Thursday, July 15, 2010


(Reuters) - By Megan Rowling

Anyone who's read the leaked email from U.N. aid chief John Holmes criticising the humanitarian response a month after January's devastating earthquake in Haiti won't be surprised to find a hint of frustration in his foreword to a new report on the lessons to be learned six months on.

Back in February, Holmes - who steps down from his post as the U.N. emergency relief coordinator in a few weeks' time - sent a pretty stern note to his colleagues in the aid community, berating them for inadequate coordination and capacity, and urging them to take "a much more aggressive approach to meeting the needs" on the ground.

While the relief effort has improved since then, Holmes' introduction to this week's report from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) - a forum bringing together U.N. and other humanitarian agencies - suggests he's not overly impressed by the speed at which organisations respond to criticism.

The outgoing aid chief says the humanitarian community has achieved "a great deal" following the Haiti disaster, and states: "We got a lot more right than wrong".

But he is also careful to point out what might seem obvious - that lessons aren't properly learned until they bring about a change in behaviour.

"Some of those set out in this report are not new, particularly those about being more sensitive and responsive to local contexts and actors," he continues.

The report echoes and confirms what we journalists heard (mostly off the record) from aid workers and others in the first few weeks after the quake. In particular that agencies weren't doing a great job of connecting with each other, the government and local people.


In one anecdote related to me, five Haitian mayors who wanted to attend a meeting of international agencies working on shelter weren't allowed in because aid workers said they weren't ready to talk with them.

The IASC report highlights the weaknesses of the U.N.'s "cluster" system, which is intended to bring about better coordination of aid efforts in different sectors like food, housing and water provision, and was first tested in a real disaster following the Kashmir earthquake of 2005.

The Haiti evaluation emphasises that the international community could have done a better job of engaging with civil society and local authorities, and including them in coordination mechanisms like the clusters.

"Had this been achieved in a more systematic manner, it would have significantly improved the humanitarian community's understanding of the operating context, and contributed to a more sustainable provision of assistance, as well as local and national capacity-building," the report says.

Haitian and other activists I spoke to earlier this year were adamant that not enough was being done by international aid groups to tap into the considerable expertise of Haiti's several hundred NGOs and community networks, or to understand what quake survivors really needed or how they wanted their country to be rebuilt after the disaster.

And, as the report documents, this attitude led to some wasted opportunities, with local people largely unable to find support for their initiatives. They include the leader of a women's group in Bristout-Bobin, a district in Port-au-Prince, who re-opened a small school just weeks after the disaster, and a teacher who set up a youth club in the city's Ravine Pintade area to help kids deal with their trauma through poetry competitions, theatre and Latin American dance.

"It is imperative that humanitarian actors adopt a more open and creative approach to working with partners outside their immediate sphere," says the report, adding that the government's civil protection division felt ignored by the international aid community, which set up parallel operating structures.


Another problem was the reluctance of some humanitarian organisations to work with the military, including U.S. forces and U.N. peacekeepers, which "may have impeded coordination and an efficient use of all assets available".

The report says the sluggishness of the international aid community - itself badly hit by the disaster - in setting up strong coordination structures in the immediate aftermath generated "a sense in which others (e.g. the military actors) felt they had to step in to supplement humanitarian leadership on the ground, which was not providing sufficient strategic vision or overall visible coherence".

Similar situations in future could "fuel a push towards humanitarian responses led by military forces, which is already the case for example in some parts of Asia", it warns.

Other areas for improvement highlighted in the report include:

1. Identifying the most vulnerable people, and distinguishing between those affected by a disaster and those already suffering from poverty and deprivation beforehand - in Haiti's case, the majority of the population

2. Targeting assistance strategically to prevent large movements of people

3. Adapting emergency responses for disasters that happen in urban environments like the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince

4. Increasing cooperation with the private sector. In Haiti, the lack of procedures for dealing with offers of help from businesses - worth $70 million - meant most clusters could not take them up.

5. Communicating better with those affected by the disaster through local media and technologies such as the internet and text messaging

6. Deploying more senior and experienced staff in the field for longer periods of time

7. Providing stronger leadership for clusters more quickly, and sharing information between them

8. Understanding and strengthening the linkages between the relief operation and longer-term reconstruction and development

While also laying out the achievements of the humanitarian community in Haiti, the report's message is quite clear: let's try harder not to make the same mistakes again.

It will fall to John Holmes's successor Valerie Amos, currently Britain's envoy to Australia, to make sure those words are turned into action.

To download a copy of the report, visit the IASC website.

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