In the aid worker’s lexicon of Three Letter Acronyms (TLAs) we call them CHEs- Complex Humanitarian Emergencies. They’re what we get when we layer a natural or human-made disaster over a situation that was already pretty messed up to begin with (see, for example, Darfur, or the war in Eastern DRC, or northern Pakistan).
CHEs are typified by large-scale emergency events (usually covering a significant portion of one country, or several countries), generally involve some level of acute emergency layered over a chronically unsuccessful context (a cyclone, or food shortages, or a mass displacement of people in a war zone or an unstable region), and usually take place in a situation where the national or regional government is either unwilling or unable to solve the problem, and is therefore characterised by failure of state or governance systems. They also usually take years, and sometimes decades, to resolve.
Basically, they’re screwed.
Interestingly, CHEs don’t necessarily make a big splash in the media. Eastern DRC is the case-in-point of this sort of situation, but others include the Central African Republic, eastern Chad and northern Uganda, all of which spend very little time grabbing headlines but are archetypal ‘forgotten’ complex emergencies.
This week, we have a grand example of an emergency that is anything but forgotten, but certainly highly complex. The earthquake which struck Haiti less than 72 hours ago has effectively flattened the capital, Port-au-Prince, and current estimates from the Red Cross suggest that 45-50,000 people have been killed, with tens of thousands more injured and hundreds of thousands homeless. As much as a third of the tiny island nation’s population has been directly impacted by the disaster.
But Haiti too bears all the hallmarks of a CHE in the making. Although on the surface it appears to be a natural disaster, like the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, or the Padang earthquake in Indonesia earlier this year- both of which were relatively ‘simple’ emergencies, with functioning (if overwhelmed) state structures and relative stability- the hallmarks of Haiti’s instability are already bubbling to the surface.
What is it that makes the Haiti context so complex?
Geography– Port-au-Prince sits snug against a harbour, ringed by extremely steep hillsides. The hillsides themselves are crammed with shanties. When the shaking started, these shanties crumbled into the valleys, taking access roads with them. The congestion of blocked roads and the relatively small amounts of flat land in Port-au-Prince make it difficult to move about amidst the destruction.
Poverty– Haiti was a poor country to begin with- currently ranked 149th out of 182 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Indicator. 30% of the country had access to clean drinking water. The country struggles to maintain enough food for the population at attainable prices. Infrastructure is underdeveloped, trade (and therefore transportation) links are limited, building codes are often ignored and disaster preparedness measures not implemented. With a baseline like this, there is very little resilience, or bounce, in the national coping mechanisms to manage a disaster of this magnitude.
Governance/Administration– Haiti’s government is fragile at best, suffering repeated coups and attempted coups, and currently largely propped up by the international community (backed by US political and military intervention, and 9,000 UN-mandated Brazilian peacekeepers). Services, such as health-care, policing and emergency response were already weak. With the earthquake, these services and structures have largely collapsed. The government is effectively not functioning. The scale of the devastation far outstrips the capacity of existing emergency services to respond, but even if it didn’t, because the disaster has focused on the seat of power, those very people who should be running those response services- paramedics and policemen- are themselves victims- dead, wounded, or freeing loved ones from rubble.
The UN and NGOs– While the chronic insecurity in Haiti over the years has bred a stable population of international and national aid workers, this populace was themselves not spared. The UN has lost over 150 staff and peacekeepers, with their headquarters flattened. As the driving force supporting government and national security services, their effective removal from the picture now leaves a huge vacuum. NGOs themselves have also been hit, with most charities losing staff members and building facilities, hardware, and connectivity. Staff themselves are victims, many of them still trying to locate loved ones among the rubble. Many will not be in a position to return to their posts for some time.
Cyclone Season– From April onwards- three short months away- tropical storms and cyclones will start spawning in the Atlantic Ocean and sweeping over Hispaniola. Every year Haiti takes at least one direct hit, and usually several, from these violent storms. 90 days (3 months) is a standard block of time during which to run the emergency phase of an operation, but it will take years (at least) to rebuild Port-au-Prince, replace basic services, repair damaged infrastructure and maintain the wellbeing of the population during this process. Haiti’s populace are vulnerable to storms at the best of times, living as they do in ravines and on steep-sided mountains. Without the protection of concrete buildings, the hundreds of thousands of people likely to still be in temporary accomodation such as tents or makeshift shanties will be at great risk when the next storm-season comes aroun.
Logistics– Port-au-Prince has an international airport of a moderate size- it can take commercial jets but does not have a large capacity, creating a log-jam in aircraft handling. The road from the airport is damaged. The seaport is also damaged and ships cannot dock. Roads internal to Port-au-Prince are clogged with debris and temporary settlements- people refusing to return to their damaged homes (if they are still standing) for fear of aftershocks. The international airport in Santo Domingo, in neighbouring Dominican Republic, is the alternative airport of choice, but is also strained to capacity, while roads between the two nations are not in great condition and somewhat insecure.
Security– Port-au-Prince is one of the world’s more colourful cities- by which I don’t just mean the paint on the walls, but the level of danger. A kidnap capital, foreigners tend to remain behind barbed wires, are leery of spending much time walking around on the street, and avoid public transportation. Criminal gangs run large portions of the slums, while drug cartels exploit the country’s fragile security services to make Haiti a base for drug-running operations. Fragile and unpopular governance has provided Haiti with multiple and often bloody coups, rebellions and put-downs, and the capital and other urban areas are home to regular riots and violent protests.
Outmigration– With the capital city in ruins, people are streaming out into the countryside as road networks open up. Many of them are injured or have lost everything. While identifying and supporting hundreds of thousands of earthquake-affected citizens within the compact confines of Port-au-Prince was already a daunting prospect, trying to locate, register and assist a population that is rapidly spreading across the countryside is a staggering logistical challenge.
Over the next weeks, dozens of aid agencies, foreign governments, military forces and UN agencies will coverge on Port-au-Prince, attempt to identify the people most at need of assistance, and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars worth of supplies, materials, food and medication. This will be accompanied by thousands of foreign nationals. Working with national counterparts, these various organizations will attempt to distribute assistance as evenly as possible to the highest standards possible. In order to acheive this aim, they will have to contend with the above complexities.
And that’s just for starters.
Aid is a complex business. Aid agencies of every colour get lots wrong, good intentions or no. There’s plenty of criticism out there about the way these agencies do business, and a lot of it is merited. By the same token, lives will be saved and vastly improved in many cases. Where aid doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to, it’s worth bearing in mind a few of the complications that can make doing this job a mind-knottingly challenging prospect.
How would you resolve the Haiti earthquake dilemma…?