In Wake of Haiti Earthquake, HKS Faculty Weigh in on Crisis, Future

January 13, 2010
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

With current death toll predictions in the tens of thousands and reports that Port-au-Prince is almost entirely destroyed, the situation in Haiti in the wake of the enormous 7.0 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010, is going to present immense challenges to the people of the country and to those involved in the disaster recovery efforts.

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard, George F. Baker, Jr. Professor of Public Management and Co-Director, Program on Crisis Leadership, focuses his research and teaching on pre-event preparedness, crisis response measures and long-term issues of disaster recovery. Arrietta Chakos is project director for Acting in Time Disaster Recovery Project. They offer their perspectives on the unfolding situation in Haiti.

In the coming days, more expert contributions will be added to this page.

Herman "Dutch" Leonard (DL) and Arrietta Chakos (AC)

When a catastrophic event like this earthquake hits a country, what are the recommended actions that international governments need to take to assist the affected country?

DL:First, it is important to note that in earthquake events the first and most effective responders are survivors themselves (who extract themselves from the rubble) and fellow survivors – neighbors and friends who are able to reach and care for the injured. The international response will be effective, but much of what rescue is possible will have been accomplished before international relief arrives. There will, we hope, be some spectacular successes as highly-trained urban search and rescue teams arrive and are able to save victims trapped for several days – but the bulk of the rescues will have been achieved long before outside assistance can deploy.

This means that the international role should be viewed mostly as assistance with early recovery efforts, not with rescue. Early recovery involves stabilizing the humanitarian support situation – providing basic services including shelter, food, water and sanitation, and medical treatment for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people whose own support mechanisms have been destroyed or disrupted. This is extremely important work – thousands of lives will be saved by the prevention of epidemic waterborne illnesses, for example – but it is quite different than the seemingly more glamorous rescues at the very beginning.

International relief agencies and governments that contribute to disaster response have a great deal of experience in organizing responses to major disasters – and they are generally very good at it. The general advice in most instances starts with the importance of coordinating with the government of the affected country. The specific nature of the situation in Haiti will vastly complicate this, since the earthquake was centered only 10 miles away from the nation’s capital, and the destruction of critical infrastructure (transportation, communications, distribution and so on) and the destruction of the capacity of the existing governmental structures appears at least at first reports to have been catastrophic. It will be extremely difficult for outside aid organizations to coordinate effectively with a government that itself has been devastated by the event. This will necessitate even more care than is usual in the coordination among the relief organizations coming in from the outside (governments and NGOs).

AC:I would add a few observations about conditions in the impact area. First, it’s ominous that we don’t yet have much preliminary information on human losses and a general, quantified damage assessment. Local and federal officials don’t appear to have outwardly functioning response system comparable to what is practiced in other risk-prone nations (an organizational approach called the “incident command system”). This lack will further complicate the capacity of incoming responders to quickly synchronize their efforts with the Haitian authorities.

International responders have noted the signals of widespread social and political breakdown and seem to take them seriously. NGOs and the transnationals have not wasted time in mustering resources and getting into the region. No one seems to be standing by awaiting the complex, diplomatic processes required for incoming humanitarian assistance. We’ve seen in the Myanmar and South Asia disasters that barriers to assistance hamper the support that other nations and NGOs can bring to a catastrophic situation. It could be these kinds of obstacles will be set aside here given the extreme impacts of the earthquake.

Second, the signal from the central government, rather the lack thereof, points to a vacuum in local authority and will result in probable difficulty for international responders to connect quickly and effectively with those most in need. Dutch makes a valid point about the necessity for incoming responders to effectively coordinate and to ensure the security of their staff and operations. Like the safety briefings at the beginning of a flight, they’ll have to secure their own oxygen masks first and keep their wits about them so they can better assess the points of entry in the relief and recovery work.

How do you predict the pre-existing conditions in Haiti will impact the after-effects of this disaster?

DL: There will be several important consequences of the pre-event levels of division and dysfunction in the political system and government of Haiti. It will make it much more difficult to coordinate the actions of the many organizations that will soon begin landing in Haiti. It will likely mean that the recovery will be slower and less effective than we might hope.

And, sadly but also very importantly, the destruction of important elements of the government’s capacity may also complicate the security situation on the ground for relief organizations. Port-au-Prince has, at times, been a notoriously unsafe environment for both locals and outsiders, and the government’s capacity to insure order will surely have been significantly reduced by the destruction it itself suffered along with the civilian population. In the very short run, there will be a high level of good will and cooperation, but if history is a guide there may also be elements of the society who see opportunities for looting and other violations of public order – in the extreme, including rioting and outright insurrection. The government of Haiti should, among many other forms of aid, request assistance in the form of security forces that can both contribute to the rescue and early recovery efforts and also insure public order on the ground.

