Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Haiti: To Manage a National Catastrophe
Earthquake has inflicted catastrophe on Haiti; a nation in chronic failure before accumulated geological stresses broke the rock formations on which the country is built.
The scale of the disaster overwhelms such emergency services as the country has, and the best efforts of aid agencies. Social disorder is inevitable when effective government fails, and communications are disrupted. With loss of order the disaster increases.
The reality is that the American Military is the only organization able to manage this crisis. Haiti needs martial law. The United Nations should recognize this, and should give the Americans legal authorization as necessary. Indeed this should have happened days ago. All other national and charitable aid & recovery task-forces should accept the urgent need for the American Military to manage their efforts.
The Haitian president did not control the country before the earthquake, and the Haitian government, such as it was, is destroyed.
The United Nations has moral authority only. Other countries and agencies will contribute, but their capabilities are limited, and without control there will be confusion, rivalry, even conflict.
So the best news so far is the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson, bringing communications and other headquarters facilities, helicopters, trained and disciplined troops, plus massive provision of drinking water and electrical power. The Carl Vinson can house an emergency government of Haiti. Legal, political and democratic niceties are inappropriate in a disaster of this magnitude.
French criticism of the unmatched generosity and capability of the Americans is contemptible. I have not heard M. Sarkozy offer the Charles de Gaulle to relieve the Carl Vinson.
The media are no help. They want stories and images to increase circulations and viewing figures. They shy from showing the shocking realities. Images of a child rescued from a collapsed building will be headlines; editors don't want to show a street blocked by rubble and littered with corpses left in the sun for 3 days.
On the BBC news we heard a solemn voice-over declare that delays in distributing aid were causing frustration and anger: the accompanying video clip showed men fighting over looted bottles of wine.
And then there is the disruption when celebrities visit: Hilary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon, Bill Clinton, and God knows who else.
Unbelievably the BBC had a senior official of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee saying there was no urgency to bury bodies. Bodies should be identified and the burial recorded so loved-ones could grieve. So, many thousands of corpses are to be stacked unrefrigerated for days or weeks? How disconnected from reality can you get?
Why is it so hard to appoint a supreme commander of the allied rescue forces, with authority commensurate with responsibility? Is there any alternative to a senior American staff officer for such a post?
What might be the job description for such a commander? My provisional version would include the following.
1. To impose and maintain civil order.
2. To co-ordinate and support immediate rescue and medical efforts, and emergency provision by all contributing.
3. To clear the streets of corpses, rubble, looters and bandits.
4. Urgently to engineer supplies of clean water, and to repair and build sanitary installations.
5. Urgently to repair and expand port and airfield facilities, and to open and maintain transport links for distribution of supplies.
6. To establish secure areas where homeless people can be gathered, sheltered, fed and doctored, giving absolute priority to children, women and families.
7. To create a system of medical surveillance for infectious disease, especially dysentery and malaria, and to build reserve medical teams to move quickly to any outbreak.
This is a formidable, incomplete list. The commander will need staff and be able to delegate authority. So far as possible, the command should be freed from political and public relations duties. Civil engineering equipment, trucks and tractors, generators and fuel must be mobilized locally or brought in urgently.
When the immediate crisis is under control, then a provisional civil government can be appointed by the UN, progressively to take over from the military, and to plan long-term redevelopment. A return to the status of Haiti before the earthquake makes no sense. There is an opportunity to bring lasting improvements to this impoverished nation, and it should not be missed.
And I do wish the media would get real, and report the facts in full.