Turtle Bay

Haiti’s humanitarian aid disaster

One of the most uplifting aspects of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January was the outpouring of public offers of help, from the Brooklyn public school children who collected Teddy Bears for poor Haitian children to the American actor, Sean Penn, who ran a camp for displaced Haitians in the Haitian town of Pétionville. But the ...

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One of the most uplifting aspects of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January was the outpouring of public offers of help, from the Brooklyn public school children who collected Teddy Bears for poor Haitian children to the American actor, Sean Penn, who ran a camp for displaced Haitians in the Haitian town of Pétionville.

But the generosity can also clog the vital humanitarian supply chain with useless goods. In a report on  the U.N.’s response to the Haitian earthquake, the U.N.’s humanitarian relief agencies have called for restricting the delivery of some humanitarian goods and the establishment a certification process to regulate further aid.

"Is there a point at which the system can be too inclusive in coordination and planning?" asks the 32-page report, entitled "Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in Haiti." "The Haiti response operation has received literally tons of inappropriate relief items. Many governments appear to feel the need to send a plane full of relief goods, for internal political reasons, whether or not the goods are appropriate."

The move is controversial, particularly among some relief groups who try to move quickly to meet needs on the ground. Haiti’s government has imposed a cumbersome review system that has raised revenue for the government, but done little to speed the delivery of needed goods. And some groups say the recommendations simply can’t be implemented, particularly in a place like Haiti, where the government has virtually no capacity to monitor relief imports.

In the days following the earthquake, John Holmes, the U.N.’s top emergency relief coordinator, warned of the arrival of "tsunami-like" wave of fringe relief organizations that "don’t really have much capacity, but want to be seen on the ground producing loads of teddy bears or whatever, which people don’t need."

Within weeks, more than 400 aid agencies piled into the country, providing badly needed supplies, from water to tents and medicines. But some of the goods were of no use. The report cited one case in which the World Health Organization was diverted from delivering essential medical assistance to needy Haitians because it had to devote time and resources to destroying stocks of unusable medicines. Other observers noted that the U.S. military provided MREs, Ready to Eat Meals that were written in English, making it difficulty for the French and Creole-speaking locals to read the cooking instructions.

The report also cites the U.N.’s shortcomings in coordinating activities with local charities, the U.S. military, and private businesses eager to play a role in the relief effort. "In Haiti, humanitarian actors received an estimated $70 million in offers from the private sector," the report says. But the U.N.’s relief agencies were "unable to respond positively to these offers as bureaucratic systems and procedures for receiving and utilizing such support had not been pre-established."

The shortcoming fueled a broader perception that the U.N. leadership on the ground immediately after the earthquake lacked the "strategic vision or overall visible coherence" to manage the emergency response. Foreign military forces, presumably from the United Nations and the United States, "felt they had to step in to supplement humanitarian leadership on the ground." Although the report says that "huge strides" were made in improving the U.N.’s role in the relief effort during the following months.

The report also faults the humanitarian community for demonstrating a "clear reluctance" to work "with the military," saying it reticence "may have impeded coordination and an efficient use of all assets available."

The report cautions that if the humanitarian relief community did not demonstrate an ability to better coordinate relief efforts, governments would likely turn to militaries to coordinate disaster relief efforts, a development that is already taking place in Asia.

The report is particularly critical of the U.N.’s ability to coordinate its relief activities with local charities, who had the clearest sense of needs on the ground. For instance, a women’s group in Bristout-Bobin reopened a small school weeks after the earthquake, but could not get any financial support. "Likewise, a teacher created a youth club in Ravine Pintade where poetry slams, theater and Latin American dance were organized as a means for the children to deal with their trauma. She also could not find any external support to sustain her activities."

"The international community … did not adequately engage with national organizations, civil society and local authorities," according to the report, which cites language barriers from the mostly English-speaking relief groups and lack of access for representatives of local charities to the U.N. chief logistics base, where most coordination meetings took place. "These crucially important partners were therefore not included in the strategizing on the response operation."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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