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Beyond Haiti: preparing for the next disaster

As the relief effort finally gets under way, it is necessary to go beyond the immediacy of the tragedy and think a bit more deeply about what kind of assistance is most necessary for the future. A group convened by the World Economic Forum has been discussing the need for a new model for organising humanitarian action
Dan Smith
25 January 2010

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 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 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 the cheaper, government-subsidised American version, resulting in a combined social-economic-nutritional disaster.

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’d 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 took 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 my 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 resources 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 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 a 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 its 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.

For the full version, see Dan's blog www.dansmithsblog.com

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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