Haiti Agonistes

January 19, 2010

The Haitian disaster has captured the sympathies of corporate America. Companies mobilized over $60 million in just three days — and now, one week later, $83 million+ has been pledged (See our announcement today on CNBC).

By way of comparison, most companies held off until almost a week had gone by after the Southeast Asia earthquake and tsunami in late 2004. By the time we are done, the Haiti corporate response will certainly place in the top five responses by the private sector to an international disaster. 

But where are we going with this process? We know that Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake. We know that it was voted one of the 10 most corrupt places in the world, a hot spot for tropical diseases, with horrible housing and worse health care. 

Now we have reports that up to 100,000 have been killed and up to 1 million are homeless or have some kind of significant housing damage. We’ve also learned that the Haitian presidential palace was damaged, and that the earthquake has severely affected Haiti’s government and leadership class.

In addition, the top two UN officials on the island were killed — this is one of the worst disasters for the UN in history.

I am afraid that the crystallizing images of this disaster will be the dead buried in the rubble, the wounded caked with dust, the supplies bottlenecked at the airport, or the looting and violence that desperate people often resort to in the aftermaths of disasters.

I know many of you will be under huge pressure to make decisions, make large gifts, and then face the expectation for immediate results. Please tell your stakeholders that they call these kinds of situations “disasters” for a reason.

However, the key is not how much money we give, but whether we make intelligent decisions about what we are going to do moving forward. 

Herewith are a few ideas for consideration:

1) The Haitians need support. In the aftermath of the earthquake, local officials are often displaced. They are dealing with personal traumas. They may not have experience with the special circumstances associated with disasters. They need to lead because they know best what their country needs, but they need support systems.

2) We have to treat this as a disaster not just for Haiti, but for the Caribbean Basin.  This disaster affects Cuba and the Dominican Republic, other Caribbean nations, and the United States. The Haitian earthquake is a domestic issue for Louisiana, Florida, New York, and other places with high concentrations of Haitian-born populations. No single country is going to be able to deal with all of the ramifications. No government, no business, no NGO is going to be able to be a “one stop shop” for the recovery. We should work together.  The UN and the Organization of American States (OAS) will need to step up. We will need to develop coordinating mechanisms between and among the various support systems and networks that we all have.

3) The international NGO community is going to be critical. Organizations like CHF International, World Vision, Pan-American Development Foundation, Red Cross, CARE, Oxfam, and the Salvation Army have people on the ground, experience with disasters, and pre-established capabilities. We should rely on them to serve as project managers in many cases.

4) We need to develop clear goals and bring our respective competencies to bear.  Our government and NGO colleagues are much more comfortable talking in abstractions than the business community.  It is so much easier for us to deal if we know that our task is not about “housing” per se, but about finding earthquake-resistant low-cost housing for 50,000 people near Port-Au-Prince. Specifics are our friends. 

Companies are already sending us offers for volunteer services around issues such as debris removal, water filtration, process management, claims processing, trucks, logistics, and more. In order to be successful, we need to plug into coordinating bodies that understand the big picture and can follow through.

We also need our partners to understand that businesses can’t “do” philanthropy on an open-ended basis. We need to develop mechanisms to transition from emergency philanthropic gestures to ongoing systemic business arrangements. People need to understand that this isn’t about profiteering; it’s about staying in business and making sure that the fundamental commitments get done. 

The Haitian response process may go through a familiar, tragic pattern over the next few days. Command, control, and coordinating systems need to be put in place. The rule of law needs to be re-established. Infrastructure needs to be built or added to in order to accommodate the influx of supplies that a sympathetic world wants to send. Support functions and clusters need to be clearly defined. Geographic jurisdictions need to be re-established.

In the meantime, we will see horrific images of death, destruction, mayhem, and violence. 

But we shouldn’t look at this as the whole story of what’s going on. Nor should we look at this initial phase as the sum total of the response. The response will depend in large part about how many different actors — public, private, non-governmental, individuals, countries, and multilateral institutions — are able to forge new arrangements to coordinate and work together. It will depend on the clarity of our goals, and the clarity of our understandings of the competencies, motivations, and realities that we and our partners face. 

Haiti has faced so many starts and stops in the past, so much tragedy and heartache, that we have to be realistic about our expectations for suggesting that the situation can be turned around now. But that won’t keep us from trying.

If you want to join the BCLC’s Disaster Assistance and Recovery Working Group, we are holding our next meeting in conjunction with our Disaster Forum in New Orleans, January 26-27. The response to the Haiti crisis will definitely be on the agenda. For more information call 202-463-3133 or email Gerald McSwiggan.