Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Celebrities, Stay Home

Foreign ministers, elected politicians, NGO executives, and Hollywood types all want to help Haiti. But that doesn't mean they should head there.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

In the three weeks since a massive earthquake devastated Haiti, a succession of prominent politicians, entertainers, and development officials have visited the country: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean, USAID chief Rajiv Shah, and FEMA's Craig Fugate. Joining them were the heads of the Pan American Health Organization, the Organization of American States, and the U.N. World Food Program; actor Sean Penn; and numerous foreign ministers and U.S. congressional leaders -- not to mention tabloid fixture and former U.S. vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. As the recovery ends and reconstruction begins, scores more international luminaries of one sort or another are expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince.

Some will go to witness the devastation and identify needs, others to encourage their staff and bring hope to Haitians still waiting for assistance. But unless these visits are vital to the recovery, it is best to postpone them until the country has stabilized and resources can more justifiably be turned to visiting dignitaries.

It is well understood that high-level trips bring important visibility to disasters and recovery efforts. But such trips also require enormous amounts of staff time and resources. It is not unusual for a high-level visit to occupy hundreds of people in both the receiving and departing city. In preparation for official U.S. government visits, for example, embassy personnel spend countless hours preparing scope papers, briefing memos, and scene-setters; orchestrating arrival and departure logistics; coordinating transportation and communication; setting up and manning control rooms; ensuring security; and walking through each minute of a visitor's schedule. Visits are simply a black hole for resources. A presidential or cabinet-level visit sometimes involves an advance trip of a hundred or more people, let alone staffing during the actual visit.

In the three weeks since a massive earthquake devastated Haiti, a succession of prominent politicians, entertainers, and development officials have visited the country: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean, USAID chief Rajiv Shah, and FEMA’s Craig Fugate. Joining them were the heads of the Pan American Health Organization, the Organization of American States, and the U.N. World Food Program; actor Sean Penn; and numerous foreign ministers and U.S. congressional leaders — not to mention tabloid fixture and former U.S. vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. As the recovery ends and reconstruction begins, scores more international luminaries of one sort or another are expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince.

Some will go to witness the devastation and identify needs, others to encourage their staff and bring hope to Haitians still waiting for assistance. But unless these visits are vital to the recovery, it is best to postpone them until the country has stabilized and resources can more justifiably be turned to visiting dignitaries.

It is well understood that high-level trips bring important visibility to disasters and recovery efforts. But such trips also require enormous amounts of staff time and resources. It is not unusual for a high-level visit to occupy hundreds of people in both the receiving and departing city. In preparation for official U.S. government visits, for example, embassy personnel spend countless hours preparing scope papers, briefing memos, and scene-setters; orchestrating arrival and departure logistics; coordinating transportation and communication; setting up and manning control rooms; ensuring security; and walking through each minute of a visitor’s schedule. Visits are simply a black hole for resources. A presidential or cabinet-level visit sometimes involves an advance trip of a hundred or more people, let alone staffing during the actual visit.

For instance, in 2002, then-President George W. Bush decided to go to Romania — a safe Western country and a relatively simple one to visit. Still, weeks out from Air Force One’s arrival, more than half the U.S. Embassy staffers in Bucharest devoted themselves full time to planning for the event. In charge of the site for the president’s speech to the Romanian public, I clocked 52 hours of overtime in one week. Multiply that by several hundred people, and by several weeks, to determine the staff hours required.

This is not to say that such visits are not worth the investment — nothing shines as bright a light on diplomatic initiatives. Bush’s trip welcomed Romania to NATO and signaled a real warming of relations. But in the case of Haiti, staff time is diverted from an urgent recovery effort in the midst of a massive crisis. Workers are toiling around the clock. Many are exhausted, running on adrenaline, and will undoubtedly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They are needed to do everything from coordinating and delivering supplies, to setting up hospitals and repatriating remains. In this context, visits by high-level officials divert resources from critical response tasks and risk adding to the mayhem. Only a precious few visits are necessary and fitting.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, skillfully limited her impact and demonstrated sensitivity to the situation by remaining at the airport rather than trekking into Port-au-Prince. She still achieved her goal of consulting with Haitian President René Préval. The United Nations’ leader, Ban, went to Haiti to visit his staff and repatriate the remains of his local special representative and deputy special representative, who died in the collapse of the United Nations’ Port-au-Prince headquarters. The incident was the single largest loss of staff in the history of the United Nations, and Ban’s visit bolstered the shaken mission.

To be sure, many of Haiti’s visitors have had legitimate reasons for wanting to go: coordinating assistance, bringing closure to families, bearing witness to the disaster, determining the ground truth for needs assessments, and strengthening the case to donors. But the credibility and visibility given to visitors increases the incentives for others to try to go. Sadly, and as shocking as it might seem, the Port-au-Prince crisis risks becoming a destination for "disaster tourists." Thus, international and local officials should vet each prospective traveler, determining his or her potential contributions and urgency to the recovery effort.

As the expected deluge of visitor requests increases, the barrier to entry should be high. With 1,400 flights backed up and a nearly two-week wait to land at the Port-au-Prince airport, landing clearances pose a major logistical challenge, but also an opportunity: Forces in control can filter less-than-essential travelers. In addition, each of the 500 or more organizations working in Haiti should carefully weigh visit requests and encourage those not performing groundwork essential to the recovery to stay put, for the time being. A visit by the head of each organization would easily overwhelm nascent coordination structures in Port-au-Prince.

Former French President François Mitterrand’s visit to Sarajevo in 1992 is another example of a high-level visit to an emergency done right. Although criticized at the time, his gutsy trip involved flying into the besieged city via helicopter while firefights were ongoing. The goal was to demonstrate solidarity with a people under siege by taking the kind of risk Sarajevans faced every day.

In Haiti, there is no comparable motive. Relief and development workers in Haiti can best manifest international solidarity for the people of Port-au-Prince, and media attention will be most needed weeks from now when the international spotlight on the island has faded. The outpouring of aid to Haiti has been unprecedented. But for the sake of responders and — most of all — the Haitian people, for now, many interested parties not crucial to the response should stay at home.

Kara C. McDonald is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former director for U.N. and international organization affairs at the National Security Council.

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