Bleak Prospects for Haitian Recovery: To Avoid Repeating Past Mistakes, US Role Must be More Than Rhetorical

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As the days go by, it has become almost impossible to exaggerate the untold devastation left in the wake of the massive earthquake that struck Haiti on Tuesday, January 12, with its epicenter just southwest of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The quake, registering a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale and followed by over thirty serious aftershocks, left what is likely to be well over 200,000 dead and millions more injured. Many additional victims remained trapped in the rubble of homes, schools, hospitals, and government buildings as the primary three-day window for search and rescue ran out. Early this morning, a major aftershock registering a magnitude of 6.1 wreaked yet further havoc on the island.

The crisis has thus far drawn significant contributions of humanitarian aid from around the globe, including $100 million pledged by the US and tens of millions more by public and private agencies, in addition to relief efforts bearing food, medicine, and supplies for critical search and rescue operations. Still, the international response has been insufficient to keep up with the mounting challenges stemming from Haiti’s weak existing national infrastructure, social and political instability, and chronic underdevelopment, amplifying the disastrous impact of the earthquake. On Friday, January 15, the United Nations announced an emergency appeal of over $550 million in international humanitarian assistance for earthquake relief efforts over the next three to six months. However, the overpowering logistical and bureaucratic challenges that have complicated relief efforts so far may prove even more difficult to confront in the face of the enormous challenges posed by rebuilding the infrastructure and institutions of Haiti, above and beyond coping with the immediate devastation wrought by the earthquake.

Lagging Initial Response, Led by U.S.

Delays in sending the first relief teams cut fatally into the three days in which search and rescue are most valuable for disaster victims in the rubble. Although U.S. military presence in the hemisphere is often justified by the need for humanitarian assistance in case of natural disasters, the armed forces seemed unprepared to swiftly respond to the crisis in Haiti. While President Barack Obama was the first to promise “unwavering support” in the wake of the Haitian crisis, the United States was not the first to deliver aid, despite its geographical proximity and overwhelming resources. As retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told CNN on Thursday, U.S. military forces “could have been there a day earlier.”

China was the first to announce the preparation of a 60-person emergency rescue team, ready to depart for Haiti as of 11 am the morning after the earthquake, and arriving before dawn on Thursday. By that afternoon, Cuba had sent 30 additional medical personnel to join the 344 doctors and paramedics already working on the island, and France had deployed two planeloads of rescue personnel. The U.S. followed, bringing in search and rescue teams from Florida and California. Prior to the arrival of the search and rescue teams, a military assessment team of 30 individuals landed at Port-au-Prince, and multiple Coast Guard vessels were mobilized to stand by, should they be ordered to Haiti.

Despite having the ability to mobilize personnel on the ground, the U.S. proceeded cautiously. The U.S. military was the first to have security personnel on the island following the earthquake, but the logistical obstacles have prevented them from getting any substantial troops on the ground, leaving the majority of U.S. troops still offshore. Of the U.S. troops reported to be either on the ground, offshore, or on their way to Haiti, only around 2,000 are actually on the island. Five thousand remain on ships assisting helicopter crews, leaving close to half of the reported 11,000 still on the way.

Damage and Diplomatic Tensions Continue to Stall Transportation of Aid

Damage to Haiti’s already troubled infrastructure continues to hamper basic search and rescue, a week after the earthquake’s initial impact. The country’s primary airport, Toussaint L’Ouverture International, was secured and its collapsed control tower rebuilt hours after the quake struck in an initiative led by the US Air Force and Army. Nevertheless, its staff and space have proven insufficient to handle the burden of flights carrying personnel, medicine, food and other supplies now arriving in Port-au-Prince. Early on Friday, January 15, the Haitian government announced that the airport was saturated and could no longer accept incoming flights until ramp space had been cleared. The airport has since been reopened, but the bottleneck continues, forcing the diversion of scores of humanitarian flights.

Diplomatic tension may prove a further obstacle to securing the smooth transportation of aid to the devastated country: multiple agencies and countries, particularly France, Brazil, and Italy, have expressed frustration with the peremptory nature of U.S. management of the airport as a growing percentage of aid flights have been turned away. Didier Le Bret, French Ambassador to Haiti, called Toussaint L’Ouverture International “an annex of Washington,” while French International Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet characterized the U.S. military presence at the airport as “occupying,” rather than helping, the country. On Monday, the World Food Program of the UN has since stepped in to work with the United States to better prioritize the arrival of humanitarian flights to the airport. In the meantime, both the principal port in Port-au-Prince and the second largest airport, in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, remain closed. Canadian troops have already begun flying into Jacmel on the southern coast, allowing 2,000 troops to bypass Toussaint L’Ouverture International and deliver aid.