AC: Another point here is how, tragically, this disaster shows what happens when appropriate building codes are not in place to govern the construction of safe structures. Many seismically at-risk nations have started to use school buildings and hospitals as those first buildings that are required by law to be disaster-resistant. These initiatives serve a dual purpose—they result in the creation of safe havens for the community in a disaster and they model positive, modest actions that start to delimit the often-overwhelming prospect of disaster risk-reduction.

The OECD and a U.S.-based NGO, Geo-Hazards International (founded by HKS alumnus Brian Tucker), developed a school safety initiative to address these issues and at least 20 nations have used this as a template for incremental improvements to national disaster safety programs. The model is being considered for adoption by ECO (the Muslim-nation counter-part to OECD) and the APEC member nations.

What would your advice be to NGOs and other organizations going into Haiti to help with recovery efforts?

DL: In my discussions with relief organizations I am emphasizing two things: coordination and security. These organizations need to work together to avoid duplication of effort, to develop an accurate needs assessment, and to insure that resources are matched to needs (rather than having everyone pile up where the first-identified or largest needs are). They also need to attend carefully to the security needs of their own staff and of the people of Haiti – the dissolution of public order is not likely, but it is certainly a possibility as a result of the high levels of anguish, destruction of elements of the existing security apparatus, diversion of security personnel to relief activities and the damage sustained by the community and national leadership structures that might otherwise be able to help mobilize people to remain calm and show patience in the face of what under any circumstances will be a painfully slow recovery process.

AC: In addition, it will be critically important for the incoming assistance groups to be aware of the capacity of those they are helping. The conditions after such extreme disasters magnify the pre-event vulnerabilities of social/governance systems. There will be precious few stable social structures with which to interact. This, of course, will impede the immediate support work.

Another aspect to consider is for the incoming people to respect that the social fabric of the local community may yield unexpected resilience in the face of this horrific situation. Their challenge will be to identify those clusters of neighborhood strength and incorporate them into the recovery efforts. This provides some measure of quick rebuilding power of the affected people and will move them to a purpose beyond immediate, urgent despair. This kind of purpose jumpstarts the personal restoration cycles. Rebecca Solnit, a California journalist, writes compellingly about the power of community in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, where she explores the regenerative outcomes of disasters. We will see the capacity of people to withstand this blow, but it will take considerable support from the international to stabilize the situation in the coming weeks.

What makes an effective recovery process during a crisis and how hopeful are you of having one carried out in Haiti?

DL: I’m always an optimist. The international organizations and governments that are and will be responding have great resources, competence, and experience. They will do what reasonably can be done. But the challenges posed by this particular event appear to be unusually difficult. Haiti had a weak government; putting weak organizations under enormous stress does not generally improve their performance. The event happened almost directly where the nation’s response capability and leadership were located. It appears likely that significant elements of Haiti’s physical and organizational infrastructure for responding to and coping with emergencies will have been damaged by the event itself. In order to figure out what to do and where they are most needed, outside relief organizations must have support and guidance from people on the ground who know the people, organizations, neighborhoods – and these connections may be more difficult to forge in the aftermath of this event. Local response capabilities appear to have been significantly degraded and are now being overwhelmed. This will be a very difficult environment in which to bring the necessary help to the people of Haiti, and it is likely to be slower than any of us would like.

AC: I agree. It may be that we will have learned substantive lessons from the devastation in the 2004 tsunami and that international aid organizations have developed more nimble coordinating structures to leverage the work they do together. My immediate concern is that the chief coordinating entity, the UN, has suffered significant losses, as has MSF/Doctors without Borders. This may be the case with other heavy-hitters in the relief world.

Haiti map of earthquake

Shake map of Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake indicating extreme shaking and effects in Port-au-Prince. Image courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

Robert Rotberg, Program Director,Program on Intrastate Conflict, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Resolution

We are hearing reports of massive devastation on the island. How limited is the Haitian government’s capacity to respond?

Very limited. Haiti for many years has lacked the human capacity, the logistical infrastructure, and budgetary sources to act on its own. Massive outside assistance will be required to rebuild.

International aid will soon begin flowing to the island. What are the top priorities for aid agencies?

Public health emergency measures. Restoration of communications and important roads. Creating an internal Haitian command center. Supporting President Preval’s government and providing it with the wherewithal to take charge. Jobs and jobs and jobs.

Can and should international organizations increase aid and support for the island and its government once this immediate crisis is addressed?

Yes, Haiti and its people will need support for months and years to come. This could be the opportunity for the US and the UN system to jumpstart the Haitian economy in a way that is sustainable.

What are the most pressing needs on the island? In what ways can Haitian governance be strengthened?

Helping Haiti reduce corruption and gradually building up a robust rule of law will take years. In the short term better policing and better control of narco-trafficking will restore confidence and security sufficient to permit economic and political reforms to take hold.


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