Humanitarian assistance is aimed at providing rapid, life-saving support in settings of high population vulnerability, such as in times of war, disaster, or displacement. The provision of humanitarian assistance is complicated by severe access restrictions, large-scale emergency needs, displaced populations, and complex political and social settings. Both war and disasters create, and often amplify, existing economic disparities and contribute to an environment in which gender inequities, human vulnerabilities, and human rights abuses are likely to be exacerbated. The emergency response to large-scale humanitarian emergencies such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti creates a sense of public urgency and political pressure to intervene. The last decade has seen significant advances in the standardization and coordination of relief and development activities, including improved mechanisms for coordination and accountability. While these efforts provided a solid basis for improved efficiency, they have faltered in recent large-scale crises. As the global relief and development community contemplates the next decades of humanitarian operations, a few essential questions should be raised: What are the most important barriers to providing effective aid? What future issues must be understood to optimize the efficiency of aid? What is the cost of inaction and what are the ramifications of not changing the system? This article will focus on some of the factors contributing to ineffective humanitarian aid and discuss the progress toward humanitarian reform, including the need for professionalism, coordination, and accountability.
The Haiti Earthquake: Coordination or Chaos?
The 2010 Haiti earthquake was among the most devastating natural disasters in the 21st century. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake had an epicenter that was within 25 km (16 miles) of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince. Over three million people were affected with 220,000 deaths and the destruction of 300,000 homes and commercial buildings. Thousands of volunteer non-governmental organizations (NGOs) responded (Haiti is said to be home to over 13,000 NGOs) and were hampered by lack of coordination, restricted infrastructure, and security concerns
The example of Haiti provides an example of three of the major challenges facing the international relief community: coordination, accountability, and effectiveness. The characteristics of the earthquake in Haiti created conditions that predisposed the response to chaos and undermined effective coordination. Consider the setting: Pre-earthquake Port-au-Prince suffered from a dysfunctional economy, ineffective leadership, profound corruption, and decades of aid dependency. The city itself had experienced massive urbanization as millions of Haitians settled in hundreds of thousands of poorly constructed homes. The earthquake decimated the city, but largely spared the airport, which had direct flights from Miami. The result was a sensational catastrophe with profound emergency needs that was within a two hour non-stop flight from Florida and accessible to everyone. And that's who came: everyone.
Medical and surgical teams from across the United States arrived to provide assistance. Churches, community groups, small organizations, large multi-national organizations, and several foreign militaries and governmental actors arrived, all intending to provide relief. While it is certain that many lives were saved by these first responders, it is also certain that many people suffered at the hands of inexperienced aid providers who had no prior connection to the aid community or to the understanding of the principles, practices, or accountability associated with professional humanitarian agencies. Over 10,000 new organizations arrived over the course of a few months to provide assistance, each with its own mission and objectives.
The United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the primary coordinating body for the humanitarian aid community, set up the Cluster Coordination System in Haiti, but it was unable to cope with the massive influx of thousands of non-professional responders who were unfamiliar with the Cluster system. …