Although the neighboring Dominican Republic opened its Las Américas International Airport in its capital city of Santo Domingo, the transportation of aid by land is also heavily obstructed. Efforts to distribute aid are further constrained by the need, not only reconstruct, but also to improve the capacity of Haiti’s grossly inadequate infrastructure, which has poorly served the impoverished and densely populated nation even before the earthquake. Roads, lines of communication, and sources of power and clean water are all in need of attention for aid to even reach most urban areas, including the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. The scramble to coordinate the most basic of logistics required for international assistance to reach all corners of the island has drastically impeded vital search and rescue efforts as well as the availability of emergency health care.

Beyond the physical collapse of public buildings, including the Presidential Palace, the Parliament, and many ministries, the capacity of the Haitian government to deal with a crisis of this magnitude is compromised by the bureaucratic disorder and endemic corruption that for years have stymied rational development assistance efforts and much-needed public works in the country. The implementation of relief efforts in Haiti is complicated not only by the weak existing infrastructure, but also by deep-seated social problems such as crime, social unrest, and corruption. On the ground, the growing threat of looting and rioting is poised to further slow the distribution of aid, as well as potentially endangering the safety of relief workers of every category and description.

International Relief Efforts and Challenges

Given the challenges at hand in Haiti, the international community has responded with humanitarian aid and relief services to stave off and contain the continuing catastrophe. The Dominican Republic, which suffered only minor damage from the earthquake, appears to have temporarily put aside historically deep tensions with its neighbor in order to coordinate health relief and act as a transit point to Haiti for foreign missions and correspondents. According to Fox News, the US and Cuba have also overcome their historic enmity to allow medical evacuation flights from the US to travel through restricted Cuban airspace.

Rescue teams also have come from Brazil, France, Britain, and China, among other nations across the globe, to provide relief assistance. Nonetheless, while militaries, relief workers, and volunteers from around the world have contributed to search and rescue efforts, families of victims of the earthquake grow increasingly restive as aid proves entirely incapable of keeping up with present needs.

NGOs such as the UN World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders have proven particularly adaptive to backbreaking challenges in their efforts to distribute food and medical care to victims, often in the absence of electricity, passable roads or secure buildings. The US Air Force and Army have led the restoration and running of the airport, and have begun work to restore the island’s communication grid, while militaries, relief workers, and volunteers from around the world have contributed to search and rescue. However, as earthquake victims grow increasingly desperate over the inability of aid to keep up with need, relief efforts must allocate more and more of their limited resources toward security to protect workers and prevent looting, further delaying distribution.

As international governments and international organizations worldwide continue to grapple with implementing relief efforts in Haiti, humanitarian organizations based in the country are still struggling to recover from the earthquake themselves. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the controversial body tasked with providing aid and security to the country, suffered the losses of the head and deputy of its mission, Hédi Annabi and Luiz Carlos da Costa. In addition, at least 46 MINUSTAH peacekeepers are known to have lost their lives, with over 300 more still unaccounted for. With the capacity of the UN’s Haiti mission severely weakened, relief missions have flowed into the country without the necessary coordination, supervision or security measures to ensure the effective distribution of supplies and assistance.

Lessons from Haiti’s Past Humanitarian Crises

While the UN emergency appeal is a key first step toward the effective coordination of the international response, the recent history of humanitarian assistance to Haiti reveals a persistent manifestation of donor fatigue when it comes to coping with crises in the poorest nation in the Americas. The last UN emergency appeal regarding Haiti was announced in September of 2008, after Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike and Tropical Storm Fay all hit the Caribbean within the span of three weeks. Haitians accounted for over half of the fatalities of the entire 2008 Atlantic hurricane season; entire towns were destroyed throughout the country, leaving more than one million homeless and at least $900 million in damages. As is the case today, longstanding infrastructural and social problems exacerbate the impact of natural disasters, making them exponentially more catastrophic for an underserved country like Haiti than would be the case for any other country in the region.

In retrospect, the immediate international response to the hurricanes of 2008 was impressive: the requirements for food, health care, temporary shelter, and coordination laid out in the UN emergency appeal received close to complete funding. However, rebuilding and development projects were, in contrast, drastically underfunded or even abandoned once the country reached a minimum plateau of stability in terms of food and medicine supplied. Agriculture, education, economic recovery and infrastructure, and respect for human rights and the rule of law — the most vital sectors for sustainable recovery — received less than half of the funds required for restoration, let alone further development. Haiti’s unusually high vulnerability to the recent earthquake is in large part the legacy of years of short-lived aid and shortsighted political and economic visions for the country.

The outpouring of humanitarian assistance from the international community has been overwhelming so far, but it must remain in place over the coming months in order to have any long-term and sustainable impact on the impoverished nation. Haiti cannot afford for relief efforts to once again melt away after search and rescue efforts have ceased. The challenges to the distribution and utilization of humanitarian aid are especially grave in Haiti, and international organizations must play a key role in coordinating such assistance and stay there until the job is done.