The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12 proved to be horribly destructive – killing hundreds of thousands of people and leaving 1.2 million more displaced. International rescue and relief efforts were substantial, with hundreds of relief agencies around the world sending assistance. Despite these efforts, however, the destruction of infrastructure during the quake made it difficult to get aid to the people who needed it most.
Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow and co-director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, notes that strengthening Haiti’s government, supporting the country’s community groups, and following the lead of the United Nations are all vital to providing an effective humanitarian response to the disaster. On Wednesday, February 24, Ferris answered questing during a web chat discussing the current relief efforts, the future of Haiti, and the safety and security of those displaced by the earthquake. David Mark, senior editor at POLITICO, moderated the discussion.
The transcript of this chat follows.
12:29 David Mark: Welcome everybody to the weekly Brookings/POLITICO web chat today we’re talking with Beth Ferris about Haiti reconstruction efforts and related matters. Welcome, Beth.
12:29 [Comment From Eric Eric: ] How would you rate the speed and quality of disaster response by the international community for Haitians?
12:29 Elizabeth Ferris: The response has been terribly slow — in part because of the large-scale nature of the devastation and the fact that the earthquake hit a capital city where the government, UN and NGOs had their headquarters.
12:30 [Comment From Rachel: ] What are the biggest risks facing Haiti’s displaced population?
12:30 Elizabeth Ferris: There’s a risk that the displacement will be prolonged — that people won’t be able to return to their communities and that temporary camps will become permanent.
12:31 Elizabeth Ferris: There’s also a risk that people who have left Port-au-Prince for the countryside will return to the city if their needs aren’t met there, increasing the pressure on the relief operations.
12:31 [Comment From Jason: ] if the recovery doesn’t go well, will Haitians try to leave the island in large numbers, including to the US?
12:32 Elizabeth Ferris: I think everyone’s holding their breath on this question. If the recovery doesn’t go well, if people feel abandoned and that the situation is hopeless, there is a good chance they’ll try to leave their country.
12:33 Elizabeth Ferris: Of course, the question then is: where would they go and would they be accepted? Certainly governments in the region, including the US, are concerned. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees appealed to governments this week not to exclude or deport Haitians arriving on their territories.
12:33 [Comment From Bill in VA: ] The disaster is off the front pages now. Are relief and rebuilding efforts now going to be hampered by “disaster fatigue” and the fact that people are moving on to other matters?
12:34 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, disaster fatigue is characteristic of most emergencies. Actually I think Haiti has stayed in the news longer than some of us expected — but that’s perhaps because the humanitarian response efforts have been so problematic.
12:34 Elizabeth Ferris: We know that when the media move on, it becomes more difficult to mobilize the long-term support that will be needed to rebuild Haiti.
12:34 [Comment From Rahul Jain: ] How might a reconfiguration of urban areas, due to the diaspora, be leveraged to diversify Haiti’s economy for the future?
12:36 Elizabeth Ferris: This is a really interesting possibility, Rahul Jain. Some have suggested that this displacement of so many from the capital city offers the opportunity to decentralize the country’s economy. But I’m just not sure — I think it’s equally likely that the investment in the countryside won’t materialize and that Haitians will begin drifting back to the capital, particularly if they perceive that there is more assistance there.
12:36 [Comment From Gary: ] What current mechanisms are in place to prevent violence in IDP camps and tent cities, especially against women and children?
12:37 Elizabeth Ferris: Actually, we are starting to hear horrific stories coming out of some of the camps and spontaneous settlements about sexual and gender-based violence against women — particularly at night. And there is definitely a security gap. In many places, there are no police or military presence at all. And remember the tents/plastic sheeting they are using provide little physical protection.
12:37 [Comment From Laurie: ] What do you think of the charges against the Idaho missionaries? What is the answer for children whose parents are so desperate they will literally give them up to strangers in hopes of a better life?
12:38 Elizabeth Ferris: The whole issue of child protection is a very dramatic one in Haiti. But it’s important to remember that there were serious issues before the earthquake for children. There was lots of abuse and exploitation of children.
12:39 Elizabeth Ferris: Today there are an estimated 80,000 or so children who are separated from their family members and concern about the danger of trafficking and exploitation. And there are many orphanages in the country which are not registered with the government and undoubtedly many children in those orphanages who are not orphans.
12:40 Elizabeth Ferris: I think it was a good idea to suspend international adoptions during the emergency — it’s just too chaotic to implement normal safeguards. So, I don’t know much about the case of the Idaho missionaries — but it is definitely a situation which is ripe for abuse. And the Haitian government is right to be very, very careful.
