Is the problem in Haiti too much collaboration?

Category: Health, Science & Education
Published on Jan 23, 2010

I realize this sounds like a strange hypothesis for explaining the delays in delivering relief in Haiti, particularly coming from the guy who co-authored Wikinomics. But could it be that there are just too many players and too little centralized leadership to carry out an operation that has been described by people on the ground as the most complex relief effort to date?

Sure, social media is helping to rally people behind the fundraising efforts and there are several examples where a text message to a relative or CNN helped save lives. But what about the bigger challenge in getting aid to 3 million increasingly desperate people with so many injured and in urgent need of supplies and medical attention?

On one hand, an emergency of this scale and complexity should be a textbook case of why collaboration is an absolute necessity. The sheer scale of the emergency demands access to more skills and more resources than one organization could provide alone. Without Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) working along side the World Food Programme working along side security services, you just couldn’t begin to get the job done.

On the other hand, there’s a counter hypothesis that suggests that some of the delays in getting aid into the hands of people in need stem from a lack of coordination between the disparate players that arrived to share the burden. It’s not just that the airports and ports are congested or that there are too few truck to transport it and no safe place to store them. There is confusion about precisely what supplies have been received, and in which quantities. There is also a lack of coordination among aid agencies and other entities about which people and areas to prioritize and how to overcome the logistical difficulties.

Groups such as MSF have complained that the US Army has prioritized getting military personnel and equipment into the country over humanitarian supplies. Others report that logistical disagreements between the US Army and the UN have led to a “situation of utter chaos.” Of course, it has not helped that infrastructures for transport and communications were severely damaged or that the Haitian government was ill-equipped for such a crisis. But it appears that much of the blame for the lack of coordination lies with the relief agencies themselves.

To answer the question I started with, it seems obvious that collaboration will be a feature of many emergency relief efforts to come. At the same time, there is evidently an urgent need to figure out how to improve coordination among the many organizations that can and will rise to help in these situations. I’ll admit to not knowing nearly enough about emergency relief at this point to be able to make serious recommendations about how to improve the immediate situation in Haiti, but a few thoughts seem warranted as we look forward.

1. Such disasters seem likely to happen more often in wake of disruptive climate change. It time the world engaged  in an open and frank discussion about how we are going to cope responsibly with the massive displacements that some scientists are predicting. Entire cities and nations are threatened. So who will help look after the refugee populations? Where will they resettle? How will the victims of environmental disasters be compensated? And, how will the costs be distributed? The questions are endless.

2. In anticipation of further emergencies, the groups that are most frequently involved in relief efforts should agree on a set of emergency response protocols that could help avoid situations where humanitarian organizations end up sitting on their hands because they lack the supplies to do their jobs. Perhaps such protocols already exist. The challenge will be to get all of the relevant players to sign on.

3.  There are evidently huge communications and logistics challenges in situations such as these. Some claim that only the US Army has the logistical capabilities to take a leadership role in an emergency of this scale. But surely with all of the experience, resources and expertise that could be brought to bear on the problem, a group of NGOs, government organizations and companies could work together to create a more open and federated communications and logistics solution that would allow disparate organizations to perform more like a single, coherent entity.

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