Drawing humanitarian lessons from disasters

January 21, 2010

Diane Paul is Nonresident Senior Fellow on Natural Disasters and Human Rights, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement at The Brookings Institution. The views expressed are her own. –

As the world rushes to Haiti’s aid, we should remember some of the lessons of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Protecting vulnerable people is as important as giving them water, food, or medical care. Children, women, the elderly, and the disabled all have particular vulnerabilities that must be taken into consideration when relief is provided.

Children separated from their parents should be placed with relatives or trusted family friends whenever possible, or with foster families, not in institutions. Their names must be listed with Red Cross tracing services immediately so that they can be reunited with parents or relatives. It is unfortunately true that in the aftermath of disasters, children are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking and need to be protected against these dangers.

Communities should be supported to start educational programs at the earliest moment, even though schools will probably not open for some time. Classes can be held even under the open sky and a routine helps children feel more secure after enduring such traumatic events. As shelters go up, women and children must be protected from rape and other violence through protective measures around sleeping quarters and sanitation facilities such as lighting, fencing and guards. To ensure they receive their share of food, women should be placed in charge of food distribution. Pregnant and lactating women need special consideration.
Food and water points must be guarded to prevent strongmen from commandeering them. Older people and persons with disabilities need shelters where they can access food, toilets and bathing facilities and health care. Shelters should be located in areas that are safe and protected by security forces.

Special measures should be taken to ensure treatment for and prevent discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis–diseases that carry a social stigma in Haiti. Condom distribution is critical, as the risk of transmission of HIV/AIDS is great following disasters of this magnitude. For families of the missing, the ‘not knowing’ is unbearable. The dead should not be unceremoniously dumped into pits in the mistaken belief they cause disease, but placed with dignity in designated areas for identification or photographed for later identification with clothing, jewelry etc. left untouched.

Although poverty is endemic in Haiti, efforts must be made to reach the poorest of the poor, those on the outer margins of society. In every disaster, it is the poor and marginalized who are disproportionately affected.

Human dignity demands that Haitians be treated not as victims but as fellow human beings who are resourceful and have a sense of pride. Roads must be cleared so that aid can reach those in need. Proper shelters must be built and clean water supplies established. Schools, homes and buildings must be erected to better standards with quality building materials in safe locations. All this work can and should be done by Haitians, women and men, who have the right to work and desperately need jobs. Relief organizations should channel donations into cash for work programs. Where special skills do not exist locally, outside experts should train Haitians alongside them on the job. Disaster risk reduction and preparedness knowledge must be shared with the public at large. But that is not enough.

Donors and the Haitian people must insist on transparency, accountability and an end to the wanton corruption and negligence that permitted the shoddy construction that resulted in so many unnecessary deaths. Perhaps beyond this great tragedy lies the possibility of an awakening to the need to demand the good governance and respect for human rights that Haitians have for so long been denied.

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Ms. Paul’s comments are direct, and meritorious on their face. As international disaster response and recovery seems to enter an incrementally evolving “new” cooperation with each major disaster, the terrible disaster in Haiti offers an opportunity to engage the recovery process with renewed opportunity toward local development processes that msut be informed and implemented with all basic human rights instruments in mind.

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