Interview

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Gerard Gómez, Head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Latin American and Caribbean region (OCHA), responds to questions about the earthquake in Haiti, the international community’s response to the tragedy, and lessons for international humanitarian actors.

Mr. Gerard Gomez

1. The earthquake in Haiti is the most severe disaster to have affected this region in many years and presents an enormous challenge for the international community. From your vantage point as Head of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Latin America and the Caribbean, what do you think were the major successes of the international community, including the United Nations, Red Cross, and NGOs? Would you address some aspects of response that should be improved?

In responding to this question it is important to consider the context of the disaster. The Haitian government and international actors in the country lost key personnel during the earthquake as well as the material resources to deal the crisis. The capital of the country, which is the poorest in the region, was the most severely affected. Emergency planners had not envisioned such a situation. They did not anticipate that the people providing immediate humanitarian response would have to face the anguish of having lost friends and family members. Much was said about the problems in coordinating the response, but little was said about the emotional dimension of this crisis for humanitarian workers.

First, it is important to clarify the concept of the “international community”. It is a heterogeneous group comprised of donor governments, agencies, organizations, and, sometimes, the private sector. Each has different mandates, resources, and objectives regarding humanitarian intervention. Large international NGOs, the Red Cross movement, and UN agencies have long shared a similar vision of the meaning of humanitarian action and have worked together for years to refine and coordinate their procedures. This international humanitarian community has learned from its mistakes over the years as well. They have established common standards, share systems for mobilization, and have improved coordination procedures in different sectors.

Profile

Gerard Gómez began his career with the United Nations in 2002 as a regional disaster advisor and was named Head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Latin American and Caribbean region. He has promoted the development of emergency preparedness plans in the region and is an active member of the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team.
Mr. Gómez led in the development and coordination of the Risk, Emergency and Disaster Group for Latin America and the Caribbean. He worked with Médecins Sans Frontières for 13 years prior to joining the United Nations.

In the case of the response in Haiti, these “professional” humanitarian organizations demonstrated good collaboration and genuine solidarity with the Haitian people. They established coordination measures among sectors during the crisis that included Haitian partners and over 900 registered NGOs present in the country, and have provided basic services to hundreds of thousands of people in need, including health care, shelter, water, and food. By combining efforts to mobilize resources, they have raised more than US$ 800 million. Of course, they could have done better; there is always room for improvement. But after having spent the first seven weeks in Port-au-Prince, it is my opinion that the members of this international humanitarian community have done what was expected of them.

There are things that should be improved, or at least that should be considered. The issue of communication is an example. While most of the international humanitarian agencies did a good job, we were not very good at communicating this to the outside world. Nor were we very good at explaining to the media what was being done. The result was that while lives were being saved and tons of food and shelter materials were distributed to families, much of the international press reported that nothing was being done.

Another topic that should be considered has to do with the famous notion of international community. As I said earlier, international actors are many and there are varying levels of professionalism within this community. It is not necessarily helpful to be politically “correct” when addressing these issues. Along with “professional” humanitarian agencies there are NGOs, religious groups, and governments with no experience in humanitarian issues. Sometimes, even though they did not have resources, in an effort to help Haiti they acted unilaterally with negative impact. I will put it bluntly: there was humanitarian tourism and there has been political and humanitarian self-promotion. Each instance of this makes it more difficult to coordinate aid.

One of the main causes of congestion at the Port-au-Prince airport was the arrival of unsolicited and unnecessary help, without equipment on the ground to receive, transport, or distribute items. If we want to improve the coordination of humanitarian assistance we must think about having a code of ethics that applies not only to the familiar “professional” agencies, but for anyone wanting to assist in a disaster.

Finally, one aspect that needs improvement is coordination within and across different sectors. It is not enough to send a person to facilitate coordination in his or her particular sector. This work entails many functions, ranging from organizing meetings, writing reports, facilitating cooperation, and ensuring that national authorities are integrated into the process, with the resources for that integration. We also need to reflect on overall coordination and creating products to ensure that decision makers on the ground have the tools they need to be effective.

2. What is the current capacity of humanitarian agencies to deal with disasters where the impacted population is so large and when national response capacity is so limited, as in the case of Haiti?

