November 2010: Learning lessons in Haiti

By Ross Mountain
The hurricane season is fast approaching in Haiti and shelter remains the main priority after the devastating earthquake on 12th January 2010. Although the international community has made considerable progress after a generous but rough start, it must maintain its level of commitment and attention to Haiti and the humanitarian community to provide an effective and adapted response.

Op-ed published in El Pais, March 2010

HRI 2009 Haiti Crisis Report

DARA assists EU presidency aid efforts in Haiti

Evaluating the Haiti Response: Encouraging Improved System-wide Collaboration

Six months after the earthquake there are still 1.5 million people displaced living in settlements sites, hundreds of thousands of whom are highly vulnerable to floods, storms or hurricanes typical of this season in Haiti.

Many agencies are fielding missions to evaluate their individual responses. This is welcome and necessary. But it is imperative that such reviews are seen in the overall context of the response to the disaster- and do not disrupt ongoing efforts and add further demands on an already overstretched national administration. We must beware of technical evaluations that declare operations a success even though the patient may still be in intensive care! Evaluations therefore must not be just about how an individual agency operates but how it works with others to solve problems in different sectors- especially within the clusters and other mechanisms that were established to maximise the effectiveness of the overall response. ALNAP, OECD-DAC and the United Nations Evaluation Group are to address this challenge.

Previous DARA missions to Haiti pointed out the importance of investing in disaster preparedness and risk reduction efforts. While nothing could have prepared the country to face an earthquake of this magnitude, if efforts had been made to build up local structures and capacities to deal with annual hurricanes, many more lives would have been saved.

What happened with the “lessons learned” from previous disasters like the Tsunami? Were these applied? If not, why not? As extraordinary as international search and rescue efforts have been in saving an unprecedented 135 people in Haiti, we all know that in such circumstances, neighbours and national organizations save the overwhelming bulk of victims. And at a fraction of the cost.

The lessons that need to be learnt should not be for the evaluators involved- or for the bookcase. Somehow we need to find better ways of transferring such knowledge to those who will be called upon to exercise their judgement and leadership in different but similar situations elsewhere on the globe. Without integrating and applying lessons from past experience, mistakes that have been made are likely to be repeated- at high human cost!