Haiti and beyond: preparing for the next disaster

One part of the tragedy in Haiti is how unprepared the country was to deal with the earthquake on 12 January. Yet the risk is well established. And Haiti is equally vulnerable to the equally visible risk of hurricanes. Haiti is not alone in this lack of readiness and the problems about getting help to the survivors make an urgent case for a new humanitarian business model that emphasises preparation instead of depending entirely on emergency aid flown in after the disaster hits.

Before, after and beyond Haiti

The tragedy in Haiti is horrible to behold. One weeps almost as much out of frustration with everything that has hindered the aid effort – Channel 4 News’ report on the makeshift hospital starved of supplies across the road from the airport where supplies are being delivered and stacked up was almost beyond belief – as from sympathy with the bereaved. When a tragedy like this strikes, the immediate and appropriate response is to offer help, to tend to the injured, comfort those who are mourning, reunite survivors with families and eventually begin the reconstruction.

But as that effort gets under way, it is necessary to go beyond the tragic immediacy of tragedy and think a bit deeper, in part because conclusions drawn from that reflection should influence what kind of assistance is provided now.

What makes a natural event into a disaster is not just the force or intensity of the event but its interaction with human society. In November 2007 the biggest tidal surge in the North Sea for over half a century was pretty much of a non-event. The UK and Dutch authorities had long since identified the general risk (especially after the 1953 surge-produced floods that killed 2,000 people in the two countries). They had prepared against it, always monitor what’s going on in the North Sea and had therefore identified the specific risk from this particular surge, and made further and specific preparations. Because of all that, the upshot in November 2007 was a natural event of major proportions but no disaster.

Haiti sits on a tectonic fault-line in a major hurricane zone, has suffered both kinds of natural calamity before so it is a reasonable supposition it will suffer more in the future, and is unprepared for both. Perhaps no country could easily deal with a major quake hitting its capital but if we want to explain why the suffering caused by this one is so extensive, we will have to pay a lot of attention to what was not done beforehand.

In well-prepared countries (read, “developed countries”), an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale would be a serious event but not a disaster of these proportions. Modern architecture and construction techniques can and do protect buildings and their inhabitants against the possible consequences of earthquakes and tremors. Almost all buildings in some areas of Port-au-Prince were destroyed because they had not been designed or built to withstand a quake.

Because Haiti is poor. And has been badly governed, abominably badly for extended periods.

We could go into Haiti’s history. We could think about the disaster of the Duvalier family rule for three cruel decades till the mid-1980s. We could discuss the mixture of malice, condescension and neglect with which Haiti has been treated has been treated by outside powers since a slave uprising seized emancipation and national independence together in 1804. Here we could consider France in the 1820s, forcing Haiti into paying a crippling indemnity to cover its lost profits from the slave trade. Or we could look at the role of the US, occupying Haiti for two decades from 1915, and leaving it with more stability than before but also hefty debt. We could focus on American support for the Duvaliers and the US failure to support democracy in the 1990s and 2000s as coups twice ousted the twice-elected President Aristide. We could assess the liberalisation of trade enforced on Haiti by the IMF in the 1990s, so its rice farming was driven out of business by cheaper, government-subsidised American, resulting in a combined social-economic-nutritional disaster.

But the problem of being unprepared for predictable natural disasters is not a purely Haitian problem. Haiti has got to where it is by a Haitian pathway. Other countries have got to a similar place, albeit with different natural vulnerabilities, through their own, equally unique political, economic and social routes. Despite the deep and evident problems, is there nonetheless something that can be done to prepare against the disastrous day?

If so, then in Haiti, what is done in the coming few months will define what happens next; it could leave Haiti in a condition where it is more or less recovering but equally vulnerable to the next disaster – or recovering better and less vulnerable.

