Science - January 20, 2010

'Take your time in Haiti'

It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the disaster in Haiti, says Thea Hilhorst, professor of Disaster Studies in Wageningen. If you plan the recovery well, the country could come out of the disaster stronger than ever before.

'It is a terrible event, not just because of the large number of people affected but also because it hit the capital, the country's logistical centre. I was in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. There, a narrow strip of coastland suffered enormously but beyond that area everything functioned like normal. In Haiti the heart of the country has been hit. Water, electricity, roads; everything has been affected. At the moment what they need is basic help, such as water, food and medical care.'
'The US is putting in a big effort with ten thousand soldiers. Usually I am not a fan of soldiers in emergency operations, but here you need a strong logistical operation because nearly all the help needs to come from outside. Normally an emergency situation like this lasts two weeks, after which the international aid community has everything under control. Then comes the difficult process of recovery. That is tricky in Haiti because it has such a weak administration. I hope the UN and US don't go running around like headless chickens, without coordinating matters with the local administration. Luckily the aid is not coming via the Pentagon as it did in Iraq, as the aid there was a disaster. They have the tendency to outsource aid through large contracts to companies that think they can fix things just like that.
'In my opinion it is better to take the time to plan and discuss things so that local institutions can have a say too. For example, housing construction can mean a lot of jobs for local people. If the aid takes account of the local administration and community organizations in Haiti, the country could come out of the disaster stronger. But you do need to make sure that farm labourers don't migrate en masse to the city, for instance, which would cause problems for agriculture. So you need to have planners who figure out what needs to happen and who ought to be doing it.'