Haiti Relief: Who’s in Charge?

    This was bound to happen. With all the aid flowing into Haiti, many are wondering: Who is in charge of coordinating the relief efforts?

    The United Nations says it holds that role.

    Does it?

    "The Americans have said to us from the start that they accept our central coordinating role and that they want to work with us very closely," said John Holmes, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

    Holmes was speaking during a Jan. 20 video press briefing organized by the U.N. Foundation in Washington. He explained that the U.S.-U.N. collaboration has been particularly helpful in handling flights and security issues.

    "We don't have directing power over any of them, but we're coordinating them," the U.N. official explained.

    Col. Buck Elden of the U.S. Air Force mentioned nothing on this collaboration during a Jan. 21 media call from Haiti.

    But Elden, who heads the air operations at the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, did say his team is working closely with the Haitian government to coordinate the numerous flights coming in and out of the country. These flights carry military personnel, rescue teams, volunteers and various relief supplies from different countries and international organizations.

    Indeed, when it comes to flights to the quake-hit country, the U.S. has the supreme authority.

    According to Holmes, around 160-180 flights were cleared for landing at the Port-au-Prince airport on Jan. 19, with the U.S. "taking the ultimate decisions."

    Many relief agencies, including Doctors Without Borders, have complained of a bias against humanitarian flights.

    The head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs acknowledged that while "there will always be glitches," the U.N. is giving "the best advice" on prioritizing flights and is "happy with the cooperation" so far.

    During the call-in, Elden agreed that the U.S. operation of the airport is not perfect but emphasized that it is very efficient. He said there have been zero mishaps and fewer diversions since Americans took charge on Jan. 15.

    Elden said his team is sometimes forced to divert or delay the landing of certain flights, which he attributed to logistic problems on the ground, particularly the shortage of equipment and personnel for unloading cargo.

    The Port-au-Prince airport, he explained, cannot handle simultaneous landings and takeoffs. He assured, however, that his group has already prepared a schedule of flights to address the issue.

    How much that schedule involves U.N. input is not clear based on the colonel's call-in. What is certain is that air traffic over Haiti will remain the busiest in the coming days.

    "We are booked until Feb. 10," the colonel said.

    With contributions by Eliza Villarino and reporting on the U.N. by Jemila Abdulai.

    About the author

    • Ivy Mungcal

      As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.