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International response to Haiti’s earthquake must avoid 2010 mistakes

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As the death toll and displacement from Saturday’s earthquake in Haiti mounts, the United States must urgently mobilize to provide help. But we must, just as urgently, resolve to avoid mistakes we made following the 2010 earthquake that left Haiti even more dependent on foreign aid. 

In 2010 former President Bill Clinton acknowledged that U.S. aid policy contributed to Haiti’s extreme vulnerability to natural and human disasters. We promised to “Build Back Better,” but then proceeded to do what we had always done to respond to natural disasters: deliver top-down aid based on decisions — often made in Washington and New York — that predictably failed when they encountered reality on the ground in Haiti.

Haitians themselves — whether in government, civil society, the medical field, or internal displacement camps — were marginalized. 

The response of the United States, along with other governments and global non-profits, did save lives by providing healthcare, food, and shelter to millions of Haitians. But the emergency interventions sometimes caused long-term harm. Foreign healthcare professionals rushed in, saving lives, but sometimes providing inappropriate treatment or displacing Haitian professionals, some of whom were forced to close their practices or emigrate. In fact, 11 years later, Haiti’s government capacity has been reduced so much that the country did not even start COVID vaccinations until July — after the U.S. stepped in with support. 

We again have the chance to create sustainable improvements by maximizing Haitians’ role in all aspects of disaster response. One framework for accomplishing this, called the “human rights-based approach,” requires a commitment to five objectives: a) capacity building, b) participation, c) transparency, d) accountability, and e) non-discrimination. 

The arrival of foreign funding and expertise, and the work on the ground, will provide ample opportunities for Haitians to build capacity to sustainably provide healthcare, housing and other basic services that Haiti needs. 

This time, we need to make sure that every team responding to the earthquake includes Haitians who are both developing their skills and contributing the local knowledge essential for recovery programs to succeed. Likewise, the Haitian government and the local affected communities must be involved in the design and execution of all earthquake response initiatives. Ensuring effective participation takes time and effort, but not doing so dooms initiatives to an “efficient” failure.   

Haitians also need a way to follow the money that taxpayers and donors are sending in their names, and a mechanism to hold the stewards of those funds accountable. It is still extremely difficult to obtain meaningful information on how the U.S. government and charitable organizations spent 2010 earthquake response money, and it was impossible for Haitians to force changes in initiatives they knew were ineffective or misdirected. With 2021 technology, the only reason information cannot be made freely available is because stewards of funds do not want to be held accountable. 

Finally, foreign actors must be careful not to harm already vulnerable groups such as women, people with disabilities, and impoverished Haitians. This requires special efforts to help members of these groups participate, build their skills, and hold actors accountable. But it also requires efforts to protect these groups from discrimination in the response itself, such as the reported sexual exploitation of women and girls by aid workers and UN soldiers following the 2010 earthquake. 

Those of us who worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake understand that humanitarian aid can be the difference between life and death. But it can also make things worse when programs are carried out for Haitians, instead of with Haitian input and influence. We owe it to ourselves to do better this time. More importantly, we owe it to Haitians. 

Brian Concannon is a human rights lawyer and the founder and a board member of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. Kathleen Bergin is a human rights lawyer who teaches Disaster Law at Cornell Law School.

Tags Bill Clinton charitable organizations disaster relief Haiti haiti earthquake Humanitarian aid international aid Natural Disaster Transparency

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