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Haiti’s transformative moment

The earthquake devastation challenges Haiti’s prospects as well as the global state-of-the-art in disaster response, and our quest to coexist with the forces of nature. Haiti has a history of “non-development” with cycles of defiance, betrayal, and suppression creating a “nearly” State. Under these circumstances cataclysmic destruction can bring radical change, breaking the impasse of cyclical hope and despair to create “new beginnings”. For Haiti, this depends not only on the current humanitarian response but also on sustained external support and radical change to address entrenched development challenges.

In the days and weeks following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we have seen a global outpouring of empathy, generosity, sacrifice, and commitment – matched in equal measures by the amazing resilience of Haitians, young and old alike.

At the same time, we have been witness to rivalries among the donors,  a collective failure to apply lessons from past disasters, and publicity-seeking, disempowering and humiliating actions by external agencies – further complicated by the weak governance, poverty and corruption in Haiti. This bodes ill for a New Haiti and its people.

Great advances and extensive expenditures in predicting disasters and preventing and mitigating their impact have been available. So why have they been so patchy in Haiti? The scale of the disaster and the precarious state of pre- earthquake Haiti are reasons, for sure, but some lessons from past disasters were not fully applied and some standard practices failed the reality check.

For example, from the Asian Tsunami and other catastrophes we learned that “heavy lifting” rescue is best done, by the military and specialized emergency rescue professionals, such as the Fire Force and Mountain Rescue,  with the requisite training, expertise, and equipment to operate in disaster zones.

But in Haiti, it seemed that these lessons were ignored as the initial humanitarian response attempted to impose order and coordination onto chaos and efforts were made to distribute life-saving supplies to orderly queues of victims. What was needed, as counter-intuitive as it might seem to planners, chaos requires dispersal of pressure points until control is established? U.S. Navy helicopter pilots initially dropping water and food to crowds in various locations were dispersing pressure points whilst distributing life-saving supplies. end/

Over time, international operations have shifted into full gear with U.N. agencies and NGOs ramping up the distribution of supplies and dealing with their specialist areas such as security, protection, psycho-social care, shelter, water and sanitation, health, education, and social reconstruction, These commendable efforts are expected to dovetail with broader development plans designed earlier for Haiti. This may be what aid agencies think is required, but Haiti is not just any developing country and the earthquake’s silver linings provide an unprecedented opportunity for transformative change.

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