by Austin Bay
June 15, 2010
Economic fragility and its usual partners, political and
economic corruption, are killers.
Natural disasters harm developed nations. When hurricanes
strike the U.S. coast, losses are measured in billions of dollars. What harms
the developed world and leaves scores or even hundreds dead, however, utterly
overwhelms developing nations whose impoverished populations often survive at a
level of bare subsistence.
Overwhelmed scarcely begins to describe Haiti's destructive
January earthquake which left 230,000 to 250,000 people dead.
Ambassador Lewis Lucke directed U.S. relief efforts in
Haiti. Last month, I had a chance to discuss the operation with Lucke. In the world
of aid operations, Lucke is a seasoned professional, having worked for the U.S.
Agency for International Development (USAID) for almost three decades,
including extensive experience in Haiti. He also served as U.S. ambassador to
Having worked in overseas disaster relief and recovery
operations myself, I have great respect for leaders like Lucke who have the
technical expertise to orchestrate logistic support, medical aid, search and
rescue, and relief teams when communications are iffy and key local
infrastructure (such as airfields and roads) are severely damaged.
The job of assessing the physical destruction and deploying
relief teams to address immediate survival needs in a crisis is exacerbated by
rampant fear, shock and misery. The heartbreaking video and photo imagery of
Haiti's post-quake suffering testifies to the depth of human suffering Lucke
and his teams faced.
"Inter-agency" interoperability is professional
shorthand for coordinating capabilities of U.S. government agencies in a
crisis. In the relief world, the term includes private and nongovernmental
organizations. The goal is to get the best possible combination of skills and
assets into the devastated area as quickly as possible.
The Obama administration gave USAID responsibility for
directing the entire aid operation.
"In a terrible situation like the one Haiti faced, if
the directing agency isn't USAID, who the heck is it going to be?" Lucke
said. "The scale and magnitude of Haiti's disaster tested everyone. But
USAID as the point of the spear in an international operation like this makes
sense. Take our Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) as an example. They
train to handle everything from food and water (distribution) to medical (aid),
communications, logistics and military liaison."
Military liaison capability, Lucke said, is key. "The
U.S. military is an extraordinary institution -- incredible capabilities and
assets. In Haiti, military personnel saw themselves not as the point of the
spear but as facilitators. They bring the same capabilities -- smarts,
equipment, planning capabilities -- to humanitarian missions they bring to a
Lucke ran the USAID
office in Baghdad from 2003 to early 2004, and his experience with the military
was extremely valuable.
"We succeeded at this, at inter-agency cooperation. You
can see the results. In a short period of time, we transitioned from rescue to
relief and recovery."
Lucke is describing three key phases of the Haiti operation.
There are arguably four types of aid: emergency, recovery, reconstruction and
developmental. Once immediate needs are met, the recovery phase begins --
reorganizing basic services, opening permanent supply routes, reuniting
families. There's a hazy line between recovery and reconstruction -- but
reconstruction aid intends to rebuild damaged infrastructure. Smart
reconstruction aims to "rebuild better" (stronger materials, better
location, etc.) to reduce the threat of future natural disasters.
Haiti's legacy of corruption is notorious -- corruption has
hampered aid efforts in the past. I asked Lucke if this disaster is an
opportunity to "rebuild better," perhaps helping foster honest
institutions. "You're right. Haiti needs a change in political
culture," Lucke replied, "from a government being predatory to one
more helpful. We've been working in development in Haiti for a long time. How
much we've been able to accomplish is a good question, though we've done a lot
on individual levels and with NGOs.
"It's ironic, but after the immense suffering, we do
have an opportunity. Haiti is now so profoundly broken there is really a chance
to put it back together in a way that all of the well intentioned developmental
programs of the past would not have done. Improving Haiti's government is key
to future success."