts.

Funding. Cost assessments have shown the Haiti humanitarian response to be costly. The largest ever natural disaster appeal totalled some 1.4 billion dollars, covering 76 aid organisations' activities for twelve months. Donor commitments initially seemed promising. However, funding has stagnated since the appeal was launched. To date, just over 1 billion dollars has been paid out. Although this is a common feature of emergency funding, disbelief in capacity to spend funds effectively is believed to be a large contributor.

Meanwhile, private sector donations for the relief and recovery effort have been unprecedented. For instance, US charities have raised about 1 billion dollars. Over 50% of US households were reported to have donated.

Outlook. The humanitarian situation in Haiti remains grim. There is significant risk of the country becoming trapped in a prolonged humanitarian emergency. Several issues will define the humanitarian outlook in the near-to-medium term:

Relocation. Over 2 million people were displaced from their homes, seeking refuge in spontaneous settlements as well as with host families in and outside Port-au-Prince. To date, over 600,000 people have migrated to rural areas, overwhelming communities already lacking jobs and livelihoods, schools, clinics and public services. While international and national authorities are encouraging displaced people to return to former dwellings, many remain uninhabitable. At the same time, many displaced people do not want to stay and be integrated with host families. Issues of land titles and ownership are further complicating reconstruction of homes and even transitional housing.

Security. Although media reports of riots and looting following the earthquake largely were overstated, security risks are considerable. With causes of social unrest before the earthquake persisting -- and to some extent worsening -- lawlessness in slum areas, and conflict over resources such as food and water, is likely to increase.

Disaster risk reduction. Severe risk of future disaster situations, and the increasing vulnerability of the population and institutions, highlights the importance of integrating disaster risk reduction in the reconstruction phase to ensure recovery and reconstruction efforts have a more positive and sustainable impact.

CONCLUSION: The unique operational environment, combined with lack of humanitarian leadership to ensure efficient coordination among international actors and national government, has contributed to a negative humanitarian outlook for Haiti in the near-to-medium term.


Oxford Analytica
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