Tales from the Hood: Looking Back on Haiti

  • Posted on: 29 December 2010
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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“Tales from the Hood” is a blog written by an expat, currently based in Haiti, about humanitarian assistance, international development, and the good and bad that comes with it for aid worker and recipient alike. It includes observations, insights, criticism, and a willingness to raise (albeit anonymously) the questions that keep aid workers up at night.  Below is a three part blog where he looks back on the Haiti response – what was different about it, whether responders are succeeding or failing, and implications for the future.  For those interested in photography, you can find his Haiti photo album on Flickr.  



As we near the one-year anniversary of the most devastating and most visible rapid-onset natural disaster in recent memory, I’m publishing a short series of posts looking back on the Haiti Earthquake Response. This series is not meant to be the definitive word on “Haiti.” There is certainly much that can be said and probably volumes that can and will be written. For now these are my thoughts on some of the challenges of Haiti, some of the ways in which Haiti may be like or different from what we’ve seen before, and most importantly, a few of the things that we might all learn from the Haiti experience.


Part I: What’s New?

One of the questions that I get asked the most frequently by journalists when speaking on the record for my employer is, “How is Haiti different?” Many people – not just journalists – seem to want to know how the disaster and subsequent response in Haiti compares with, say, The Tsunamis or Cyclone Nargis or Hurricane Mitch. Further, it typically feels as if they’re looking for technical differences – some obscure technical reason why, for example, we avoided a cholera outbreak in Myanmar but failed to do so in Haiti. More than anything else, though, what makes Haiti stand out in my mind are things not related to the techniques of putting up Sphere standard transitional shelter or of implementing on-site humanitarian accountability a-la HAP. The things that make Haiti unique in my mind are:


1) Scale: Haiti was big. Real big. There are many, many factors many people want to point to that may have exacerbated the disastrous effects beyond the raw 7.2 Richter scale earthquake. Shoddy construction was certainly factor in the high death toll and casualty rate. A weak and often notoriously corrupt central government has certainly had a negative effect on coordination overall and on bringing timely resolution to key issues like land. And the fact that Haiti was by some margin the poorest country in the region pre-earthquake has and continues to play a role in the rate of transition and recovery. The fact that the affected area and population are so concentrated in Haiti (as opposed to dispersed over a large area, as in eastern Sri Lanka after the Tsunamis) is a hugely compounding factor.  All of those are, of course, correct and Haiti stands in stark contrast to Chile where an even larger earthquake struck several weeks later but with not nearly the devastation or death toll. But whatever the factors that came together to make Haiti what it became, the fact remains: it’s a big one. The majority of what I hear journalists and other aid workers discussing in the context of what make Haiti unique is simply around the scale.


2) Visibility: This is the most visible disaster that I’ve ever seen. The ease of getting to Haiti – only a short flight from the USA, plus no visa required in the beginning – meant that even early on everybody and their brother was able to go there and have an opinion. There were physically a lot of people coming in from outside. As a result, as many of you remember, media coverage was nearly 24/7 for months. Even in remote, rural Padang, Indonesia, six months after, I spoke to people who were themselves earthquake victims but who knew about Haiti and had an opinion on the response there. Even more interesting from my perspective was the explosion of social media focused on Haiti.  Hait-specific blogs, Facebook causes, the use of Twitter. People from all walks of life from all around the planet were weighing in on the conversation about Haiti using social media: aid workers, senior UN staff, professors, housewives, student-activists, and Haitian earthquake survivors all had the chance to participate in the “Haiti” conversation. I got more traffic on this blog in January, 2010, than in any month before or after to-date. There’s both good and bad in here. But in my view, the visibility of Haiti due to extensive news coverage and social is unprecedented. I think that the aftershocks from this aspect of the Haiti Earthquake Response will continue to be felt for some time.


