Hurricane Matthew made landfall on Haiti yesterday. It killed several people, destroyed homes, roads, bridges, and rendered thousands of people displaced. The top UN official for Haiti says this is “the largest humanitarian event” in the country since the 2010 earthquake.
This begs the question: with this latest disaster to strike the island nation, has the international community learn the lessons of the hobbled earthquake response and do better by Haitians this time?
Despite promises to “build back better”, we spent $13.5 billion on a relief effort that was slow, uncoordinated, and has led to remarkably little actual recovery. And we triggered Haiti’s worst outbreak of cholera in recent history, killing seven thousand people. Are we going to do better by Haiti this time? Has anything actually changed?
The international aid industry changes slowly, but it does appear to be trying. After the Haiti earthquake, an entity known as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which develops shared guidelines for relief agencies, revised the core protocols on humanitarian response. The focus is on improving leadership, coordination, and accountability. These protocols explicitly state that they are based on lessons learned in the Haiti response.
This, however, is not the first complex humanitarian emergency we have seen since 2010. The Ebola response in 2014 is one good example. The new IASC protocols seem to have had a limited effect on the effectiveness of Ebola response. It suffered from a lack of coordination, limited accountability, and failures in leadership. Ebola response was also driven heavily by foreign aid agencies, with little focus on building capacity within West Africa to prepare for future outbreaks. It seems unlikely that revised IASC protocols are the key to a better Haiti response. One useful part of it, perhaps, but no guarantee of effective response.
Haiti hasn’t changed all that much, either. The political problems that beleaguered rebuilding efforts have not improved. Among other challenges, last year’s presidential election was postponed for a year on account of riots – even though international observers considered it to be fair.
However, the wider world has changed. Accountability is now possible in ways that couldn’t be achieved in 2010. Social media is far more popular in Haiti than it was six years ago. Haitians are better equipped to call for help, to connect to each other, and to call out relief agencies if they fail. While this will have minimal impact in the immediate aftermath of the storm, it has the potential for direct impact on the way aid is provided in the rebuilding effort. Embarrassing coordination problems should come to light very quickly, with the potential for rapid resolution. Broken promises and poor performance will be rapidly made public. Local accountability will be forced on aid agencies.
International accountability will be another force. International relief agencies took a tremendous amount of criticism for their poor performance after the Haiti earthquake. In particular, the Jonathan Katz book, The Big Truck That Went By, and a Pro Publica expose on Red Cross fundraising for Haiti were extremely critical of relief efforts. The international news media may have been willing to accept the narrative of Ebola hero doctors, but it has been primed to keep a close watch on Haiti relief. Haiti is a short flight for journalists, members of the Haitian diaspora, or anyone else who wants to see how the aid money is being spend.
As we face a new natural disaster in Haiti, many things seem the same. Neither Haitian politics nor international aid agencies appear to have gotten better. The world, however, has changed. If we screw up this time, we’ll know it right away.