The humanitarian caseload

The question is urgent and the problem is growing. The World Economic Forum has convened a “Global Agenda Council” on humanitarian issues (one of about 70 such groups). I am one of the members. Meeting first in 2008, the group quickly came to a shared view that the international humanitarian caseload is likely both to increase and to become more complex. There are several factors here:

  • The number of wars today is lower than in the 1980s and the early 1990s but some of the peace gains are tenuous – wars have been suspended rather than conflicts ended – and the long-term decline in numbers of armed conflicts each year has recently plateau’ed out with some signs of potential increases;
  • Because of climate change, extreme weather events (hurricanes, typhoons, droughts and the like) are becoming more frequent and more intense;
  • The economic recession’s medium-to-long term effects will exacerbate social difficulties in developing countries, increasing conflict risk and weakening state authority, increasing vulnerability and making it more demanding to respond;
  • In developed countries, the run-on consequences of the recession will likely mean there are less resources available for development assistance and emergency relief;
  • There will be no decline in frequency of earthquakes and pandemics and there are some reasons to anticipate greater threats from disease in the coming two decades.

To quote the challenge paper written by the group and published by International Alert last autumn:

“These problems will intensify political instability and risk and bear most heavily on weak and fragile states. We expect vicious feedback loops and risk of downward spirals as each risk factor exacerbates the others. The greatest intersection of risks today is found in poor countries characterised by state fragility.”

A new business model

It may seem cold blooded to look at human tragedy on a massive scale and diagnose a need for a new business model. But on the one hand, ice in the veins is pretty often what you need to figure out how to address suffering and injustice, and, on the other hand, the term “business model” in this case is used metaphorically. Compared to a business model that depends largely on emergency external assistance, the new model is based on the idea of having in-place national capacity to do the bulk of the work.

Indeed, the shift to this model is already happening. If one point on the spectrum is what might be called the “Darfur/Haiti model” involving a major international emergency effort, perhaps the opposite point is that UK/Dutch North Sea model, or the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 for which the Chinese government had adequate national capacity. Somewhere in between sits the model of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, when the Pakistan government too a big role in the emergency effort but not an exclusive one.

At the core of this idea is the importance of shifting from a focus on events, such as earthquakes or hurricanes and emergency relief, to patterns (and thus to the level of risk) and to structures (and thus to readiness). This shift does not question the importance of the humanitarian “space”; it retains it in both its ethical and legal dimensions, so that humanitarian assistance would still be provided unconditionally, impartially and regardless of other factors, and the security of humanitarian workers should therefore be respected and protected by all.

But whereas traditionally humanitarianism has focused on the moment of disaster and the provision of succour and assistance, a new model would focus equally on the pre-conditions and aftermath. This would, therefore, link the humanitarian space with development assistance in a particular way.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am highly critical of development assistance being seen as a chronologically extended form of humanitarian assistance – politically neutral, a self-evident good, which can therefore be handled as an essentially technical task. I stand by that: when it is insensitive to context, do-gooding is the bane of development. So I need to be careful and precise in the nuances of this new development/humanitarian linkage:-

  • First, it will not be possible to implement the new business model everywhere. In some countries that are war-torn and/or have highly corrupt and arbitrary governments, it is likely that a continuing pattern of external relief when emergencies arise is the best that can be done.
  • Second, this will not change the basic problems and dilemmas that arise when trying to assist the progress of the fundamentally political enterprise of development.
  • Third, helping build the capacity in developing countries for disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response will need to be done with sensitivity to the context; it is not a purely technical exercise.
  • Fourthly, however, all people regardless of political considerations have in principle the right to this kind of protection although circumstances may militate against it. Where it is possible to fulfil that right, it is a duty to do so.

Components of a new approach

Focusing on national capacity and looking at patterns and structures rather than events, the requirements of a new business model are sixfold:

  1. A comprehensive risk framework: Though some regions (including the Caribbean) have plenty of information, there are shortages of data in other areas on which to base proper long-term risk assessments, which are themselves the basis of deciding what kind and scale of resoruces are required and what preventive action needs to be taken.
  2. A reworked balance of spending between prevention, response and recovery: More resources are needed both to reduce risk through preventive measures, especially in how buildings and infrastructure are constructed, and in recovery. Better prevention will mean less expenditure on response. And proper recovery (to be noted in the coming efforts in Haiti) entails investment in prevention.
  3. A big investment in national and local capacity: Spend the money now rather than after the disaster and spend it as investment rather than as emergency relief.
  4. Fuller engagement of the private sector: There are considerable skills and resources to be mobilised through the private sector whose role can go well beyond te philanthropy and include careful investment in recovery and the (re)construction of infrastructure, for example.
  5. Linking humanitarian investment to broader social and economic development issues: This is especially important for strengthening social safety nets for people affected by natural disasters.
  6. Regional and international readiness: Disasters cross national borders so regional coordination is often imperative. Further, a wealthier neighbour with greater capacities could contribute to a poorer neighbour’s national capacity building.

