On Point: Haiti After the Quake: Opportunity for Renewal?

by Austin Bay
June 15, 2010

Economic fragility and its usual partners, political andeconomic corruption, are killers.

Natural disasters harm developed nations. When hurricanesstrike the U.S. coast, losses are measured in billions of dollars. What harmsthe developed world and leaves scores or even hundreds dead, however, utterlyoverwhelms developing nations whose impoverished populations often survive at alevel of bare subsistence.

Overwhelmed scarcely begins to describe Haiti's destructiveJanuary earthquake which left 230,000 to 250,000 people dead.

Ambassador Lewis Lucke directed U.S. relief efforts inHaiti. Last month, I had a chance to discuss the operation with Lucke. In the worldof 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 toSwaziland.

Having worked in overseas disaster relief and recoveryoperations myself, I have great respect for leaders like Lucke who have thetechnical expertise to orchestrate logistic support, medical aid, search andrescue, and relief teams when communications are iffy and key localinfrastructure (such as airfields and roads) are severely damaged.

The job of assessing the physical destruction and deployingrelief teams to address immediate survival needs in a crisis is exacerbated byrampant fear, shock and misery. The heartbreaking video and photo imagery ofHaiti's post-quake suffering testifies to the depth of human suffering Luckeand his teams faced.

"Inter-agency" interoperability is professionalshorthand for coordinating capabilities of U.S. government agencies in acrisis. In the relief world, the term includes private and nongovernmentalorganizations. The goal is to get the best possible combination of skills andassets into the devastated area as quickly as possible.

The Obama administration gave USAID responsibility fordirecting the entire aid operation.

"In a terrible situation like the one Haiti faced, ifthe directing agency isn't USAID, who the heck is it going to be?" Luckesaid. "The scale and magnitude of Haiti's disaster tested everyone. ButUSAID as the point of the spear in an international operation like this makessense. Take our Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) as an example. Theytrain to handle everything from food and water (distribution) to medical (aid),communications, logistics and military liaison."

Military liaison capability, Lucke said, is key. "TheU.S. military is an extraordinary institution -- incredible capabilities andassets. In Haiti, military personnel saw themselves not as the point of thespear but as facilitators. They bring the same capabilities -- smarts,equipment, planning capabilities -- to humanitarian missions they bring to afight."

 Lucke ran the USAIDoffice in Baghdad from 2003 to early 2004, and his experience with the militarywas extremely valuable.

"We succeeded at this, at inter-agency cooperation. Youcan see the results. In a short period of time, we transitioned from rescue torelief and recovery."

Lucke is describing three key phases of the Haiti operation.There are arguably four types of aid: emergency, recovery, reconstruction anddevelopmental. Once immediate needs are met, the recovery phase begins --reorganizing basic services, opening permanent supply routes, reunitingfamilies. There's a hazy line between recovery and reconstruction -- butreconstruction aid intends to rebuild damaged infrastructure. Smartreconstruction aims to "rebuild better" (stronger materials, betterlocation, etc.) to reduce the threat of future natural disasters.

Haiti's legacy of corruption is notorious -- corruption hashampered aid efforts in the past. I asked Lucke if this disaster is anopportunity to "rebuild better," perhaps helping foster honestinstitutions. "You're right. Haiti needs a change in politicalculture," Lucke replied, "from a government being predatory to onemore helpful. We've been working in development in Haiti for a long time. Howmuch we've been able to accomplish is a good question, though we've done a loton individual levels and with NGOs.

"It's ironic, but after the immense suffering, we dohave an opportunity. Haiti is now so profoundly broken there is really a chanceto put it back together in a way that all of the well intentioned developmentalprograms of the past would not have done. Improving Haiti's government is keyto future success." 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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