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The Management of a Disaster
Military contribution to the relief process.
2 February 2010
The powerful earthquake that affected Haiti on 12 January has been defined as an ?historic? disaster. With more than 170.000 deaths, 1,5 million homeless and tens of thousands without access to food, water or medical supplies, the Haitian government is facing one of the toughest challenges in Haiti?s history. Aid agencies confirm it is among the worst scenarios they have ever had to deal with. Troops, doctors and aid workers are flowing into the island from all over the world and millions of dollars have been promised but aid distribution has remained sporadic and, two weeks after the catastrophe, many victims have remained unassisted. Therefore the question is raised: How can a crisis on this scale be handled and by whom?
A fundamental principle of disaster management and international assistance is that the stricken country has to take the lead in inviting in international assistance, and then co-ordinating it. Unfortunately the disaster has destroyed governmental structures and infrastructure such as they were and severely undermined the capacities to organise assistance to the Haitian people. As a result, US troops have had to rehabilitate the capital?s destroyed airport to allow international aid to flow into Port-au-Prince. Similarly, several thousands US troops have been mobilised to help improve security conditions and facilitate the distribution of aid. However, these powerful US-led measures have not gone un-criticised, notably on the choices made when aircrafts full of medical supplies are ordered to land in Punta Cana or other ?nearby? airports by US officers, causing serious delays in the distribution of precious aid.
The current situation in Haiti raises a core issue in disaster relief: the contribution of the military in responding to natural disasters ? including climate change induced catastrophes - and its interactions with other governmental and civilian organisations.
Haitian President Ren? Pr?val has regretted the poor co-ordination in managing the aid process. The military, notwithstanding their crucial role in disaster relief, need to be more sensitive to the relief agencies? needs and operate under a clear UN-led mandate to make sure that all decisions are taken in the strict interest of local populations. It is the only way to guarantee that the people receive all the aid they so desperately need.
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