Chris Blattman

The UN failure in Haiti

From FP:

A fascinating new report released today by Refugees International on the Haiti aid effort is a striking indictment of the current efforts so far, particularly on the part of the United Nations. As FP’s Turtle Bay reported a few weeks back, the “cluster” approach to tackling aid has been a total flop, but the U.N.’s admission. Now, as more details are emerging, this rather depressing excerpt sums it up:

By all accounts, the leadership of the humanitarian country team is ineffectual. Following the earthquake, it took three weeks for the Humanitarian Coordinator to call a meeting with aid organizations. During his visit to Haiti, John Holmes, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, chastised humanitarian colleagues by pointing out that “several clusters ha[d] yet to establish a concise overview of needs and develop coherent response plans, strategies and gap analyses.” It required his personal intervention to shorten the time frame for the universal distribution of plastic sheeting from May 1st to April 1st. The rainy season is imminent, with thousands of Haitians sleeping outside, lacking even the minimal shelter that plastic sheeting provides.

Coordination is not an easy job, but it’s not clear to me who first said “hey, let’s put the world’s most intransigent bureaucracy in charge of emergencies”. Rapid response is not the UN’s comparative advantage.

3 Responses

  1. he subject of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as viewed by the hardcore professional scientific community mixes just about as well as oil and water. Here I examine some of the in’s and out’s surrounding that mix although the basic fundamentals seem to revolve around the fact that the UFO issue was never initially considered a scientific issue, just a national security issue. Like the rest of the great unwashed, scientists weren’t welcome into the realm of the inner national security sanctum. That excuse no longer can no longer hold water.

    Author’s Introductory Note

    Much of what follows was taken from a to-and-fro debate with an armchair but scientifically inclined UFO sceptic. I’ve edited my responses to the exchange to hopefully yield a reasonably coherent article.

    Scientists and UFOs

    While it is true that the scientific community, in general, have formally shied away from the UFO field, numerous scientists in all fields (astronomy, physics, biology, psychology, etc.) have on their own behalf taken a personal interest and made a study of the subject. I can and have below name names. I also suspect, based on some surveys of the scientific community by some scientists, that a fair number have a personal interest in the subject, but leave that interest behind their front door when they go to work.
    Browse to know more about NGO services.

  2. from an anonymous friend who is currently in Port-au-Prince with a large and well respected INGO:

    “Haiti is hardly the place to judge the merits of UN coordination or the cluster system. There is no way any response could be undertaken at the scale and complexity required here in which you couldn’t pick holes. RI are taking easy shots; there’s nothing in that report people on the ground aren’t aware of or haven’t thought about, but just don’t have the resources to address.”

    p.s. also, don’t forget that the UN was itself very much affected by the disaster – if I recall, wasn’t the country director killed in the UN building collapse?

  3. Can’t speak to the higher-level criticisms, but as a sometimes-UN person who’s watching his colleagues scramble to deal with Haiti, I have to say I’m proud to know them. People at HQ are putting in crazy long hours, and in the field they’re still sleeping in tents on the tarmac at the airport in the rain, getting robbed, having one bathroom to 400 people.

    People do complain about the bureaucracy; even the people who focus on emergency response say they can’t get a contract out of HR to send in a specialist, etc. There’s always room for reform of the UN system.

    If rapid response is not the UN’s comparative advantage, then whose is? The US Army got down there in a jiffy, but they have aircraft carriers and troops at the ready. Nobody will give that kind of resources to a group like UNHCR or UNICEF. And the Army does not have humanitarian skills. Where do you find an army of child tracing experts or emergency water/sanitation people when you need one? It doesn’t exist.

    RE the cluster system: Sorry, Refugees International, but that’s the state of the art in humanitarian coordination. That system has come about as a result of a decades-long global learning process involving thousands of stakeholders (that probably included RI), and it’s so new that most UN country teams aren’t even on board with it yet. Does RI have a better idea?

    Point taken about national NGOs, though. They are sometimes treated as a lesser species, and they’re the key to success. Actually FBOs are even more important, if you ask me. But that was yesterday’s topic.

    Final thought: this was the biggest humanitarian disaster in world history.

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