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 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 Swaziland.
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 fight."
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."
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