Three Keys to Success for Haiti Relief

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

January 14, 2010

Once again, Haiti is faced with a calamity of massive proportions. And once again, the international relief machinery is gearing up for action. Governments are pledging assistance, planes and ships are being dispatched, and literally hundreds of relief agencies in many parts of the world are mobilizing to assist.

As the earthquake story unfolds over the coming weeks, there are three aspects to the response that probably won’t make the front pages, but that will be vital in determining the effectiveness of the response.

1) Strengthen Haiti’s Government

Long before this disaster, the Haitian government was weak and had a hard time providing security for its people, much less ensuring that its citizens had a decent standard of living. The Haitian government needs assistance in the aftermath of this terrible disaster. There is no doubt about this.

The international relief apparatus has become much more efficient and effective in recent years. But it is important to remember that it is the responsibility of the national authorities, in this case the Haitian authorities, to protect and assist their citizens and anyone else on their territory. When the capacity or willingness of these authorities is insufficient, the international community needs to support the efforts of the government and local authorities.

International responders need to be careful that they are supporting the government — and in the best case, strengthening the government — not substituting for it.

If international relief operations are wound up in a month or a year, but the local governmental agencies aren’t able to build on this work, then the internationals will have missed an opportunity to leave something lasting behind. They will have done a disservice to Haiti and the Haitian government.

2) Support Haiti’s Community Groups

While much of the reporting in the coming days and weeks will focus on the international efforts to mobilize assistance, it is also important to remember that it is largely Haitian citizens and community groups who initially pawed through the rubble to try to rescue trapped victims.

While they are unable to provide the scale of relief needed to respond to this tragedy, those small community groups will be central to long-term recovery efforts. There is unfortunately a tendency for internationals to take over relief operations, leaving smaller community groups to feel marginalized. This doesn’t have to happen.

3) Let the United Nations Take the Lead

Finally, in all major disasters, coordinating the relief effort is always a headache. In the humanitarian world, it is common to note that everyone thinks coordination is essential, but no one really wants to be coordinated. There are so many different actors — military forces, civilian agencies from many countries, large international nongovernmental organizations, small civil society groups, regional agencies — each with its own mandate, agendas, partners, issues and timetables.

When the system works well, it is the United Nations that plays the lead coordination role.

Initial reports from Haiti indicate that the U.N. mission headquarters collapsed in the earthquake and that over 100 U.N. staff are unaccounted for. Some countries have already reported deaths of their U.N. peacekeepers. The deaths of U.N. and other aid agency staff who would have been key for this relief effort are a tragic effect of the disaster.

However, the 9,000 peacekeepers already in Haiti and the many aid agencies on the ground and the many disaster experts already en route should allow for a quick response.

In situations like this, it’s all too clear that not only do we need the U.N., but we need the U.N. to take the lead in coordinating the international response.