Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday essay - more on the lessons from the Haitian quakes

Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner has announced that about five Royal Australian Air Force air traffic controllers will be sent to Haiti to help meet air traffic control needs. This strikes me as the type of small practical thing that Australia can do.

Over dinner last night there was a discussion on the apparent slowness of the initial relief effort, a concern at the apparent lack of any disaster planning that could then be quickly activated. I defended the apparently slow response by pointing to the logistic difficulties involved. However, looking at the posts on the Livesay  (Haiti) blog there does appear to have been a problem with what, in military terms, would be called the rules of engagement.

All organisations, nations as well as individual organisations such as the military, operate by rules. These include rules intended to protect personnel. While I have been extremely critical of aspects of this rule based culture, rules are necessary. The difficulty that arises is that the rules make it harder to respond quickly, especially in circumstances that in some ways fall outside the rules. We saw this in some of the slow responses to the Victorian bushfire disaster.

Just to expand a little, one country or its agencies cannot simply enter another country. Approval has to be obtained. In the cases of the Padang quake, for example, Australian assistance had to wait for official Indonesian Government approval. This took two days.

This, by the way, is not a criticism of the Indonesian Government. It had to do its own assessment, including responding to immediate need, as well as setting supporting logistics up. Australian planning proceeded in conjunction with the Indonesian authorities in advance of approval. Planes lifted with medical teams and relief supplies within hours of the approval.

The Haiti quake essentially wiped the Government out. It took hours just to gather ministers together. Communications were down. The UN, the one organisation on the ground with the capacity to provide leadership, was itself decapitated by the quake.

I can only begin to imagine the frenzied activity that must have taken place in and outside Haiti as people tried to do damage assessments, to work out how to respond. The US itself was in a difficult position. Without an official invitation from the Haitian Government, any action could be (and in fact was by some of the left) presented as invasion. 

Such a simple thing, really, an official request for help. Yet without it, all the rules and protocols governing engagement were frozen.

As the relief effort got underway, another set of rules of engagement problems appear to have emerged.

To begin with, who was in charge? In the Padang earthquake, the Indonesian Government was in charge. All the teams assisting, Australian included, knew this. With the Haitian Government crippled, the UN  present but still in shock and missing its top leadership, time was almost certainly required simply to define some form of operating protocols.

Then those coming in were also bound by their own rules. On 14 January, two days after the quake struck, Mark Turner wrote on Dispatches from a Fragile Island:

Right now, the focus remains on trying to save what survivors may remain, and to put in place systems to care for the dispossessed. This is entirely right. The UN has two related, but separate, jobs: to alleviate the suffering of Haitians as a whole, and a duty of care to its own staff. It is a very stressful time; many people are in deep shock. There has been an outpouring of offers to help from throughout the system and it is doing what it can given the logistical challenge. Communications remain limited.

I have included this quote because it gives a feel for the stresses, but also because of the reference to duty of care.

As the crisis proceeded, journalists and NGO volunteers entered areas well before the relief effort. This led to considerable criticism and especially on the apparent US focus on securing defensive perimeters. This focus was a standard military response, but also reflected operating rules including the need to protect those involved.

There is no easy answer in such a horrendous disaster. However, as happened with the Asian tsunami, we do need to learn the lessons. Here I want to point to just two lessons from the tsunami.

The first is that reconstruction takes a very long time in a disaster of this magnitude. This is, of course, already recognised. However, the length of time involved should not be underestimated, nor should the resources.

The second is that good can come.

It is very hard to see this at the time when personal disaster is still so fresh. In the Asian tsunami it led to a peace agreement in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. This failed. However, the long running civil war in Aceh was brought to a so far successful peace. We can hope that this tragedy will actually give Haiti a chance to rebuild for the longer term. Andrew Marshall's piece in Time, Memories of Aceh: Indonesia Five Years After the Tsunami provides a positive picture of the results in the Asian case.

The disaster also transformed the relations between Indonesia and Australia to the longer term benefit of both countries. A small part of this was the enhanced cooperation on disaster response that played out in the Padang case or in indonesia's decision to send specialist help during the Victorian fires.

Looking back over recent posts, the theme of learning from disaster has recurred quite often. However, it is important. 


I thought that Niar had a very good post on the issues raised by Haiti.      

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