The legacy of disaster: lessons for Haiti

The legacy of disaster: lessons for Haiti

News (International, UK)

It did not take long for the world media to turn from reporting the horrific aftermath of the Haiti tragedy to criticism of the aid agencies struggling to get relief through. Before long, the reports became more positive, as supplies started to arrive and agencies began to create some order and organisation amidst the chaos.
Whether aid can ever be quick enough, targeted enough, or effective enough in alleviating the suffering of those caught up in such devastating natural disasters is highly questionable. But such events have happened before, and considerable work has been done to evaluate emergency responses to past disasters in order to learn lessons for the future.

ALNAP is the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. It brings together many of the key humanitarian organisations and experts from across the humanitarian sector, including donors, NGOs, the Red Cross/Crescent, the UN, independents and academics.

In 2008, ALNAP published a paper Responding to Earthquakes: Learning from earthquake relief and recovery operations. It builds on 30 years of learning from earthquake responses ranging from the 1976 Guatemala earthquake (23,000 dead) to the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake (5,749 dead), some 29 earthquakes in total.

Earthquakes and tsunamis differ from other natural disasters in important ways. For example, the destruction of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure makes access and communication difficult, and the extent of debris and risk of aftershocks makes any recovery difficult. The effects of earthquakes and tsunamis are also concentrated, with high mortality – up to 200,000 people are feared to have died in Haiti – and high levels of fractures or crush injuries.

Lessons learned

Head of research and development at ALNAP, Ben Ramalingam, says, “At this critical stage of the proceedings in Haiti, the key is not to point suspicious fingers at the agencies whose staff are struggling around the clock to get aid channels up and running. Rather, the focus should be on bringing lessons from previous emergencies to the table, and testing their relevance and applicability in the unique Haitian context.”

He identifies the specific lessons for agencies in the operational setting in Haiti. These include:
• The importance of recovery starting as soon as possible, without prolonging the relief effort;
• The longstanding issue of coordination, within specific delivery sectors such as health, water, shelter and food, and also across the response as a whole;
• The importance of not overstating the risk of disease or perpetuating other ‘disaster myths';
• The value of using cash as a form of assistance;
• The importance of involving local populations in the response, and of taking longer-term perspectives on restoring livelihoods;
• To not rebuild vulnerability, but to try to upgrade new constructions to resist future hazards;
• To not expect disaster response to resolve the political problems in Haiti – aid cannot be expected to solve issues such as corruption, poor governance, underdevelopment and social inequalities which made Haiti's population so vulnerable in the first place.

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and ARUP launched an independent report Lessons from Aceh - Key Considerations in Post-Disaster Reconstruction in December, on the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. It found that “Reconstruction work funded by the UK public in the tsunami-devastated province of Aceh in Indonesia was amongst the best of its kind.”

The UK public gave £392m to the DEC in the aftermath of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami and 42% of this money was spent in Aceh, mostly on reconstruction. The money paid for the building of 13,700 homes, 55 schools and 68 health centres. Member agencies of the DEC also built 6,200 additional homes with funding from other sources and in total they were responsible for 15% of all house reconstruction in the province.

Catalyst for recovery

The paper reports that the tendency in Aceh was for government, donors and the media to focus on the number of houses constructed as a measure of achievement. However, it says that the most successful programmes acted as a catalyst for recovery from both the tsunami and 30 years of conflict paving the way for future development. “Although more could have been done to generate local economic activity, develop skills and create employment opportunities, efforts were made to minimise environmental impact and ‘build back better’ by reducing vulnerability to natural hazards and achieving wider access to services,” it says.

DEC member agencies also engaged with beneficiaries and local partners in a way that built trust, ownership and responsibility. “Their reconstruction programmes have left a legacy that is more than just bricks and mortar. This is an important theme throughout Lessons from Aceh and highlights the wider role reconstruction plays in early recovery and the need for an integrated, coordinated and multi-sectoral approach,” the report concludes.

DEC member agency the British Red Cross stresses that a range of lessons learned from previous natural disasters are being applied in the relief and recovery effort in Haiti. “One of the main lessons learnt from previous disasters now being applied to the Haiti earthquake is that in an operation as large as this, rebuilding communities takes time. Another key issue is the importance of good coordination in both the relief and recovery efforts,” says Alastair Burnett, British Red Cross recovery manager.

A critical learning point that applies to all disasters, including Haiti, is the importance of investing in disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction (DRR). For every £1 spent on DRR, £4 is saved in emergency response. This requires a sustained commitment and investment from the international community and would save lives in the long run," he continues.

The World Bank also evaluates its own contributions to natural disasters. In 2006 its Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) published Hazards of Nature, Risks to Development: An IEG Evaluation of World Bank Assistance for Natural Disasters. It makes three main recommendations to:
• More actively involve vulnerable communities in disaster prone areas in planning and preparation as well as in rebuilding during preparation and rebuilding. Such participation rarely occurs, and yet direct community involvement can improve planning, strengthen ownership of projects, preserve existing social relationships and help families and neighborhoods stay intact;
• Ensure systematic maintenance of essential infrastructure in disaster prone areas. Temporary shelter is rarely temporary and must be built solidly enough to withstand predictable subsequent disasters;.
• New approaches to finance the cost and prevention of disasters are needed regionally and globally including better use of insurance mechanisms;

  Build back better

President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, told the Financial Times it was essential to ensure that “when the cameras leave, the donors do not leave with them”. and that there was a chance to rebuild the country in a way that put it on a path to development. “The goal would be grasping the opportunity to build back better,” he said. However, the reconstruction effort would take a long time, he warned. In Aceh, a $6.7 bn (£4.1 bn) reconstruction effort is still under way.

The World Bank has announced the provision of an additional $100m (£60m) in emergency grant funding for Haiti, where it already has 14 projects in areas including disaster risk management, infrastructure, community-driven development, education, and economic governance.

Going forward, the Bank plans to provide seed resources to establish a multi-donor trust fund, the Haiti Reconstruction Fund, to mobilise international support for recovery and reconstruction process. It established a similar fund for the reconstruction of Aceh, totalling some $700m (£434m).

Related link: New media helps swell DEC Haiti Appeal total to more than £50m

  • Overseas aid
  • Causes
  • International
  • UK