Today the tendency is to talk about risk reduction. Experts say we must invest in disaster prevention rather than response. I think the approach must be inclusive—prevention and response—rather than exclusive—prevention or response. There must be funding for recovery and prevention but also for preparedness and response.

The effectiveness of humanitarian agencies in Haiti depends on balance between these different phases of disaster. If not enough is invested in appropriate projects during the recovery phase, there will be negative consequences for prevention, and finally for vulnerability to future events. In the case of Haiti, even if enough is invested, how many years will it take to return to the conditions of a few seconds before the earthquake of January 12? The ability of donors in the coming years to continue assisting national and international humanitarian actors in the phases of preparedness and response as well as recovery and prevention is essential for the Haitian people.

3. Some international donors think that humanitarian reform needs to be corrected. What aspects of the reform should be addressed to bring about change?

Rather than correct, I would say adjust. Assessment and analysis of the contributions of humanitarian reform is a healthy exercise. However, as I said earlier, the actors involved in humanitarian action go beyond those represented at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee level. Had this system of coordination among sectors not been established, what type of response would we have seen in Haiti? It probably would have been impossible to achieve what has been accomplished. I think we should all learn from this experience and discuss what needs to be improved.

Donors provide necessary funds for “professional” humanitarian actors to do their work. But the donors also represent governments, and they become humanitarian actors when they decide to help the country concerned within the framework of bilateral aid. The experience in Haiti shows very clearly that a large part of bilateral assistance was made without any effort at coordination. The reduced capacity of the Haitian government was so obvious that it justifiably asked for assistance with the coordination of international aid. However, bilateral aid used the pretext of direct cooperation with the Haitian government to justify their lack of participation in established coordination mechanisms for international aid.

We must recognize the position of the major international NGOs during the crisis in Haiti. I do not want to name them for fear of forgetting some, but we know who we are dealing with. They participated in coordination mechanisms, were proactive in calling our attention to important issues, and were very transparent in informing us about their operations. However, these organizations represent less than 10% of the 900 NGOs working in Haiti.

What happened to those actors who, in many cases, had only their goodwill as a resource? There were more than 350 NGOs working in the health sector and not all of them helped to improve the humanitarian situation. A large number of them caused the problems seen in coordination and they were the source of an enormous amount of useless information that had to be processed.

Assuming that donors recommend changes in humanitarian reform, they should focus not only on the role of international humanitarian agencies which, while having much to learn from the Haitian crisis, have demonstrated their commitment to improve their performance. They must also analyze the role and influence of bilateral aid from governments. In addition, they should examine the role of those organizations that provide humanitarian aid in theory but that overwhelm coordination structures on the ground and that sometimes act more as tourists of the disaster than as bona fide humanitarian actors.

4. Finally, your involvement in an emergency such as Haiti must pose an enormous personal challenge. What has been of greatest value to you, or what has affected you the most?

There were many deaths among Haitians, and also among UN staff. In the early days of the emergency one could enter a coordination meeting and when leaving meet a colleague or friend who had just gotten news that the body of his son or wife had been found.

The offices were destroyed and we were instructed not to enter concrete structures. This led to organizational problems such as where to meet, how to get an internet connection, how to take a shower, where to sleep, or how to carry out an evaluation. In addition to the emotional and organizational crises, we had to handle a humanitarian crisis of enormous magnitude. And then on top of that were the criticisms and accusations through the media that nothing was being done, that there was no coordination.
These statements did not reflect reality, but added to the difficult conditions we were exposed to. The main challenge for me was trying to maintain objectivity and clarity in my tasks in spite of the psychological pressure of knowing how desperate the families and children living on the streets were for our help.

Disasters of this magnitude put us in extreme conditions and push us to our limits. Haiti is no exception to that. I have to admit that it was a very strange feeling to be at the center of criticism, precisely when we were the group that was trying to remedy the consequences of past mistakes. After more than 20 years of being dedicated to emergency response, the crisis in Haiti has reinforced my belief in the need for a code of conduct. Those who want to be part of humanitarian action should also subscribe to humanitarian ethics whereby solidarity with affected populations outweighs political self interest and respects concerted and coordinated action.

 

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