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Lessons learned from other natural disasters which are relevant for the response to the Haiti earthquake
François Grünewald

This article reviews the principle lessons learned in evaluations of responses to natural disasters previously carried out by Groupe URD like Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the tsunami in 2004 and the earthquakes in Jog Jakarta in 2006 and Haiti this year, disasters which often affect populations who are already very vulnerable.

LESSON 1: INADEQUATE ASSESSMENT

Assessments which are incomplete, inadequate or biased because the organisation thinks it knows what needs to be done before it has gone are very common. Two reasons are given for this shortcoming: there is not enough time (in natural disaster contexts, speed is important and organisations sometimes have to leave their base in a question of hours), and not enough money (donors rarely finance exploratory missions). And yet, extreme emergency situations, when there is a very limited amount of time to carry out an assessment, are very rare and last only a few days. But even in these extreme situations, the analysis of constraints is fundamental, and is rarely carried out properly. This creates the risk that organisations very quickly launch responses which are technically or culturally inappropriate, which lead to considerable future costs.

LESSON 2: PROGRAMMES NOT ADAPTED TO COMPLEX REALITIES

The passage from the initial assessment to the project design is not always very coherent. Very often, even when an initial assessment has been carried out properly, there is a tendency to repeat standardised programmes. There are a number of reasons for this: the area of expertise of the NGO, time pressure and staff experience.
This issue is specifically important in the housing sector. These programmes are often managed like emergency programmes (distribution of sheeting) and then they are just considered in terms of construction. Socio-cultural factors (housing is a socio-economic domain rather than just a question of “bricks and mortar”) and political factors (property law, services, particularly access to water and sanitation and urban development) are often under-estimated. Indeed, humanitarians have little expertise in urban issues.

LESSON 3: HIGH STAFF TURNOVER

In acute emergency situations, staff turnover is high. The first wave arrives (mainly first-aid workers) and only stays for a few days or weeks before leaving once the relief phase is over. The turnover then slows down but unfortunately still remains too high. It is difficult in these conditions to have continuity and to be able to build and conserve the trust of the population and local actors. It is also common for programmes to lack internal logic as each new team wants to “leave its mark” on the programme.

LESSON 4: RELATIONS BETWEEN ACTORS, INSTITUTIONAL DONORS AND PRIVATE DONORS

Most actors in the field complain about pressure from institutional donors to always produce more reports with different reporting formats, imposed methods of action, very tight deadlines, etc. Though sometimes actors use this as an excuse to explain their own failures, it is true that the mobilisation of private funds on a large scale means that funds can be allocated more quickly and more flexibly during the emergency phases. On the other hand, this can lead to the loss of accountability as there is less systematic monitoring and evaluation of how money from the general public is used.

LESSON 5: LRRD NOT SUFFICIENTLY TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT

The evaluations often point out the lack of thought that goes into “exit strategies”. This question is often raised when the abundant funds of the emergency phase run out and the organisation has to decide whether it is going to stay or leave. This is when institutional difficulties (related to mandates) and lack of know-how and method begin to appear. It is also during this phase that the consequences of poor analysis of local actors and the lack of partnership strategies become apparent. Ex-post evaluations of how disaster and reconstruction activities were managed show that this is often a window of opportunity for preparedness and prevention activities.

LESSON 6: CROSS-CUTTING ISSUES NOT SUFFICIENTLY TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT

The evaluations show the importance of certain cross-cutting issues in the response to major disasters: gender, environment, protection and population displacement, etc. These issues are either badly integrated or dealt with superficially during an emergency response, whereas they could be integrated proactively based on experience and consequently better managed.

LESSON 7 : WEAK COORDINATION

Coordination between actors in major disaster contexts is obviously important. Coordination uses up a lot of time and money, but it is also fundamental in order to avoid duplication, gaps and incoherence between practices. Considerable progress has been made in recent years and the large NGOs are drivers of these good practices in coordination. In contrast, there is often no coordination between small NGOs and aid sent by certain religious groups, regional authorities and bilateral systems. The implementation of the Cluster Approach, which is part of the United Nations Humanitarian Reform, has provided the opportunity to improve exchange and cooperation.

LESSON 8: CLARIFICATION OF MANDATES

The deployment of armed forces as part of an emergency response (post-Tsunami, Pakistan and now Haiti), once again raises the issue of the lines being blurred between humanitarian and military actors. Though the tension in natural disaster contexts is less evident than in conflict situations, it is nevertheless still there as armed forces obviously represent « state humanitarianism » and the possibility of other agendas. Appropriate coordination mechanisms need to be put in place, based on clearly identified roles, mandates and responsibilities.

LESSON 9: LACK OF PARTICIPATION ON THE PART OF THE LOCAL POPULATION

The majority of large humanitarian agencies are very poor at conceiving and implementing participatory processes. They use a number of excuses to justify this shortcoming: lack of time, lack of local actors, lack of trust, etc. Analysis of the facts shows that the real reason is mostly the result of cultural bias on the part of the humanitarian actors, and lack of skills in relation to participatory methods. Furthermore, the evaluation of numerous operations in natural disaster contexts has shown that local people are often very present in providing assistance, structure, solidarity and helping to manage distress. When international organisations arrive and plan to take over from these local actors, including local NGOs, there can be serious tension and a great deal of energy, efficiency and quality is lost.

LESSON 10: THE NECESSARY BUT COMPLEX INVOLVEMENT OF NATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

In natural disaster contexts, the state is usually at the centre of the response. Unfortunately humanitarians too often decide to skirt round state institutions. The reasons for this vary, some of them good and others not so good. They may want to avoid the political instrumentalisation of aid, it may just be easier or they may be overly concerned with short-term effectiveness. This can lead either to confrontation between state institutions and humanitarian organisations or to long-term and harmful loss of legitimacy on the part of the state institutions.

In conclusion

The evaluations that we have carried out show that NGOs, United Nations agencies and most donors have very weak institutional memories, even if everyone spends a lot of time writing reports. As a result the same errors are repeated again and again. It is essential to ensure that teams who head out into the field are aware of the lessons which have been learned in these situations.

 

François Grünewald, Groupe URD
Executive Director