An expert in international disaster relief offered a scathing indictment on June 17 of efforts to aid the earthquake-ravaged nation of Haiti.

Gerald Martone, speaking to students in Fordham’s International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance program, said that past mistakes are being repeated.

Gerald Martone Photo By Patrick Verel

“You would expect—with Haiti being so close to a large western country that has an abundance of finances—that the aid effort would be pretty good,” he said. “But for state-of-the-art disaster relief, it’s not something to be proud of.”

Martone, the director of humanitarian affairs at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), detailed the findings of a recent evaluation of the relief efforts. They include:

• a lack of senior leadership in the disaster area within the first 24 hours;
• poor consultation with the local population;
• inefficient logistical operations;
• marginalization of local authorities; and
• poor disaster preparedness.

On the last point, Martone noted that Haiti was widely understood to be disaster-prone even before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed roughly 230,000 people on Jan. 12.

As the country recovers, a busy hurricane season is threatening to inflict more misery. Martone noted that four hurricanes battered the country over a 30-day span in 1998, wiping out 60 percent of its agriculture.

“Every two or three years, Haiti suffers a major catastrophe. We know this. Why aren’t there greater efforts at preparedness?” he asked.

He suggested that more attention should be paid to places such as Katmandu in Nepal, which—like Haiti’s Port-au-Prince—is near a major fault line. He also suggested that the 200,000 aid workers around the world might benefit from a central authority that could impart lessons learned from past aid operations.

Another aspect of the Haitian relief effort that Martone criticized was the distribution of aid from the backs of trucks, a practice known as “truck and chuck.” This happened mostly after the arrival of roughly 10,000 United States military personnel.

“This is a terrible practice,” he said. “The ones with the biggest elbows are going to get the most food. So the people we most want to target—vulnerable people like women and children—are not going to get the supplies. Strong young men are.”

One consequence of not working closely with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has been delays caused by accreditation requirements.

For example, the IRC brought 18 new Toyota Hilux pickup trucks to Haiti, but has been unable to use the vehicles because it cannot secure license plates. Instead, the group is spending $60,000 monthly to rent poorly maintained cars in Port-au-Prince.

One of the unforeseeable effects, he said, is that while 1.3 million people were displaced directly after the earthquake, three months later, that number had increased to 2 million. The lure of free food, water and shelter has proven too great a lure for Haitians living outside the hardest-hit areas.

“People are moving out of the slums, abandoning their standing structures, pitching a tent in a refugee camp and getting a ration card,” he said. “This is one of the consequences of us coming in with a refugee-camp model. We should be putting water pumps in those communities instead of camps.

The best approach for aid workers, Martone said, was to think of themselves as midwives working with the local population.

“You just need to promote a process that happens naturally,” he said.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.