Haiti has raised a lot of questions about how the world helps when disaster strikes. The first thing people tend to forget is that much of the life-saving activity that goes on in the first days of an emergency is not done by the outside world. It always depends on the initiative of the survivors themselves, what is left of local social services and reinforcements sent from the less affected surrounding region.
It usually takes up to 48 hours for most search and rescue teams flying in to become fully operational. And it’s usually five days in before international relief operations are coordinated and able to deliver. It is an illusion to believe that disaster response can be an instant process producing instant results from the moment money is made available. But we should be trying everything possible to make these delays shorter.
So what can really make a significant difference?
The first point is almost obvious: strengthening local capacity should be heavily supported. Local services are nearer, quicker, with better knowledge of the area and the people.
Then various tools need to be used to optimise the effect of the massive influx of aid that comes after a disaster like the Haiti earthquake.
An information platform, run from outside the disaster zone but accessible by internet, needs to be ready to kick into action within hours. One reliable, centralised source of data on the situation on the ground would help people make decisions fast. At the moment there are several such services providing some of the information you need but none are the one-stop shop we all need. As a rule, we should not wait until a disaster hits a country to decide whether to use more than one airport for access. We should establish the basic principle that we should always immediately use more than one point of access to the country to avoid bottlenecks.
The earthquake in Haiti is in many ways extraordinary, notably because of the number of wounded (200,000 according to Haitian authorities), those needing surgery and the number of homeless needing relief. Almost in a knee-jerk reaction, the priority for access was given to search and rescue teams and military and only after them, medical and relief units like ours. Over a period of 15 days, around 135 people were thankfully saved from the rubble. At the same time, soldiers were heavily deployed in town to ensure security.
But several planes carrying field hospitals and medical supplies were delayed or diverted, including some for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). First aid for the thousands of badly injured was delivered in makeshift facilities. How many more lives would have been saved if those people had got access sooner to specialised care and proper facilities?