Promotional photo for the event.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of attending a really productive policy debate event at the Graduate Institute, just down the street from my office at UNHCR. Professor Gilles Carbonnier of the Graduate Institute expertly curated a discussion that was centered around MSF’s very own Jean-Marc Biquet’s paper, criticising the humanitarian community’s collective response to the aftermath of 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Carbonnier also called on Andrea Binder, Associate Director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), to comment on Biquet’s argument. The last panelist was Elyse Mosquini, Senior Disaster Law Officer in the IFRC’s Disaster Law Programme, who offered a legal perspective on the matter.

Each panelist spoke for 10 minutes, starting off with Biquet who offered the audience some context on the magnitude of the catastrophe. When the earthquake took place, Haiti’s economic and administrative center was hit hard, countless hospitals were destroyed, and millions were left homeless – not to mention the many that died on impact or were severely wounded. Not long after the disaster, Haiti witnessed a huge cholera outbreak. Suddenly, humanitarian actors were faced with not one, but two major emergency situations.

Panelist #1

In a nusthell, Biquet recounted how billions of dollars were donated to respond to the emergency with the aim of ‘reconstructing’ Haiti. Countless international actors pledged that they would “build [Haiti] back better,” a phrase coined by ex-president Bill Clinton, who was then the United Nation’s special envoy to Haiti. However, the reality of the matter was that (according to Biquet) at the time there were 600+ humanitarian aid organizations present in Haiti, some of which were actually doing things while others pretended to do so. Biquet caused a rift in the audience when he claimed that only MSF and the Cuban brigades had provided real assistance and medical treatment to the Haitian people. Water, sanitation and hygiene programes were then virtually non-existant and the first cholera centers were opened three months after the outbreak began. In a country where 60 percent of the population cannot physically access health care and 80 percent cannot afford it, this posed a huge challenge for the few actually fighting to contain the outbreak.

Panelist #2

When it was Binder’s turn to speak, she started by agreeing with many of Biquet’s points but soon moved on to illustrate a more critical perspective as she outlined the argument she made in her paper/response to Biquet’s article. For one, Binder claimed that what is really at issue is the huge discrepancy between the capacity that humanitarian organizations actually have and the integrity with which they assert their capacity. Rather than being transparent about their operational limitations, humanitarian aid organizations often pledge to deliver results beyond their means. Binder points to how this then reflects poorly on the aid organizations themselves when they don’t achieve what they initially set out to do, showing a disregard for the management of others’ expectations. Second, Binder suggests that perhaps the international system is the problem, not the solution, and that what happened in Haiti was the product of a system failure. Still, she does draw her conclusions from research she had previously conducted on the Cluster Approach, the system by which humanitarian organizations coordinate in emergency situations, where it was determined that the benefits of having a Cluster Approach outweigh the costs, ever so slightly, and that because the cluster system is constantly under reform, real institutional change has yet to be seen. Binder finalized her remarks by calling upon MSF to act as a leader and offer constructive criticism rather than point fingers at other aid organizations.

Panelist #3

Mosquini wrapped up the discussion with a fresh perspective. She, too, appreciated Biquet’s point of view but rather than attributing the issues in the humanitarian response in Haiti to a systemic failure, she made a very interesting and sound observation: The Cluster Approach assumes that national structures exist and works to ensure that organizations come in and complement those existing strctures. However, in Haiti – even before the earthquake took place – those structures were simply not there. For instance, although many reports were written throughout the crisis, no one could say exactly how many people were affected by the disaster as  no registration system was ever used. Moreover, very few NGOs registered with the Haitian government (organizations must do this before beginnign to work in any country). Mosquini remarked that not only was that a pitiful illustration of the Haitian government’s shortcomings but also of international actors’ disrespect for international law. Similarly, the influx of relief goods was not regulated, although they are supposed to be. Goods were initially cleared by customs through oral acknowledgements and eventually, because the rush of goods was so great, the Haitian government simply opened the floodgates and goods were neither checked nor cleared by any sort of regulating government authority. Thus, Mosquini claims that there was a fundamental issue in the level of interactions between government officials and humanitarian actors.

Mosquini then made a comparison between the humanitarian response in Haiti to that in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Even before the disaster, the Philippine government had already made efforts to prepare for natural disasters, taking into consideration the humanitarian community by amending laws to allow for their swift registraton with government authorities and subsequent entry as well as by providing a legal precedent and an established set of procedures for the regulation of imported relief goods. Moreover, after the typhoon, the cluster mechanism was institutionalized – national actors were assigned to clusters and even went on to co-lead them, ensuring a more comprehensive response. Mosquini ended by offering guidance on actions to consider in an emergency if the affected country’s government is not adequately prepared: one can resort to the humanitarian system, using the Cluster Approach, or call upon other international actors (governments, etc.) or simply invest in building the state’s own capacity to respond in such situations.

The Aftermath

After the presentations, Carbonnier opened up the floor to questions and comments, prompting the very defensive reactions of representatives from non-MSF humanitarian agencies, more notably IOM (Internatinoal Organization for Migration) but also VOICE (Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Emergencies). A representative from Swiss Solidarity, an organizaton that raises funds to support humanitarian relief projects, also spoke to give the perspective of a small donor, relatively speaking. One student posed an interesting question based on her own experience, which was actually never addressed by any of the panelists. She claimed that the delivery of aid seemed arbitrary, as the community she lived in a year after the disaster had concrete structures built to house people while others only had tents and unfulfilled promises from humanitarian aid organizations that said they would return and build sturdier structures. She wanted to get the panelists’ opinions on how coordination among humanitarian actors can be better, so as to avoid the arbitrary delivery of assistance.

So why is this relevant?

Personally, now that I am working at UNHCR, I am constantly hearing about the clusters, about efforts to increase coordination efforts, etc. I wish that my superiors had witnessed and commented on this policy debate. In fact, Carbonnier did point out that there was no UN representative present at the discussion for two reasons: first, they tried to bring someone in but they cancelled last-minute, probably due to the fact that (second) the UN has been recently caught up in some legal issues related to their aid response in Haiti – making this was a somewhat ‘touchy subject’ for the organization.

Reading Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan doesn’t help either. Polman presents a scathing critique of the way humanitarian organizations deliver aid, giving first-hand accounts of atrocities she witnessed humanitarian aid workers commit while she covered humanitarian emergencies. In many ways, her accounts echo what Biquet referred to at the start of his talk.

Finally, and more importantly, these issues have to be discussed if any meaningful change will ever take place. The next step is to get those with real decision-making power sitting at the same table and having a similar discussion.