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With Haiti in chaos, we must rewrite the script on disaster aid

People clean up rubble with bulldozer in Haiti after earthquake

As the Haitian people reel from the latest earthquake, a deluge from Tropical Storm Grace and the COVID pandemic, it’s hard to imagine a nation more in need of assistance from the international community. 

Yet the appeal for help from Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was appointed following the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, is couched in a warning: We need your help, but do it better than you did before. 

He was reflecting a good deal of widespread anger over aspects of the humanitarian operations after the massive earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. Those operations overwhelmed Haiti and, while millions of lives were saved, some damage was inflicted as well. Haitians today recall that United Nations peacekeeping forces brought in following the 2010 earthquake precipitated a cholera outbreak and one well-known humanitarian organization, Oxfam, had to discipline employees accused of sexual misconduct including rape.

Responding to a disaster of such huge proportions brings in many governmental and non-governmental organizations that often operate without adequate coordination. In 2010, too often Haitian institutions that know their country best were ignored.

A 2012 study by Tulane University was critical of some aspects of the relief operation for undermining Haitian organizations by poaching their staff and ignoring their expertise. The report found that some aid exceeded needs and led to corruption.

This ex post facto critique applied generally to the myriad of actors that came into Haiti in the later stages. The initial response by USAID’s Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) set forth a strategy for the international operation. Two rescue teams from the U.S. were on the ground within 24 hours and did heroic work rescuing trapped victims and bringing over a million people to aid stations. Temporary shelter was provided to more than a million, along with food, water and basic sanitation. The U.S. military removed tons of rubble and established safe routes to distribute critical equipment. USAID set up work for pay programs. These initiatives saved many lives.

This early contribution became a bit more complicated when the U.S. government adopted a “whole of government” approach that brought in agencies that had little appreciation for how to operate in a developing country environment. The intentions were good, but USAID,  the agency that had the expertise and knowledge, then had a difficult time maintaining control. 

The domestically oriented Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was sent in with inadequate supplies and no understanding of the United Nations’ grid system, wherein agencies were given responsibility for particular geographic regions. FEMA, more accustomed to operating in U.S. states with National Guard units and local fire and rescue, disregarded local authorities and ignored important cultural signals. Then, when FEMA personnel ran low on food and water for their own people, they became part of the problem and other aid organizations had to help them.

While the humanitarian mission to save lives is the priority in these situations, there is also an opportunity to empower Haiti’s weak governmental system, particularly at the local level. If the international community comes in with the attitude that it is going to take over, not only is this opportunity missed, but chances are that a lack of knowledge of the local terrain will lead to mistakes.

Haiti is suffering major wounds to its national character and its physical being. After the president’s assassination, its parliament is closed down and its government is now being run by a neurosurgeon with no political experience. Never has a country needed effective assistance more from the international community.

The Haitian people have learned a great deal since the last earthquake hit. The prime minister has announced that he is setting up an operations center in the capital to coordinate the flow of aid, and to avoid the “disorder” he said characterized the 2010 situation. USAID Administrator Samantha Power has discussed this with the prime minister.

The 2010 quake was not as high on the Richter scale as this one, but it hit in the dense population center of Port au Prince. Some 200,000 people died in that disaster. Last week’s earthquake happened in the less populated southwest and many people left their homes at the first signs of the disaster. The death toll is now over 1900, and that may rise if help isn’t forthcoming soon. Poor weather and COVID will soon hit these displaced people.

This situation is a serious test for a very weak Haitian government. The international humanitarian community can learn from its past, not only by saving lives, but by empowering Haitians and involving them at every step. Even in the midst of tragedy, it may be possible to show Haitians that they have potential to manage a fully capable society. That might even translate into better government going forward; a small silver lining for this troubled nation.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University. He served as administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration. Ambassador Pamela White is an adjunct professor at the University of Maine’s School of Policy in International Affairs. She was ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015, and a senior Foreign Service Officer with USAID based in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated to reflect that U.S. rescue teams provided shelter to more than 1 million and the U.S. military established safe routes to distribute equipment.

Tags Haiti haiti earthquake Haitians Humanitarian aid Samantha Power United States Agency for International Development

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