12:40 [Comment From Wes: ] What’s been the biggest roadblock to getting aid to Haitians?
12:41 Elizabeth Ferris: The biggest block has been the sheer logistical difficulty of delivering aid when the infrastructure has been so devastated and there is so much rubble everywhere. But it’s also been difficult because of the lack of early and effective coordination measures.
12:42 Elizabeth Ferris: There are literally thousands of organizations trying to provide relief to the country and a desperate need for coordination, but the UN was slow getting started — because of the losses they experienced in the earthquake itself — and they’ve never really caught up.
12:42 [Comment From Paul: ] Do you think there are any solid comparisons to made between the Haiti earthquake and the NOLA hurricane?
12:43 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, there are some common themes that emerge. But the resources available to the the US government far outweigh those available to the government — financial resources and human resources.
12:44 Elizabeth Ferris: If the US government with all of these resources, wasn’t able to mount an effective response to those affected by Katrina, then certainly the Haitian government hasn’t been able to respond more effectively.
12:44 [Comment From Andrew (DC): ] Can you talk a little bit about what kind of impact the damage to the UN and other NGO headquarters had on response time?
12:45 Elizabeth Ferris: This was certainly the major impediment to the immediate relief efforts. The damage to communications for MINUSTAH and all UN agencies can’t be underestimated.
12:46 [Comment From Lester: ] A Dominican friend of mine posted an article on Facebook about how Haiti and the Dominican Republic should merge? What do you think of this idea? Would that help during natural disasters like the earthquake?
12:47 Elizabeth Ferris: I don’t think a merger of the 2 countries would be acceptable to the countries themselves, but the impact of the earthquake on the Dominican Republic will be huge. There are about 1 million Haitians who have been living in the DR and a concentration of over 150,000 Haitians displaced by the earthquake are in the border areas.
12:47 [Comment From Adrianna: ] Is it possible to rebuild Haiti quickly and safely? Is there any chance that with a dysfunctional government and a shattered economy, you can have things like building codes?
12:48 Elizabeth Ferris: I don’t think it’s possible to rebuild Haiti quickly. It’s going to take a long, long time (again think of New Orleans where 5 years after the disaster and the resources of the US government, there is still much to be done.)
12:49 Elizabeth Ferris: There are ways, however, of building back ‘better and more safely. There are ways of incorporating disaster risk reduction into reconstruction of damaged and demolished buildings. And certainly relying on building codes is probably not going to be the answer.
12:49 [Comment From Guest: ] What organizations are doing the most effective grassroots work? What tools or other resources would they need to improve their efforts?
12:50 Elizabeth Ferris: There are many organizations which have been working in Haiti for years, that are working with the local communities, and building on local capacities. These organizations are, in my opinion, the most effective right now. They need funds to support their work — but they also need to be brought into the relief coordination process. And their ideas could be helpful in longer-term recovery and reconstruction.
12:50 [Comment From Steve: ] What is going on in the countryside in areas outside the earthquake zone? Do people have resources there? What is the security situation?
12:52 Elizabeth Ferris: It took a while for international assistance to be de-centralized to areas outside of Port-au-Prince that were affected by the earthquake. Some towns, such as Leogane, had 90% of their housing destroyed in the earthquake. But reports are that assistance is being distributed in these areas – but like everywhere in Haiti, it isn’t sufficient to meet the needs.
12:53 Elizabeth Ferris: Security has generally been much better than anticipated initially. With the exception of some cases of looting and a few attacks on food convoys, food distribution has generally been orderly. As I mentioned earlier, I’m worried about sexual violence in the tents and it is always possible that the security situation will get much worse in the future.
12:54 [Comment From Lester: ] Why do we only pay attention to countries like Haiti AFTER disaster strikes? This disaster would have been much less disastrous if we’d helped Haiti prior to the earthquake – building structures that could withstand sever elements and such. It seems to me like the amount of money we’re sending to Haiti now could have done a lot more good prior to the earthquake.
12:55 Elizabeth Ferris: You’re right, Lester, we always respond better after a disaster than in taking the needed to steps to reduce the risks of disasters. On one level, it’s simply easier to raise funds to give people food and water than to help them build stronger houses or strengthen community mechanisms to assist after a disaster strikes.