Partners in the new business model

Governments (and inter-governmental organisations), NGOs and business can and, indeed, must all work together on this. Each brings different assets to the table:

  • The business brings logistical expertise, service delivery, networks and, though perhaps less often than it likes to think, entrepreneurial drive.
  • The government and inter-governmental sector brings decision-making power, legitimacy, visibility and massive funds.
  • Civil society brings local knowledge and networks, participation and passion, direct contact with need and tis own capacity for effective mobilisation and delivery.

It’s best to envisage this tri-sector partnership being replicated at local, national, regional and international levels. The model works best when all the partners communicate clearly with each other, and all the levels are likewise communicating clearly and directly.

The local level of cooperation is fundamental for if people do not build resilient communities, nobody else will (and nobody else can). But the local level is not enough. Local action is at its most effective when coordinated by national policy and given the support it needs – money, equipment, knowledge and skilled staff – by regional and international organisations.

As work in Haiti moves from relief to recovery, long-range prevention based on new partnerships and these new ways of working is essential. If they materialise, the next natural disaster will be serious but its effects will not be on the scale of this earthquake or recent hurricanes killing many hundreds of people. If they do not materialise, the next natural disaster on a comparable scale is only waiting to happen.

It is possible to prepare effectively against that day.

2 responses to “Haiti and beyond: preparing for the next disaster

  1. Myna Lee Johnstone

    As I read this, I remember the documentary about Katrina and how a person with knowledge, had warned about the levees and was ignored.
    I should think that scientists around the world would have spoken out about Haiti, the real possibilty of eartquakes at any time and the effects of such an earthquake.
    Have we been so sclerosed in our focus on wars and conflicts and disagreements and arguing about policies that we have forgotten other aspects of life on this planet?
    At the meeting in Montreal I wrote to my media channels here in Canada asking them to feature the issue of “sustainability”.
    Unfortunately, Clinton, Harper et al defined sustainability as long term commitment rather than the more modern definition.
    I encourage eveyone to see the film on architect Mike Reynolds called “Garbage Warrior”
    See what he and his team did to help people.
    I donot trust big names and big governments.
    It is the smaller organizations who work alongside the people and don’t really need security because they relate human to human rather than bureaucrat to victim that get things done.
    There are so many “officials” who need to get out of the way and let the people and groups with experience conference together to make plans.
    Officials can take on the role that they are better at: channeling money: to fund the real down to earth business of co-operative development.
    If this happened, Haiti could be rebuilt as a model Eco Nation.
    We have the know how,politics gets in the way.

  2. I am intrigued by the implication of no.6 in the Components of a New Approach (Regional and International Readiness), above. The second sentence seems to suggest a kind of ‘buddying’ system by more capable/richer neighbours of vulnerable, poorer ones. In Haiti, that might indicate a long term engagement in Haiti by the US or Canada, or Brazil or Mexico, say. The comitment would be deeper and more far-reaching than we are used to, except in the aftermath of a disaster, like now. Such a relationship would mean limiting the aided country’s sovereignty and its government’s authority. Would that be acceptable? Would the mentor country take the risks their role would involve? What about countries which have no markedly more fortunate neighbours nearby, like much of Africa? In Uganda in the late 1990s, at least one European development partner ‘adopted’ one or more districts with a view to providing the basic health or education or whatever for that/those district(s). Is such a cherry-picking scaleable – or even desirable? Would it work without disempowering to a degree the local authority, and undermining legitimacy and popular participation in the development process? Some recognised ‘adoption’ or mentoring along these lines, with one rich country taking one very poor one under its wing, might be the only way of acting fast enough and with sufficient resources to avert or at least mitigate the effects of disasters which can be foreseen and which are likely to increase under the impact of climate change. There would need to be a clear term, and a contract monitored by an agreed international body (UN, AU, OAS as appropriate).

    It seems unlikely any of this could happen, for all kinds of reasons. One of them is unfortunately indicated by the comment above: the competing desires of aiders to mould the aided country in some image of their own!

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