Frank Judd: We were too slow in Haiti, and need to know why

With disasters likely to become more common, we need beefed-up international bodies that reflect the global public's desire to help

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Haiti makes me angry. Why does it take a cruel and catastrophic disaster before we focus on some of the very poorest people in the world? And this is not the first time or place. The magnitude of need for our generosity today is to a very large extent the price of our past neglect.

The grinding poverty, the absence of effective government, the corruption, the jerry-building, the rape of agriculture by external food dumping, the lack of water supplies and sanitation, the paucity of health provision, the depressing inadequacy of education, the lack of power and energy and, above all, the vulnerability had all been there for decades before the earthquake struck. Indeed there had been a dramatic warning less than two years previously when 600,000 were made homeless by the hurricanes. To our eternal shame all this was on our own doorstep in the Western world.

Amid the grim and chaotic nightmare there are impressive stories. There has been the extraordinary courage and patience of the Haitian people; inexplicably under-reported, there is the resilience of the local population. As long as 10 days ago the youth brigades were already digging. There has also been the transparent humanity of the best frontline journalists determined to confront the world with the sickening realities.

Yet despite that spirit of humanity, there is an uncomfortable question. What is the dividing line between informing or challenging and morbid entertainment preceded by the titillating X certificates read by the news presenters back home. Should the painful reality of a dying child be filmed for us all to watch? On balance it probably should, but the context must always be that of underlining our responsibility.

Even allowing for the wrecking of the port facilities, the airport damage and the interrupted road to the Dominican Republic, just why did it take so long to get the aid moving? Certainly, to judge from the size of the public donations and the desire of celebrities to do their bit, there was no lack of a will to help. A respected staffer in one agency left me in no doubt. "Yes, we were slow. There are real explanations, but we were all slow." Local staff, she explained, were traumatised. They had often lost close family and homes and they were stunned. "This has not been well enough understood," she added.

Which of us, if surviving, would not have been the same? There is a real dilemma to be resolved. Essential to sustainable long-term development is the generation of indigenous capacity. Local communities must "own" the process and take it forward. Otherwise, perversely, aid may disempower and increase dependency. In an emergency, however, what is the consequence of this discipline when the key local people are cut down and stunned? This needs a lot of honest thought.

In Haiti, what made it all worse was that those who could have immediately mobilised to assist on behalf of the international community were themselves destroyed. Some 200 UN personnel are reported missing. Not only was the outstanding head of mission killed; so were his deputy and his principal humanitarian coordinator. It took four days to have a replacement head of mission in place. He is evidently of high calibre. But four days is an eternity for those still alive beneath the fallen concrete.

President Obama and the United States have made a big response. Agencies like Christian Aid openly welcome this. To what extent, however, have the inhibitions of an enlightened US administration, in their anxiety not to be seen as occupying Haiti, led to delays caused by an unreal scenario? They have repeatedly insisted on deference to what is a non-effective government. Has this been compounded by their memories of Somalia and a tendency to put security before humanitarian imperatives? Some think it has. It is not self-evident why so much aid and so many specialised personnel were diverted and hampered in gaining access.

Arguably, the late Eighties provided one of the UN's finest humanitarian hours. Under the inspired leadership of Brad Morse, then head of the UN Development Programme, its role in the Horn of Africa was impressive. The key to this was the strong personality of Morse, in whom people had instinctive trust and with whom they wanted to work. This was mirrored – and this was critically important – by equally strong and convincing leadership in the Horn itself. It worked. Even the most sceptical non-governmental organisations were keen to be part of the coordinated effort.

As director of Oxfam at the time, I recall how struck the overseas director and I were to find the offices on UN Plaza humming with activity. lights burning, late into the night. The atmosphere of highly qualified and motivated people enjoying productive team work was intoxicating.

Yes, we desperately need streamlined, fit-for-purpose international structures; but all structures are inanimate. There must be strong personalities and leadership. To ensure such people are available means that commitment to the UN has to be at the top of political priorities. It is unforgivable that the UN has become seen as a course of last resort or as a dumping ground for the too difficult.

As we struggle to reassert the principles of international law on matters of military intervention, there is an equally urgent requirement to agree the rules and criteria for times when, because of the scale of a disaster and the absence of operational national government, the international community simply has to move quickly to temporarily take over. We must have international law that meets inescapable humanitarian obligations – and we need it fast. With the foreseeable and accelerating calamities inevitably to be caused by climate change there is no other option.

In Haiti the harsh truth is that it is when the cameras have gone that the biggest humanitarian challenge of all will begin. Global financial and agricultural policies must be tailored to meet the specific needs. Massive investment in education, training, the professions, health, water supplies, sanitation, security, justice and social infrastructure, together with mammoth physical and earthquake-proof rebuilding, will be essential. International exchange programmes at all levels will be vital for intellectual and professional stimulation, just as they were in the postwar reconstruction of Germany. For the future of a people enjoying accountable democratic government, strong civil society will be indispensable.

Perhaps the total destruction can yet be turned to advantage. With, but only with, genuine international commitment, a viable future can be built out of the ruins. A renewed and regenerated UN could prove critically essential to success.

Above all, the overriding objective must be a determination to assist the people of Haiti to take the spirit of the youth brigades forward and build their own self-confident futures. Their genuine ownership of what happens will be central to sustained recovery.

Lord Judd is a former director of Oxfam and a former defence minister

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