Haiti: Aid is only as good as the infrastructure

The whole world is presently focused on the recent earthquake in Haiti, as it should be.  With estimates of approximately 50,000 mortalities from the disaster, and countless numbers of people in need of assistance, the immense scale of this disaster warrants immediate relief efforts by the international community.   At this time aid agencies are find themselves faced with an array of logistical challenges however, which makes this disaster somewhat unique.

Although an array of aid organizations are on the ground, media reports present portray them as struggling to get matters underway.  In short, the aggression of the earthquake has broken down the necessary transport lines for the delivery of aid, consequently, agencies are bottlenecked.  With a single, partially operating airport in Port-au-Prince, and a defunct harbor, aid agencies are having to determine alternative supply lines, via ground transport from the Dominican republic.

However a quick glance at a map of the roads between these two countries reveals that there are only 2 major arterial roads between the two countries.  Each roadway has extends to either the far north or the far south, and assumably have been damaged within the earthquakes as well.

Islands are complicated terrains.  An island economy is generally not self sustaining and relies upon a high quantity of imports to maintain its populations.  Islands likewise have limited resources available, and therefore have few products available for export or even a balanced consumption by their own populations.  Within the Caribbean, it is not uncommon for such islands to primarily thrive on sugar cane or tourism, with additional minor products such as cigar rolling or the manufacture of alcohol for export.  Haiti of course has been severely scarred by civil war within the last 10 years, and therefor does not even have such basic assets as their island neighbors.

With such limited economic means, it is easy to recognize that the nation does not have - or possibly even require - an advanced system of physical infrastructure.  Although the mandate within aid organizations are to work with communities, the conflict and disaster terrain can only facilitate the distribution of aid to the extent that industrial infrastructure is available.

Within Haiti, aid will therefore continue to be a one way process and will need to be a 'top-down' operation by necessity.  Agencies that have strong supply chain capacity and yet flexible field protocol will be the best equipped to handle the situation.  But even then, these agencies, such as MSF are faced with daunting challenges.  Unable to access fuel for planes and trucks, agencies are forced to import their own fuel.  This is of course an expensive and tedious process, considering that the delivery of fuel within vehicle will likewise consume fuel going to and from the destination point.  The greater the distance, and the more fuel in delivery, the more fuel that is ultimately consumed.  At certain point, the cost/benefit of shipping fuel becomes a loss.

Listening to NPR, watching the news, or reading the papers, many reporters and American citizens clearly have a limited or maligned view of the international institutions working within Haiti.  Regardless of appearances, aid agencies do coordinate with one another, emergency rosters and teams do exist on standby for immediate deployment, international aid standards do exist and state governance is in place.  Agencies do not have carte blanche to property, resources, or methods as they are still subject to the interest and directives of the sovereign government.  Therefore setting up an emergency settlement of tents for 10,000 people is not a matter of immediacy and whim, considering a) the settlement may be there for years   b) land ownership and property rights laws still exist and must be honored for the location of such a settlement an  c) other large scale planning concerns must be taken into account such as access to water, transportation, sanitation.

It becomes clear that regardless of the procedure taken by the aid organization, in the end, it is the infrastructure of the country that determines the viability of its immediacy.  Regardless of political will or the imbalance of power and capital throughout the world, aid will always be better distributed where fuel, supply lines, and raw supplies are readily available.  Otherwise, agencies must construct new infrastructure at the same time, reducing the efficacy of their mandate and undermining their success.