A Month After the Earthquake: Opportunities Slipping Away


Feb 24, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org and GlobalSecurity.org on February 24, 2010.

Previous efforts by the international community to stabilize Haiti have met with little or only short-term success. This time, following the earthquake, the U.S. response could actually leverage the response and recovery opportunities into a broader international plan not only to stabilize Haiti, but to expand Haitian state capacity and ensure greater resilience to future disasters.

If Haiti is to fully recover from this tragedy, the international community has to be committed to assisting Haiti through all three phases of the disaster process: response, short-term recovery, and long-term recovery. Barely a month after the earthquake, there is already evidence that donations to the response and recovery are slowing. Unfortunately, while the long-term recovery phase is often neglected, sustained aid during this phase is key to long-term community resilience as well as increased state capacity.

The demands and needs are different across the three recovery phases of any disaster, as are the lessons to be heeded. Recovery needs to be considered in the context of both infrastructure and human recovery. Funding needs to factor into the true length of human recovery. A recent article estimated that long-term recovery and reconstruction from Hurricane Katrina would take approximately 11.5 years, given that immediate recovery some took 60 weeks. In Haiti, this algorithm needs to be adjusted even more given the social and economic vulnerabilities that already existed.

During the immediate response there is often a surge of uncoordinated resources into the disaster area, and systems need to be developed to quickly match the resources with the needs. Such mismatches occurred during the 2004 Asian tsunami response, creating shortages in some areas and surpluses in others. Given that we are already seeing mismatches between resources and needs in Haiti, anything that can be done to ramp up asset mapping systems or processes is critical. International partners should work with, train, and begin reforming Haitian police forces to restore law and order as well as protect relief workers. Without these investments, we will be left once again with a nation ill-equipped to respond to the next disaster, and the economic, security, health, and demographic impact could be even more profound.

While the short-term recovery phase traditionally focuses on infrastructure redevelopment, we should not neglect redevelopment of the social infrastructure – including government, schools, and grocery stores. Emphasis should be placed on rebuilding government functions – or in some cases establishing them for the first time – to create a stronger, more capable government. This will help create an environment in which sustained economic development can occur. A plan should also be developed for addressing the issues of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and migration out of Haiti. Such plans will help stabilize the movement of people and hasten redevelopment.

The long-term recovery phase needs to address long-term needs such as education and the public health infrastructure. More effort needs to be directed toward caring for the mental health needs of the population for the long period following an emergency. We have learned from U.S. and other disasters that these events can simply magnify pre-existing vulnerabilities and mental health issues. Moreover, large-scale disasters often reveal structural vulnerabilities, so plans should be put into place now to create incentives for smarter and safer rebuilding.

While all these efforts can lay the groundwork for a more stable Haiti, long-term institution building is key to long-term stability in a country. Therefore during the long-term recovery phase assistance should be focused on economic development as well as strengthening human rights, rule of law, and democracy.

The international community should also assist Haiti in developing a long-term, systemic approach to planning and redevelopment of major sectors including governance, economic development, public health, and education. Community resilience and stability requires systemic thinking, particularly when some sectors are nonexistent or fragile at best.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can play a key role in supporting long-term stability and resilience in the Haiti, therefore the international community should support their work in Haiti over the long-term. NGOs can fill key gaps when the government is not capable of providing services, they can also support economic development and they can help strengthen human rights.

Haiti can fully recover from this tragedy and emerge as a more stable, resilient country. But it can only do so if the international community commits itself to rebuilding Haiti for the long haul.

Agnes Gereben Schaefer is a political scientist and Anita Chandra is a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.