Life is a crap shoot. Events like the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Asia, the hurricane in New Orleans are random. Bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people). We all live in fear of the dreaded diagnosis or the death call in the middle of the night.
That's why some people believe "good living is the best revenge" and why others encourage the "practice [of] random acts of kindness." It's also why all the major religions of the world teach us to be charitable toward others. "There but for the grace of God go I."
We often see the best of humanity in moments of greatest tragedy. The enormous generosity exhibited after the Haiti earthquake whether in contributions or voluntary assistance has been inspiring. It reassures us about our finer natures. And there are lessons to be learned from the response, lesson that give us hope and increase our compassion toward others in need. But don't we also need to ask ourselves what our failures have been during a situation as desperately sad as the one we've been witnessing?
In the realm of international development assistance, there can be no greater challenge than that of responding to natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods, massive mudslides, tsunamis ask much of the world community. They call for more resources than are readily available (people, money, equipment and supplies) and they quickly exhaust what resources are mobilized.
Still, the world community has a long history of responding to such disasters. Why, then, have we not learned to react to them more effectively and efficiently?
Why do essentials like food, water, and medicine remain on the airport tarmac in the face of such desperate need? Why does no single agency seem to be in charge of distribution, or evacuation or resettlement? Why are there no grids established so that responsibilities can be sensibly and immediately shared by governments and non-governmental organizations in a capital city like Port au Prince, or a country like Haiti, which is prone to natural disasters, and which is so incredibly poor it is unable to sustain something as devastating as a massive earthquake?
One of the real failures of development, of course, is that often aid agencies do not provide sufficient or appropriate assistance to combat the crushing realities of poverty and poor governance. Agencies, especially those that are government-based and operate bilaterally, usually determine what needs will be addressed according to their own priorities, often without consulting people on the ground, especially "beneficiaries," who understand best what is needed most urgently. Sometimes ensuring a sound infrastructure, or fostering capable political leadership at all levels gets short shrift. That is partly why so many buildings, including hospitals, fell like "pancakes" in Port au Prince, and why there was no functional government to deal with any part of the disaster.
Another failing of the many agencies and NGOs working in countries like Haiti is that they tend to become competitive. That competition makes it difficult to quickly answer questions such as, who will do what where? How can duplication be avoided? How can collaboration and cooperation maximize efforts? Then there is all the bureaucracy to cut through. Why couldn't visas be waived, for example, so that the orphans at risk of disease and starvation could be airlifted to temporary safe havens on all those airplanes returning empty to their home countries after delivering goods? Why did it take so long to get tent cities built? (One spokesperson from the international relief agency in charge of that effort offered little more than government-speak in an interview with NPR.)
I understand the terrible challenges faced by governments, NGOs, and individuals in the days after the earthquake, or in any natural disaster. I applaud every effort undertaken, every successful solution devised to overcome the literally crushing challenge, every tireless response, and the heroics that helped save lives when there seemed no hope left. No one could watch what was taking place in Haiti and not feel overwhelmed.
Still, I can't help wondering: Why did it take so long to organize and mobilize? Why did agencies that deal with disaster relief all the time seem doomed to repeat the errors of the past rather than learn from them? Why did arguments about security trump pleas for safe drinking water?
In short, what are the lessons of Haiti and how can we be sure we've learned them?