Adrian Hamilton: Private donations won't help Haiti

The disaster appeal has become a grand media event used by charities to raise funds
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Don't bother to send blankets or food parcels to Haiti, advises the former US president George W Bush, just reach for your wallet. In hard pragmatic terms, he may be right. It is too late to do much directly about the earthquake in Haiti as an individual. It's a great logistical exercise now for the professionals – the military in the case of the US.

But in the wider sense of what is right or wrong, I can't think of worse advice for a political leader to give. It is only in the small and the particular that the generosity of the giver can make much difference. Wrap his or her donation up in a great emergency enterprise funded and directed by international organisations and there is little hope that the generosity of the private person will do much good.

The urgent disaster appeal has become a grand media event used by politicians to stamp themselves as caring, and aid agencies to raise general funds. Only a part will end up with the victims, and little, if any at all, will be processed in time to do much about the tragedy unfolding before the eyes of the public. Precisely how the money will then be used, how much will go in management, how much will be creamed off by local officials and politically-directed projects, is all lost in the great swirl of tragedy and rescue.

That may appear too cynical. But it was the experience of the tsunami relief effort around Sri Lanka and Thailand five years ago, the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 and, for that matter, the Italian earthquake at L'Aquila last year. And, one fears, it is already becoming the same story in Haiti.

No one wants to denigrate the efforts of individual aid agencies in attending the scene. Indeed Haiti, precisely because it is so poor, has more aid agencies operating per head of population than any other nation in the world.

But the reality of catastrophe is that these are essentially sideshows to the overwhelming need to get medical teams, medicines and shelters in quantity to the survivors in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. All experience shows that it is the first 48 hours that really make the difference. All recent history shows that time and again that need is failed.

We had journalists arriving in Haiti within 24 hours of the earthquake, some brought in by the aid agencies on their first flights. We had aid agencies sending in personnel to reconnoitre the requirements. We had specialist survival rescue teams sent in by various nations.

But we did not have – or did not appear to have – any doctors in the hospitals or medicines in the field. Instead we had the faintly obscene sight of journalists able to get in, reporting from hospitals on the lack of medical staff who couldn't, and of rescue teams digging out a few individual survivors while all about them the sick and the injured were dying for lack of attention.

One understands the imperatives. Aid agencies, and governments, like the media presence because it raises funds for the operation, and the cameras like the rescues from rubble because they project the most human stories of help and survival. But in Haiti's case it seems as if this was in place of more urgent attention that might have saved, less dramatically, the lives of others.

Nor did it appear from the reports and interviews on the ground that the aid effort has done much better in the week since. There has been a good deal of unfair criticism of the slowness of the international aid effort. Haiti undoubtedly poses an extreme logistical challenge to assistance. Poor enough already, the earthquake left it without a functioning government and virtually no infrastructure.

It is fair to say that Haiti has long been the particular victim of political interference and wrongly directed aid from the outside. But it is also fair to say that the country lies within a few hundred miles of the richest country in the world, one well stocked with supplies for similar adversities within its own boundaries, and that it had overland routes to the other side of the island, where the Dominican Republic was not affected by the quake. Such an extended build-up of aid was not inevitable.

True there are political sensitivities when outsiders move in on rescue and reconstruction. Hence Mrs Clinton's arrival on the scene to prop up Haiti's cowering president. There are also considerable management difficulties in organising the efforts of quite so many agencies. Formally the UN is supposed to do the co-ordination. In practice much of the work has been taken over by the US military, who control the airport and the distribution of the largest portion of aid.

The result has been mounting criticism of bureaucratic delay, an uneasy relationship between the US forces and the UN, and the open accusation from one frantic medical aid agency that their flights were being stymied by American officials determined to favour their own. After Katrina, the US administration had to appear to be in command, and the US military, like all militaries, likes to be in sole charge. Whatever the truth, there at the non-receiving end have been hundreds of thousands of injured and more than a million uprooted Haitians desperately in need of succour and not getting it until a week or more after the earthquake struck.

This mass stampede of competing agencies and ad hoc management is no way to carry on, and certainly no way to manage affairs in a world where extreme weather conditions, connected or not to climate change, are now the order of the day. We need a central agency to take charge with permanent bases in each region, and the medical supplies, food, water, transport and lifting equipment, as well as the practiced relationships with the authorities and the agencies in the region, to meet major emergencies in the area.

In the past one would have said that the UN was the obvious choice for the role. But, given its performance in Haiti, and the continued reluctance of Washington even under Obama to yield ground to it, a much better, and less politicised choice, might be the Red Cross. It has the experience and the standing, given the extra resources.

Of course it's expensive. Of course it means planes and supplies lying idle. But I think most people would accept to pay through their taxes for something that might react in time and on a scale for the next catastrophe. Better that surely than asking for donations each time something happens, in a cause that the money will do little to help.