3) Proliferation of discussion of issues not strictly related to disaster response. This seems obviously linked to the high visibility of the disaster and accessibility to Haiti itself. A comparatively huge number of non-aid workers in the relief zone has led to a very high level of general public scrutiny and opinion about some of those critical and challenging aspects of humanitarian aid, but not specifically related to the delivery of aid in the field. Things like accountability to the general public (I’ve written about this extensively on this blog), questions about aid effectiveness – what it is, what it looks like (some aid workers will look at Port-au-Prince now and see evidence that they’ve been successful), and more broadly what can be expected of aid organizations and of an overall relief effort? There are most definitely moments of frustration in explaining humanitarian aid to non-insiders, particularly to those who are convinced at the outset of the conversation that the effort in Haiti is failing, rather than simply being open to the conversation. Even so, I’d generally see this as one potentially very positive aspect of the continuing Haiti experience. Obviously aid needs to improve, and this is one way of forcing a move in that direction. Moreover, I generally feel that the more the non-aid worker public understands what we do and how and why, the better.


Part II: Failure or Success?

In contrast to the questions, “How is Haiti different?”, or, “what’s new about the Haiti response?” many non-aid industry observers and commentators seem keen to declare the relief effort there a “failure.” Or else that the relief effort is in the process of “failing.” But is it? Is the relief effort in Haiti failing? As we think about whether Haiti is a failure or a success at the one-year mark and beyond, though, I’d like to suggest the following thoughts:


1) “Success or failure?” may be simply the wrong conclusion to try to draw. Think about the informal definition of humanitarian aid (widely attributed to ICRC), “… to bring a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist.” No matter what we do, it will be insufficient. More to the point, aid agencies are not going to solve Haiti’s problems. Nor should they be expected to.  And if conclusively solving even one or two of Haiti’s problems is the expectation, they we have already very clearly failed.


2) Failed at what, exactly? When I look at the critique of the aid effort in Haiti from aid industry non-insiders, it strikes me that there are two very distinct things being discussed in the context of failure and/or success. There is technical, programmatic success/failure. Did people get helped or not? Did they get enough help? Did they get the right kind of help? Did they get it at the right time? And then there is success/failure in terms of publicity and perception: have aid agencies lived up to the expectations of ordinary citizens in their home countries? To the first, it’s not cut-and-dried. You can find examples of interventions that have gone very well, just as you can find examples of interventions that failed miserably. It was and is a disaster. A very large, complex one. Technically and programmatically there been successes as well as failures. To the second – our management of public perception – the fact that burn rates continue to be held up in the press as a meaningful metric of our programmatic success or failure tells me that we’ve obviously and almost completely failed to successfully educate the public about what we do.


3) Future imperfect. I think that a more important question to ask than “is aid failing in Haiti?”, is, “Is Haiti being set up for future success?” I do not know personally a single aid worker involved in the Haiti response who is satisfied or happy with the rate of change. If we knew of a way to sort out the land issue (for example) and do a massive push to get transitional shelters up and people out of those miserable tents, believe me, we would do it in a heartbeat. But are things getting better? Is aid being implemented in a way that sets the stage for an improved future Haiti? There are huge and obvious constraints to the rate of aid delivery in Haiti in some key sectors. But of that aid that we are able to deliver, are we doing it properly? Are we giving enough attention to quality and impact? These are the key questions in my mind. Further, over and above the relief effort (that “measure of humanity, always insufficient…”), are the right decisions being made inside the Haitian government? Behind closed doors where for-profit-sector executives and diplomats broker deals for Haiti’s future? At the UN? Only time will tell, really, but if the right decisions are being made and the right covenants being lived up to then Haiti can look forward a better future. When that happens, aid providers will be able to rightfully claim credit for a portion of that success. And despite our mistakes along the way, we will not have completely failed.


In very broad terms, if you look at the famous aid debacles in recent memory they are mostly complex humanitarian emergencies (as opposed to rapid onset natural disasters) – debacles like the international response to the Rwanda genocide, different crises in the Balkans, Sudan currently… The fraught nature of these crises shook the aid actors involved to their core. Some of the most scathing critiques of aid work written in the past decade focus on these debacles. And for good reason: these debacles (and the critiques which follow) have caused deep, unresolved philosophical introspection around vexing questions, not so much about what we should do, or even how… but why? These questions give way to what I call a humanitarian crisis of purpose.


