Haiti and Future Humanitarian Disasters

“Haiti is the humanitarian disaster of the future,” commented an aid agency representative last week in Port-au-Prince. “And our experience here demonstrates that we’re not ready for it.” Today’s one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake is generating a media blitz on the shortcomings of the international humanitarian response in Haiti, but this may be only the beginning.

Future humanitarian disasters are likely to occur in urban, not rural, areas and are likely to wreak particular havoc in countries least likely to be able to respond adequately. This is partly due to simple demographics. Half of the world’s population, some 3.3 billion people, currently live in urban areas—a figure that is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030. Eighty percent of these urban dwellers will live in the developing world. One billion people, one-third of the urban population, presently live in slums which are usually located on land most vulnerable to the effects of sudden-onset disasters.

But the humanitarian system is largely unprepared for responding to urban disasters where there are multiple political actors, difficulties in distinguishing the displaced from the urban poor and a politically mobilized population.

Working in an urban environment is a more complex undertaking for humanitarian actors than running refugee camps in rural areas. Cities have multiple layers of government authorities with sometimes overlapping jurisdictions. There are many more private actors, ranging from large businesses to political associations, which operate in both the formal and informal sectors. It is more difficult to control the activities of non-governmental organizations working in hundreds of different urban communities than in rural camps. Urban violence tends to be concentrated in the poorer parts of cities which also tend to be those most affected by natural disasters.

Traditionally humanitarian efforts have focused on those who have been displaced by disaster and who have lost homes and livelihoods. But in Haiti it is hard to distinguish between those displaced by the earthquake and the urban poor. Many of those living in the more than 1,000 IDP camps in Haiti did not lose their homes in the earthquake, but rather moved from the slums into the camps in the hope that they might receive assistance there. As an aid representative told me last week, “everyone wants to be an IDP.” Even though the IDP camps are miserable places and even though free food distribution stopped in April, at least people living in the camps have some shelter (albeit mostly tattered tarps) and access to clean water. Sometimes they also have latrines, medical care and occasionally even access to education. And there are hundreds of thousands who are not displaced, but who have been gravely affected by the earthquake. While humanitarians have long recognized the importance of working with host communities as well as the displaced, the situation in Haiti takes this to a new dimension. There are displaced Haitians who are not homeless and homeless Haitians who are not displaced. It is hard to even distinguish the displaced from the broader urban community when the needs are so similar and so great.

Humanitarian actors are well-equipped to provide immediate life-saving relief—delivering water and tents, providing food and emergency health care. But they’re not very good at dealing with chronic structural poverty. They don’t have much experience in creating long-term jobs which are the key to getting people out of Port-au-Prince’s tent cities. That’s not what they were set up to do, but that’s what Haiti needs now.

Protecting people in urban areas, particularly when they’re spread throughout a huge city and particularly when the urban poor have never enjoyed police protection, is incredibly difficult. The Haitian police are almost completely absent from the IDP sites. Nor is there regular international police presence in the sites. Meanwhile sexual and gender-based violence has increased within the camps because of the congestion, the flimsy nature of ragged tarps, and the breakdown of the social fabric.

Finally, urban populations tend to be more political, more aware, and more demanding than rural populations, as evident in Haiti. Self-selected camp committees limit humanitarian action and there’s no way around them. One NGO reported being confronted by a member of a camp committee who charged “we saw on your website that your organization has raised a million more dollars for Haiti relief. Where’s the money?” A UN official noted wryly that a “spontaneous” demonstration developed in an IDP camp when a senior European government official arrived.

There are many lessons to be learned from the response to the Haitian earthquake but planning for future urban disasters has got to be high on the agenda.