From Aceh to Haiti: Ensuring effectiveness of disaster aid

A view of the damage during the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (top) and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (below). The large sums of disaster assistance pledged during major disasters do not always go to their intended beneficiaries. Photo by: ADB and Colin Crowley

The aftermaths of typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis — arguably the holy trinity of natural disasters — have mobilized some of the biggest humanitarian efforts the international development community has ever seen.

For instance, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 brought in more than $6 billion in disaster assistance, of which $1 billion went to Indonesia alone. The Haiti earthquake in 2010, meanwhile, generated $9 billion in disaster aid pledges. And to date, nearly $2 billion in disaster assistance has been pledged in response to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013.

While large sums of disaster assistance have certainly helped these countries in their recovery and reconstruction efforts, not all of the pledged amounts go to their intended beneficiaries — some get lost in corruption, for instance.

Even if funding does go to the earmarked projects or sectors, not all of the interventions prove to be effective, as evidenced by the much debated status of recovery efforts in Haiti.

So how do we ensure that disaster assistance is effective and would create positive and sustainable long-term impact? What can be done to make sure the development community learns from the mistakes of previous failed interventions?

Lilianne Fan, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group who worked extensively for the United Nations and other agencies in Indonesia and Haiti, said that while contexts during disasters may differ, development stakeholders can generally focus on three things — planning, coordination and long-term goals — to ensure aid is effective and efficient.

“The level of preparedness on the side of the international community [and other stakeholders in disaster situations] and the whole international humanitarian structure is very weak,” she told Devex. While there have been improvements, the confusion and difficulties surrounding the early phases of the Haiyan response signify the need to strengthen the structure even further.

Importance of planning

According to Fan, one of the biggest failures in the response to Haiti — where more than 200,000 people died and 1.5 million rendered homeless — is the lack of proper and precise planning.

“There is a so-called plan in Haiti but it was very superficial and general, something that people could not work with in terms of real [actions],” she said. “Plans should be very vigorous and intensive throughout the reconstruction period.”

The situation led to confusion among development institutions and other stakeholders, particularly in terms of delivering programs in the affected areas. One of the U.S. government’s biggest failures in Haiti, for instance, was not being able to provide sufficient housing due to the “lack of in-house expertise and planning from the beginning.”

Even Indonesia, which is often considered a disaster recovery and reconstruction success, fell victim to some of these planning inefficiencies. Because stakeholders focused more on spending aid money than on planning, there remain a number of “ghost” villages — or communities with houses that intended beneficiaries didn’t want to live in for various reasons — in the tsunami-hit areas.

Coordinate (and seek help!)

Stakeholders, particularly national governments, may sometimes find themselves in a conundrum: Should they openly ask the international community for help and financial assistance at the risk of losing face at their perceived inability to drive recovery efforts forward?

There should be no hesitation about asking for help from and coordinating with the international community, the ODI expert stressed.

“[Recovery in Indonesia is good] because of the government leadership,” Fan said. “They didn't have the expertise, but they knew that they could ask for the expertise so they engaged in partnership with the international community who provided them with the expertise needed.”

Indonesia created specialized agencies to spearhead the management of development aid and disaster assistance, which helped tremendously in addressing coordination issues during the recovery efforts. Despite some controversy, the Philippines replicated this strategy during the Haiyan response and created a government agency whose sole mandate is to lead rehabilitation and recovery efforts.

Fan said this strategy could (or should) have been done in Haiti “with more political will by the [Haitian] government.”

Think long-term

Failures in Haiti’s recovery efforts are attributed mainly to the government’s weak structure and institutional gaps — something that, according to Fan, should have been improved (rather than exploited) by the international community when they extended assistance.

“I could be wrong but I think some of us feel from the very beginning that there could have been more effort to, at least, nominally give the Haitian government a little bit more of a leading role in the reconstruction and support them with a lot of capacity because clearly they’re weak,” she said.

Thinking long-term doesn’t always mean establishing an office in the disaster-affected areas and being with the community indefinitely. While laudable, the end goal should always be to empower communities and countries to become self-sufficient and self-operating.

“The lesson in Haiti is [that] you can’t get very far with international aid unless you really invest in rebuilding local institutions,” she concluded. “You have to work in a way that on the one hand, you are answering humanitarian needs, but also helping in building institutions.”

Do you have other suggestions on how to ensure effectiveness of international aid in disaster situations? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.