12:55 [Comment From Sally: ] And as an additional follow up – why don’t we even use the words “internally displaced persons” here in the US? Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of our citizens to different states where they had few institutional resources. But there doesn’t seem to be a coordinating agency.
12:57 Elizabeth Ferris: Those displaced by Katrina were certainly internally displaced persons (an estimated 1.3 million people. As IDPs, they were and are entitled to the basic rights outlined in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. And as citizens of the US (as most of them were) , they were and are entitled to the rights of all citizens.
12:57 [Comment From Randy: ] What do you know about the recent aftershocks?
12:58 Elizabeth Ferris: There have been nearly 50 aftershocks — people are traumatized and afraid. Many are afraid to sleep indoors. So far, not many reported casualties. But it also slows the relief effort when the aftershocks occur.
12:58 [Comment From Terry: ] We’ve talked a lot about the relief operations after the quake. What’s the current situation now? when can we expect rebuilding or real recovery to begin?
1:00 Elizabeth Ferris: I think we’re still in the relief phase — after all less than 30% of those who need shelter have even been given plastic sheeting. The UN has rolled out its ‘early recovery’ cluster and the UN Development Program is gearing up for long-term development issues, but the immediate needs are still acute.
1:00 Elizabeth Ferris: But it is important that relief agencies begin thinking about the developmental impact of their work — decisions which are made now, say about where latrines are built, will have consequences for longer-term development.
1:00 [Comment From Suzie: ] Did the U.S. comply with providing the Katrina victims with their Guiding Principles rights? And was the U.S. ready to comply with them? Or was it like pulling teeth?
1:02 Elizabeth Ferris: We commissioned a study after Katrina to see the extent to which the Guiding Principles were upheld in responding to those affected by the hurricane, and the results were pretty depressing. Many of the rights were not upheld. I’m not certain about the extent to which our national disaster response officials are even familiar with the Guiding Principles
1:02 [Comment From Chris Ranger: ] Every donor country is gearing up for a pledging conference, but the needs in Haiti are huge. What would be a successful outcome of that conference?
1:03 Elizabeth Ferris: A lot of money will undoubtedly be pledged at the conference — and that’s essential. But even more important will be the mechanisms which are set up to ensure that the long-term planning is good and that projects are implemented in a transparent and effective way.
1:04 Elizabeth Ferris: That will mean clear Haitian leadership of the process, ways of mobilizing sufficient & sustained international assistance, some good accountability mechanisms to donors and to affected communities, and ways to ensure that affected communities have some say in the decisions which will affect their lives.
1:05 [Comment From Pat: ] How can everyday people best contribute to relief efforts? It doesn’t seem like money is necessarily the main issue here.
1:06 Elizabeth Ferris: The response of the American public has been incredibly generous. I’ve read that over half of Americans have personally contributed to Haitian relief efforts. And there are encouraging signs that this support will be more than financial — community and church groups, for example, are reaching out to their Haitian counterparts to provide the kinds of support and assistance that will be essential over the long haul.
1:06 Elizabeth Ferris: The whitehouse.gov Web site also has a listing of organizations working in Haiti — as does www.interaction.org.
1:06 [Comment From Matthew: ] Do you know if the US government hires private contractors for relief efforts like the one in Haiti? If they sent Blackwater down there, I’m even more scared for the Haitians!
1:08 Elizabeth Ferris: As you know, much of USAID operations is carried out by non-governmental organizations – and that is true of the relief effort in Haiti. Some of these non-governmental entities are for-profit contractors, but I’m not sure of the number of them in comparison with non-profits. And I think Blackwater’s changed its name to Xe – though I haven’t heard any reports about their involvement there.
1:08 [Comment From Guest: ] There is an upcoming IPOA meeting of private sector contractors in Miami. What do imagine will be the result of the conference?
1:09 Elizabeth Ferris: I imagine that they will be talking about the scale of need in Haiti and about possible roles they could play in its reconstruction. The sheer amount of needed rebuilding will require the efforts of the private sector — as well as the traditional non-profit actors.
1:09 [Comment From Laura: ] Once Haiti begins to rebuild, do you think they will plan to create buildings with earthquake safety in mind? This is something that Japan has learned to do really well, and it makes sense in earthquake-prone regions.
1:10 Elizabeth Ferris: It makes absolute sense to rebuild with earthquake safety in mind, but it is expensive. While the risks of future earthquakes in Haiti is a real one, Haiti also faces hurricanes, almost every year. So rebuilding has got to take the risk of hurricanes into account as well.
