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Tragedy and Opportunity for Haiti

Author: Kara C. McDonald
January 14, 2010

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The January 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, is the first test of the Obama administration's ability to mount a full-scale international disaster response, and it is no ordinary test. Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere, with abysmal infrastructure, struggling to stabilize even before it was struck by four hurricanes eighteen months ago. Intractable political instability surges at regular intervals into wide-scale violence, and the UN force there, MINUSTAH, had just begun to see progress in stemming corruption and lawlessness.

Launching another complex operation in Haiti will be building on Troy. Responders will arrive in an environment rife with the unfinished business of international operations that have come before. Indeed, it is hard to identify another country that has had as many peacekeeping forces, stabilization operations, and crisis responses at work in the last three decades. The quake must not become yet another opportunity to fail.

The United Nations and the United States have focused on accounting for staff, attending to the critically wounded, and organizing wide-scale evacuation. The UN special representative there, Hedi Annabi, is still missing, an eerie reminder of the death of UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello in Iraq (killed in a terror bombing in Baghdad in 2003) and the heightened risks of operating as civilians in unstable environments. The devastation to existing response structures will further complicate the already treacherous mission. Many of those who best know the country, its contours and geography, both literal and political, are undoubtedly among the dead. Those who survived have experienced trauma and will also need relief and care. Yet even as the United States and United Nations look to help their own staff, they must move swiftly to broaden the scope of their assistance to the Haitian people.

The Crucial U.S. Response

President Barack Obama pledged $100 million for relief efforts, as well as the mobilization of disaster response teams, helicopters, transport planes, and up to two thousand U.S. Marines.

But it will be critical in the next forty-eight hours that U.S. authorities grasp the full spectrum of the quake's impact to ensure and mount a corresponding response. From potential refugee flows to political instability to the potential for an outbreak of disease or street violence and crime, the international response must take into account not only immediate needs--reducing suffering and saving lives--but the quake's impact on the longer-term trajectory of the country.

To that end, the United States must coordinate closely with the UN and other donors to identify a coherent division of labor and to leverage what can be salvaged of ongoing international operations there. As the largest donor country and a neighbor, the United States will be looked to for leadership in the response. The United States in turn should spare no asset and lend its considerable response capacity, including airlift, command and control structures, medical mercy ships, and civilian and military disaster response teams.

The International Committee of the Red Cross assesses that three million people could be affected, and many thousands are feared dead. The operation faces all of the traditional challenges of emergency response in a mass casualty: speeding disaster response and search-and-rescue teams; restoring communications; securing infrastructure access (airport, roads, and ports); providing emergency care, water, electricity, food, and shelter; and preventing the outbreak of a public health emergency. The long history of Haiti's fragile state before the 7.0 earthquake hit--its lack of infrastructure, communications platforms, public administration, healthcare, and functioning police and law enforcement--will compound the usual disaster challenges.

A History of Aid Futility

Inconsistencies and gaps across multiple international interventions have been one cause of ineffectiveness in past operations in Haiti. The fragility of Haiti's economic, social, and political stability begs for a response that blends relief, development, and stabilization efforts. Much will depend on the ability to coordinate and move assets across these pillars. Emergency response in Port-au-Prince will be incomplete and unsuccessful without this full-spectrum approach.

Disasters in conflict-prone settings can easily exacerbate political fault lines over the months of recovery--all the more reason emergency responders, development experts, and policymakers be linked up in their efforts. In a statement less than one week ago, UN Special Representative Annabi spoke of the logistical hurdles of presidential and legislative elections set to begin February 28 and their importance for the country's stability. The political process, so vital to Haiti's stability, will undoubtedly be disrupted, and U.S. officials should be watching for the quake's impact on Haiti's political landscape.

The desire to move fast and "do something" must be matched to what is a bitter opportunity to secure a more consistent and lasting commitment to Haiti's political and social stability.

Policing and rule of law in the aftermath of the crisis, a lesson from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005 Hurricane Katrina responses, could also become a priority in the response. MINUSTAH's principal focus prior to the quake, providing security and training Haitian police, will undoubtedly turn in immediate days toward emergency response, even while it may be called upon to provide much-needed security over coming months. The United States should be prepared to assist MINUSTAH in its mandate, especially in the event of an uptick in violence and crime in the aftermath of the quake.

The crisis will test the Obama administration's ability to respond across this humanitarian and developmental context. That security can be threatened by natural disasters, political instability, or poverty is a mantra in twenty-first century development circles, but in Haiti, it's all of the above.

Hope for Renewed Commitment

While an obvious setback to Haiti's political and economic process, the disaster also provides an opportunity. Annabi last reported to the UN Security Council that Haiti is at a critical moment of opportunity and that now more than ever the support of the international community is needed to consolidate Haiti's nascent stability. In response to the quake, the taps of international funding have been turned on with initial assistance pledges pouring in (the UN unleashed an initial $10 million in emergency funding and a funding appeal is expected in coming days), but the critical consideration is whether in the months ahead those pledges will be turned into a sustained commitment to Haiti's long-term stability.

The desire to move fast and "do something" must be matched to what is a bitter opportunity to secure a more consistent and lasting commitment to Haiti's political and social stability. Above all, this disaster is a reminder that the patchwork response to Haiti's problems that ebbs and flows with its crises must end now.

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