Leading article: The lessons of Haiti's plight

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The only surprise about the UN's appeal yesterday for $1.4bn – its highest ever humanitarian call – is that it is in fact so little. Haiti stands as the worst natural catastrophe this century in terms of lives lost (230,000), those injured (300,000) and the number made homeless (1.2 million).

And still the pain goes on. The rainy season is starting, yet some 700,000 are still living in makeshift shelters out in the open. Medicines, tents, food and protection remain in short supply. Little wonder that former president Bill Clinton, the UN's special envoy for Haiti, urged yesterday for everyone to "pledge less and give it. And do it sooner than later". Haiti, a country brought low by foreign intervention and endless political strife, isn't a nation in need of reconstruction so much as a completely new start.

Which is where some sober rethinking must go on amid the continuing aid effort by several hundred aid agencies under the aegis of the UN. The Haitians need assistance right now. But the world also needs to ask itself how it might be effecting that aid better this time round and for the future.

In a leaked email, the UN's humanitarian chief, John Holmes, warned that much of the effort had been badly co-ordinated and underresourced. There had been particular failures, he pointed out, in the provision of sanitation and shelter. The email was an internal one, meant to galvanise the UN's staff rather than demolish them. But it's no more than the Haitians themselves and journalists there are reporting. It's now a month since the earthquake shattered the island and still there is a sense of too little help coming in too late. That may be partly down to the sheer scale of the devastation. But it is also attributable to an aid effort which took too long to get under way and has been too often confused and ill co-ordinated since.

Of course, private donations are needed – now more than ever before. The work of the myriad agencies is vital. But in a catastrophe of this size we need standing facilities and clear lines of command. Endlessly calling on the charity of private individuals is no way of coping with a world where extreme conditions are on the rise.

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