1:11 Elizabeth Ferris: But for countries like Haiti where poverty affects so many people, making decisions about rebuilding involves difficult choices. It can be hard to justify putting lots of funds into expensive rebuilding efforts to avoid future risks — when children are dying of hunger and easily preventable diseases every day.
1:12 Elizabeth Ferris:For example, in Haiti, there was no sewage system before the earthquake. If it’s a question of priority — to build a sewage system or ensure earthquake-proof buildings — well, there are tough choices to be made.
1:12 [Comment From Henry: ] Any clue what the most responsive country or organization has been?
1:13 Elizabeth Ferris: The US government has contributed the most funds, but there has been an outpouring of support from countries and people around the world — I’m touched, for example, by contributions sent from governments like Rwanda and from community groups in Sri Lanka.
1:14 [Comment From Megan: ] What would you suggest for Americans interested in going to Haiti to help in the relief efforts?
1:15 Elizabeth Ferris: I hear from friends in Haiti now that they are being overrun by visitors and that taking visitors — even well-meaning people ready to work — takes time and energy away from the relief effort. Obviously the relief organizations are sending their staff, but for individuals, my suggestion would be to wait. Your support will be more needed later.
1:15 [Comment From David: ] I haven’t heard anything about Haiti’s president. is he safe? Has he made any major speeches or addresses post-earthquake? What’s his plan?
1:16 Elizabeth Ferris: President Preval is safe and is involved in all aspects of the relief effort — but he’s been taking a low-key approach. There haven’t been any major passionate speeches. Rather he’s been working more quietly in the background. This has provoked some criticism within Haiti.
1:16 [Comment From Chris Ranger: ] There are large diaspora communities in the US, Canada, France. How do you think they can be most helpful to rebuild Haiti?
1:18 Elizabeth Ferris: The whole issue of the diaspora is fascinating. Right now they provide close to $2 billion a year in remittances — which has kept many Haitians alive — over the year. Whether they can play a more visible role in beefing up the capacity of the Haitian government and civil society in the reconstruction phase is an open question.
1:19 Elizabeth Ferris: There are a lot of Haitian groups in the diaspora who want to play that role, but we need a process of ‘matching’ skills and assets in the diaspora with needs in the community. And there are also sensitivities sometimes in the relationship between those who left the country and those who are still there.
1:19 [Comment From Joanna: ] Why was Haiti such a mess even before the earthquake?
1:21 Elizabeth Ferris: The reasons for Haiti’s poverty and tumultuous political history are many — colonialism, exploitation, some really bad dictators. At the time of its independence in 1804, Haiti was actually quite wealthy. I’m afraid that there just isn’t space to go into all of the factors for Haiti’s situation — but you’re right, there were serious problems for decades before the earthquake.
1:21 [Comment From Megan: ] How long should interested Americans wait to go to Haiti? Should they volunteer with large or small organizations?
1:22 Elizabeth Ferris: Some of the evidence from other disasters is that the needs can actually be worse in 6-8 months. It’s hard to imagine needs for Haiti’s earthquake victims getting worse than they are now — but there could come a time when those plastic sheets start to wear out and before transitional housing is built and when there are hurricanes lurking off of its shores —
1:23 Elizabeth Ferris: And whether to volunteer with large or small organizations? There are wonderful varieties of both — some of the small church-run organizations for example can provide support over years to individual communities. And some of the large NGOs are able to reach into communities with innovative programs. Lots to choose from.
1:23 [Comment From Jessica Sauer: ] Earlier you mentioned that grassroots organizations are some of the most effective organizations are the ground; how do these grassroots organizations get in contact with larger organizations to get the funds they need? Some of the people I have talked with on the ground have no idea how to get in contact with these larger organizations to express their needs.
1:25 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, it’s difficult for the grassroots organizations — especially in the midst of an emergency — to build the contacts and support that are needed. And in the rush of an emergency, often the big UN agencies and international NGOs will concentrate so much on rapid relief delivery that they bypass and marginalize grassroots groups who have been working in the communities for years.
1:26 Elizabeth Ferris: It’s an understandable dynamic, but long-term recovery in Haiti is going to depend on those grassroots communities being involved in the recovery efforts. Many — not all, but many — of the internationals will leave Haiti when this crisis is over. And the local organizations will be responsible for long-term follow-up.
1:26 David Mark: Thanks, Elizabeth. See you next week, folks.
"You have to play the long game. It’s fine to add money, but when the commitment is volatile and your funding goes up and down constantly, you can end up creating more harm than good."