The Haiti earthquake has obviously been an disaster of huge proportions with current UN estimates citing three million affected and 112,000 killed, placing it in the company of some of the most devastating natural disasters of the last decade, second only to the Indian Ocean earthquake-tsunami of 2004 in terms of numbers killed and just behind the Kashmir earthquake in terms of numbers affected.
Not since the tsunami has a natural disaster received such an intense response, and not just in terms of media attention but also in terms of finances, with more than US$1.5 billion already going to the disaster response. The question is, is this outpouring of humanitarian support too much, or absolutely appropriate to such a calamitous event? And exactly what is a fair and adequate response?
Unfortunately the tools we have at our disposal to ensure that the right amount of money is being spent in the right places are crude at best. Of these, perhaps the most trusted is the United Nations (UN) flash appeal, rapidly compiled in the hours and days following a disaster to provide a picture of the scale, nature and priorities of humanitarian needs.
At US$575 million the Haiti appeal is slightly higher than the Kashmir earthquake but well below that of the tsunami, which initially was close to US$1 billion. However if we break down the amounts requested by the numbers reportedly affected in those appeals, the US$192 per person for the Haiti earthquake is almost identical to the tsunami and substantially lower than the US$514 per person requested for the Peru earthquake in 2007.
But how reliable are these figures? A flash appeal’s figures can only be as good as the raw data on which it is based and, understandably, in the chaos of the aftermath of disaster, information can be scant and in practice boils down to best estimates based on experience and existing knowledge of the place.
The difficulty of comparisons is complicated by the substantial degree of funding that appears outside of these coordinated appeals. The original US$1 billion appeal for the tsunami was dwarfed by the US$6.2 billion received for the emergency as a whole in 2005 and whilst the appeal for Haiti might have already generated US$536 million, a further US$1 billion has been donated that is not connected to it at all. This is an increase to US$516 per person from the original US$191. Does this additional US$900 million meet, exceed, or fall short of needs that were not included in the flash appeal? The problem is that it’s almost impossible to say.
One tool we could use is the work of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), a respected voice in the field of disaster information, which sifts through and evaluates many data sources to come up with figures for numbers of affected. Their figures can be significantly different from those early day appeals; the number of people affected by the tsunami went down from five million to just over two million, for example, while the number of people affected by the Peruvian earthquake actually increased from 72,000 to 480,000. This can have a dramatic impact on the funding per person from those early UN appeals. The huge US$6.2 billion of total humanitarian aid for the tsunami now stands at a quite remarkable US$2,670 per person – much more than the seriously reduced figure for Peru of US$108. What does this mean in terms of how much aid should go to Haiti – is that US$516 per person really enough?
The problem is that whilst these comparisons are interesting and important, the caveats rack up thick and fast. Fundamentally the time lag in getting the necessary data is just too great for this to be useful – CRED usually decides six months after a disaster on a final figure of ‘affected.’ Moreover what this comparison omits is an understanding of the ways in which people are affected, with multiple, almost infinite interpretations across different contexts. An affected person might need shelter, food, mental health counselling, a treatment for injury, or the affected person might only need to know which roads are now impassable. Affected doesn’t necessarily translate to needs that require an international response – you may be affected by a disaster but are entirely able to cope because of your insurance, relatives, the national authorities and local organisations. ‘Affected’ tells us almost nothing about how much money is required to meet a person’s particular needs, of the logistical challenges in delivering aid or the resources already available on the ground.
The term ‘affected’ also tells us very little about what level of assistance is needed to meet accepted international standards for calorie intake, access to clean water or adequate shelter. Without this information, we can say little authoritatively about exactly how much money per person is necessary and fair. Indeed humanitarian actors in Haiti are dealing with this right now, essentially trying to weigh up apples with oranges in coming to the right priorities. How much more difficult for donor governments that are not on the ground but that follow the media and face domestic political pressure and national policy considerations. How impossible for the general public, even further removed from the context of their donation, to evaluate all of these diverse and intangible variables when considering whether, where and how much to give.
Should we worry? Isn’t the desire to address human suffering enough?
There are a number of compelling reasons why we must keep a close watch on how much money goes to whom and on what justification. First and foremost, because money is always scarce, there is not enough to go around for each humanitarian crisis. There are also substantial humanitarian challenges that remain out of the public eye and need funds: they can be difficult to report, slow-effect disasters like drought, or year-on-year conflict-related emergencies that do not have the attention like Chad or Central African Republic. Similarly small emergencies often receive little attention or appropriate funds; the appeal for Namibia following serious flooding was only US$7 million, but it received only US$2.2 million, just 32% of requirements; this may mean little in comparison to the millions in need in Haiti and the millions of dollars needed, but it means a huge amount to the affected in Namibia; essentially this would equate to just US$6 per person of the initially reported affected of 350,000.
Secondly, a proper understanding of what is required in huge disasters usually only comes just as donations from corporations and the public start to dry up, and just as the full picture of need has really been identified. Humanitarian needs persist long after the initial rush of attention and emotive giving, and funding needs to be sustained past the dramatic and media-friendly first response actions to the rather tedious business of ensuring public health systems are restored, pumped clean water is available for all and seeds and tools are available for farmers.
We don’t want to discourage people from giving humanitarian aid. The available evidence, shot through with holes as it is, does not support the contention that Haiti has received enough or too much. Indeed the final point of complexity in this question of comparisons is the country itself and its ability to cope with a disaster on such as scale. Haiti has clearly been one of the least able to do so. It has suffered multiple shocks, disasters and insecurity, almost year-on-year for the last 20 years and in the basic indicators it is almost uniformly the worst in the Americas, in life expectancy and water-supply, in literacy and corruption.
However we do, collectively as donor citizens, and as members of the humanitarian community, need to strongly advocate for and work towards a better understanding of what needs are, on an objective, comparable and timely basis, and to ensure that funding is equitably and transparently allocated to meet them wherever it occurs, both outside of and after the media glare.