Improving Humanitarian Response to Major Natural Disasters

By Sternlieb, Steve; Furbish, Glenn | Stability Operations, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

Improving Humanitarian Response to Major Natural Disasters


Sternlieb, Steve, Furbish, Glenn, Stability Operations


Debrief on a decade of disasters

OVER the past decade there have been a number of natural disasters of catastrophic proportions, including Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, last year's earthquake in Haiti, and this year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Disasters Emergency Committee, a United Kingdom-based consortium of international NGOs, has warned that the world should expect three to five big urban disasters in the next ten years.

First responders to these disasters have been local and national governments. These responders are on site and in a position to move quickly to save lives. Military forces indigenous to the affected area or from other nations providing assistance often play a key role as well. Following the immediate life-saving response, contractors can also play an important role. As an operation transitions from life saving to recovery and then to rebuilding, contractors can provide tools and abilities that host governments in both developed and less developed countries, as well as NGOs, are not likely to have, such as site clearance, utilities restoration, the repair of existing facilities and new construction.

While in developed countries host governments generally fund the humanitarian response, supplemented by private charitable giving, less developed countries largely depend on the international donor community, characterized by multiple funding streams for multiple purposes. There was an outpouring of charitable donations following the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake, funneled through a multitude of organizations. While some NGOs backed by this type of funding have at least a limited capability to perform, they must also hire others, whether local day laborers or companies, to provide the needed response.

Years of experience in earlier humanitarian disasters and war-torn nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan provide a cautionary tale of past pitfalls that can and should be avoided as the international and contractor communities work to respond to major disasters. One may look at the response to natural disasters, like the one in Haiti, from these two perspectives - the donor community and the contractor community - in an effort to provide some insights useful for both.

A Donor Community Perspective

We have identified three key factors that the donor community needs to reflect upon when undertaking humanitarian responses.

Task 1: Planning for and executing long-term reconstruction efforts.

While Iraq and Afghanistan are very different from Haiti in many ways, there are a number of lessons that can be learned from the reconstruction efforts there. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has reported that one of the hard lessons learned in Iraq is the need to gear the reconstruction effort toward indigenous priorities. Insulated planning led to projects unwanted by the Iraqi government and unsuitable for the country in general, such as power plants designed to run on liquid propane gas that is not readily available and sophisticated projects beyond the current technical abilities of most Iraqi workers to maintain. This, in turn, has led to the rapid degradation of infrastructure built with U.S. reconstruction dollars. Many of the pitfalls encountered in Iraq are now being encountered in Afghanistan.

With regards to Haiti, this does not mean we should not rebuild with more stringent standards in mind to mitigate future devastation, but it does call for project selection that involves the Haitian government and other Haitian stakeholders and is consistent with the state of development and skills of the Haitian people. It also calls for experienced coordination in project selection among various stakeholders. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a mix of individual governments, multilateral organizations and private donor groups, there is a great risk of duplication of effort. For example, the SIGIR identified at least 62 offices and agencies that became involved in managing Iraq reconstruction projects. …

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