At 4:53 p.m. local time on Tues, Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake shredded Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, and nearby cities. Within 15 seconds, hundreds of thousands of people were dead.
Two years out, Haiti is still recovering, and aid experts are still planning for how to handle the world's next great disaster.
An estimated 634,000 people in Haiti continue to live in displacement camps, despite the enormous reconstruction and resettlement efforts still under way. Some Haitians are taking it upon themselves to build their own settlements, at times even staking out territory on mass graves. (Correspondent Susana Ferreira tells a morbidly intriguing story of the living mingling with the dead in this week’s issue of Time magazine.)
In the days and weeks immediately following the disaster, donations poured in from around the world. Sadly, many of the items ended up abandoned or in landfills. Some of them were truly bewildering: Imagine 10 freight containers sent to Port-au-Prince filled with donated refrigerators that required a voltage different from what is used in Haiti.
Even for usable items, the country lacked adequate means for getting them from airports and shipyards to the people who needed them. Similar stories have unfolded in wealthier nations facing catastrophe, as happened in Japan last year.
So, how can we do better next time? Humanitarian logistics expert Jose Holguin-Veras of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has the answer, but you many not want to hear it.
Holguin-Veras is a professor of civil and environmental engineering. He has the practical perspective of a transportation engineering expert. He also has extensive field experience on the ground in disaster sites around the world, including New Orleans post-Katrina and Japan post-Fukushima. A key facet of his research analyzes types of donations, donation patterns and how donated money is used.
In most cases, physical donations produce more harm than good because they …
Local relief organizations have the most success because they …
Despite the sensible, aforementioned advice against donating physical items to disaster sites, it is worth noting that some seemingly misguided donations can provide unexpected value.
Intrepid photographer Todd Huffman captured the tale of a donated calculus textbook that made its way into the hands of some teens in Cité Soleil (see photograph below), a severely impoverished commune on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince that is often cited as one of the most dangerous places in the world:
Haitian earthquake survivors wait to receive nonperishable goods from a local Red Cross distribution site in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 25, 2010. (Credit: Joshua Lee Kelsey and the U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons).
Haitian teens in Cité Soleil, an impoverished, densely populated commune in the metropolitan region of Port-au-Prince, teach themselves vector calculus from a donated textbook, June 27, 2010. (Credit: Todd Huffman via Wikimedia Commons).