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J. Brian Atwood

J. Brian Atwood

Posted: January 20, 2010 02:53 PM

Haiti's Tragedy and the Inevitable Controversy

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The Haiti earthquake has produced an overwhelming humanitarian response from governments and people everywhere. This disaster has occurred in one of the world's poorest countries, a nation whose infrastructure and governmental institutions were fragile to begin with. The relief challenge is extraordinary, requiring the removal of bodies, the treatment of the wounded, and the feeding and care of millions of people.

Complicating the effort is a chorus of critics who believe the response would be faster and more efficient under different leadership. They argue that the military or FEMA should be in the lead for the US Government rather than USAID. I have heard these appeals before when serving as the government's coordinator for relief efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti.

Our aid agency's Office of Disaster Assistance is statutorily authorized to respond to foreign disasters, both natural and man-made, and there is a logic to this. The office is staffed by professionals who understand the international community's relief organizations, the network of non-governmental groups that contribute so much to the effort, and the local culture. They are experienced in working in developing countries and understand the complexities of these environments. They also understand how to prepare the relief phase for the reconstruction and development phases down the road.

Other federal, state and local responder agencies including the US military, the Communicable Disease Center and major fire and rescue departments are seconded to OFDA. These organizations train together to handle foreign disasters. The OFDA operations center in the USAID building is as modern and efficient as any in Washington and in it you will see uniformed personnel sitting alongside USAID officers and representatives of other civilian agencies..

Our military units and FEMA do a great job in the context of their own primary missions, and they are occasionally brought into a very serious disaster to augment OFDA. When FEMA handles a disaster, it is operating in an American state that can bring resources and institutions into play. National Guard units and police forces are mobilized to help in the effort. Leaving the Katrina hurricane failure aside, FEMA at its best can cope with the disasters it faces in the United States. However, I would not want to see FEMA operating in a developing country. It would not have a clue what to expect.

The same is true of the US military were it to command an operation in a country like Haiti. There is a fine line between the perception of occupation and military support for relief. The military can secure feeding centers, clear rubble and build ports and roads. They are desperately needed in Haiti, but they will be far more effective under civilian control.

USAID has a large mission in Haiti and its personnel know the people and the structures of Haitian society. They can provide guidance and assure that our military will be seen as a benign force. In addition, organizations like CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children and UNICEF prefer to work under civilian not military direction.

The Haiti operation is an all-government response, but USAID/OFDA is appropriately in the lead. The President has designated Dr. Rajiv Shah, the USAID Administrator to coordinate the USG response and by all accounts he is doing an outstanding job. He is working around the clock to keep the US effort coordinated and he has been a highly effective public spokesman, explaining the goals and the challenges we face in responding to one of the worst tragedies we have faced in our hemisphere.

The Obama Administration deserves high marks for its response to this tragic earthquake and USAID has demonstrated once again why we need a strong foreign aid agency. There will always be those motivated by sincere concern for the victims who will say we should do better, and do it faster. There are also those who for less altruistic reasons will advocate that the mission be turned over to organizations whose primary mission is not humanitarian relief in foreign countries. They are wrong.