These crises of purpose called into question our very raison d’etre as humanitarians. Is aid even a good idea at all? For all of our logframes and tracking systems and end-user monitoring and technology, we just couldn’t seem to pull it together. We couldn’t seem to figure out who we were helping and why these but not those. One month we were helping one faction, the next month the other. Forget aid effectiveness: Do No Harm suddenly felt like an unattainable mirage on the horizon. It’s as if Henri Dunant suddenly woke up one morning to find himself agreeing with Florence Nightingale.


In contrast, if you look at the famous large, very visible rapid-onset natural disasters of recent memory, challenges to the aid industry were very different. The Tsunamis, the Pakistan Earthquake not long after, Hurricane Katrina in the USA, a string of cyclones in South Asia, and even Cyclone Nargis were all refreshingly clear in terms of the “why.” There was no question in anyone’s mind – a response of some kind was needed. But was the response which followed adequate? Was it implemented well? When you read critiques of The Tsunami response (and there are plenty, despite the fact that we often tout this response as success, generally), you don’t find anyone complaining that the international community responded. But there is plenty of critique to go around about the “how.” The Pakistan earthquake, same. Everyone, it seemed, agreed that a response was needed – but for all of that agreement and cohesion, pulling a solid response together seemed all but impossible. And in looking back on the response to Hurricane Katrina, no one I know is inclined to fault FEMA for responding. But the Hurricane Katrina response will probably go down in history as a textbook example of a botched disaster response programmatically and technically. These experiences represent what I call crises of practice.


Part III: Crisis of Purpose, Crisis of Practice

Crises of practice happen when we’re clear on the “why”, and perhaps even the “what” – we know in at least basic terms what to do – but we just can’t seem to pull it together technically, organizationally. Maybe the scale of the disaster is just too big and our systems can’t handle the volume. Maybe in the heat of the moment all of our prior scenario planning goes out the window, we abandon our protocols, we fly by the seats of our pants. Very often (I think) we simply bite off more than we can chew as individual organizations – whether out of a desire to help as many as possible or out of desire to say “yes” to more revenue, we stretch ourselves and commit far more than what we can reasonably deliver. Our theories and plans are forgotten, and for all of our great thinking we can’t seem to manage the doing. This is the essence of crisis of practice.


I think that Haiti is one of those rare instances which represents both a crisis of practice and also a crisis of purpose. The crisis of practice is easy to see. It’s such a large disaster, the needs are so great, and the pool of resources so vast that everyone is overwhelmed. Practically, programmatically, technically, logistically, it is out of control. It was and continues to be incredibly difficult to synthesize a 30,000 ft view on Haiti. It’s almost impossible to step back from the trees and see the whole big picture of the forest. Whether we’re talking about resolving the land issue, the immense task of simply removing the rubble (and you really cannot appreciate the enormity of the rubble issue without visiting Port-au-Prince), or the management required just to keep more or less Sphere standard latrines at more or less Sphere per-population saturation in displacement camps, it seems fully out in the open: Haiti is a full-on crisis of practice.


Although tougher to see from the vantage point of an individual aid NGO, it is also a crisis of purpose. Or perhaps more accurately, this earthquake response is simply the culmination of a much longer-in-the-making crisis of purpose. If you look at the history of Haiti over the past five decades, you can find a great deal of similarity to those situations which led to some of the classic crisis-of-purpose aid debacles: an impoverished fragile state, meddled with politically and exploited economically. A long history of foreign assistance, perhaps well-meaning, but for a wide range of reasons ultimately ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.


When you think about it, Haiti has represented an international crisis of purpose to the West for some time already. The terrible earthquake that hit last January was just the icing on the cake. The crisis of practice that continues to ensue should come as a surprise to no one. We couldn’t figure out what we wanted to do and how in Haiti when it was just poor. No wonder we can’t get it together now.


Photo Credit: Tales from the Hood

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