Haiti's emergency response: an early assessment

The emergency response to the Haitian earthquake has been notable for the sheer scale of military foreign aid coming from a diverse range of countries. Now the challenge is to co-ordinate that effort with an almost non-existent Haitian government, and a UN force who has suffered losses.

By Dr. Sara Ulrich for RUSI.org

Following the Haitian earthquake on 12 January 2010, Jean Philippe Chauzy of the International Organisation for Migration described the disaster as 'the most complex to date' while  United Nations spokesman Elisabeth Byrs has said that it 'is an historic disaster. We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the UN memory.  It is like no other.' The words describing the scale of the earthquake disaster and its emergency response are extremely compelling and underline the sheer challenge that lay ahead of the aid community. 

The overall impact of the Haitian earthquake is an estimated 3 million people affected out of which 1.5 million are homeless, over 250,000 injured and a death toll comprised between 200,000 and 300,000 (150,000 dead bodies have been recovered so far ). This would mean that the Haitian earthquake could become one of the deadliest disasters to have occurred in our recent history.[1] A full breakdown can be found in the table below.
The emergency response to this latest catastrophe has been overwhelming in the amount of foreign aid given but has faced severe management challenges.

An enormous amount of Foreign aid

The UN Flash Appeal for Haiti, on 15 January, has estimated the amount of aid needed for the next six month to $575 million. Within just two weeks after the disaster, the total amount received and pledged so far,[2] by ninety-five countries, thirteen international organisations, 101 NGOs and 270 private businesses, is reaching $1.4 billion.

The foreign aid received can be divided into two categories: the in-kind donations and the cash donations. The in-kind donations represent a low estimate of $386 million to date [3] and are focused especially on search and rescue teams, medical aid, food, water, sanitation and shelter equipment.  The cash donations have already reach an impressive $1 billion for the humanitarian aid and the UN meeting in Montreal on 25 January decided to convene a global UN donor conference in March to tackle the longer term reconstruction needs. 

Haiti's foreign aid overview  (as of 27/01/2010)


Categories/ type of foreign aid


(in $)


(in $)

Grand total






International Organizations










Private sector










Sources: compiled with data from UN-OCHA (given & pledged)

But what is particularly noticeable in this emergency response is the sheer scale of the military foreign aid provided by twenty-nine  countries representing more than 48,000 military personnel, thirty navy ships, thirty-eight transport aircrafts and fifty-eight helicopters. [4] The country having dominated this part of the aid is the USA. In the early days 'Joint Task Force Haiti' was almost reminiscent of a full-scale military operation with 33,000 American troops, [5] four Coast Guards ships, twelve Navy ships and multiple cargo aircrafts and helicopters.

It has to be noted that due to the presence of the UN-Minustah force, out of the twenty-nine countries, sixteen States already had troops stationed in Haiti, for example Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jordan or Nepal, and they stated that their personnel would, once secured, be assigned to the rescue effort pool.

Overall the military involvement in the disaster relief effort has been focusing on rescue teams, security and medical personnel, strategic transport facilities, relief materials and aid infrastructures (hospital ships, water purification).

The military response is also notable in two further respects. The first observation was the relief effort provided by the neighbour, the Dominican Republic, who has been the first on the scene. With their limited military means, they have rushed to provide emergency supplies, rescue and medical help. The second observation is the activation on 25 January of the EU's militarised police force (EGF) which will send 300 personnel (from France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal) in the next few weeks to help provide police security and the distribution of aid.

Haiti's military foreign aid overview
(as of Jan 27)


Countries/ Categories

Military aid





Minustah staff; 2 transport aircrafts; 2 helicopters



Air force-Air traffic controllers









Minustah staff; 6  transport aircrafts; 1 field hospital
1 navy ship (water purification)



Medical team



'Operation Hestia'
2 navy ships (Halifax & Athabaskan); 4 transport planes
6 helicopters; 66 vehicles; 1 field hospital; Minustah staff



Minustah; 2 aircrafts



1 navy ship with hospital; 7 cargo flights
use of their military air bases as hubs

Dominican Republic


Air force mobilised; planes; 39 trucks; 14 helicopters




(expected in next weeks)


EU's militarised police force (EGF)



1 SAR unit; 9 transport planes; 2 ships (Siroco & Batral Francis Garnier); 5 helicopters; relief equipment






1 transport aircraft; 1 aircraft carrier
(Helicopters, army vehicles, hospital facilities)






For Minustah



2 navy ships ( 1 amphibious lander + 1 hospital ship)
air planes






1 navy ship with transport vehicles, small boats & relief supplies












5 cargo aircrafts; 4 helicopters



1 navy ship Castilla with hospital facilities, relief supplies & 4 helicopters

Sri Lanka





1 navy ship with relief supplies



Minustah; 5 military rescue staff



'Joint Task Force Haiti'
US Coast Guards with 4 ships; 12 navy ships ( out of which 1 destroyer, 1 hospital ship, 1 aircraft carrier, 5 frigates); 19 helicopters ; 2 transport aircrafts



2 navy ships


An estimated 48,000 Military & security personnel
30 navy ships; 38 cargo aircrafts; 58 helicopters

Sources: compiled with data from UN-OCHA & EU-MIC  (USAR=Urban  Search & Rescue); the numbers for the UN-Minustah are from before the earthquake

Severe challenges on Foreign aid management: early lessons learned

Four key lessons from the Haitian's emergency response could be envisaged at this early stage.

1. Challenges in Foreign aid distribution

Not only did the earthquake damage the whole infrastructure of Haiti but it also severely affected its organisational structure since the epicentre of the disaster occurred in the capital city Port-au-Prince. Resulting this in the the very difficult task to try and deliver aid to the needy population.

Criticisms have been prompt to appear but let's keep in mind that air, land and sea transport facilities were almost completely down. The aid transport by land, through the Dominican Republic, was hindered by un-surfaced and mountainous roads with heavy traffic due to inhabitants fleeing the capital. The airport was damaged and did not have a huge capacity to begin with. In addition huge backlogs, a destroyed control tower and flights' diversions were the daily challenges faced.
Delivery by sea was no better with Port-au-Prince's port severely damaged and no equipment available for unloading big vessels. But two piers did reopen on 21 January.

In addition, the communication systems and electrical networks were not functioning: there were no telephone system (it took the main cellular telephone provider three days to get back to 70 per cent coverage),the  internet was down, and the media was almost completely silenced and satellite phones were scarce.

And the loss of local organisational structures hindered the aid efforts severely. The government was almost non-existent in the early stage as were the civil servants. Furthermore local officials rarely have a working mobile phone which made the coordination close to impossible. Other facts were the lack of municipal petrol reserves, the lack of trucks and the severely disrupted hospitals.
It was really a worst case scenario in aid delivery and a nightmare for logistical teams.

2. Leadership challenge
The comprehensive media campaign on the disaster, even if it has its importance to be able to raise money more quickly, has a severe downside with the competition States enter in order to attract the press' attention. Even if some consider it a necessary evil, it has had a back lash and highlighted pretty quickly the lack of leadership and cooperation between the USA who controlled the airport, the UN -- which was trying at the same time to deal with its grieving staff after the loss of its HQ and aid coordination, Brazil - wholed the UN MINUSTAH force - and an almost non-existent Haitian government. It took more than a week to resolve the leadership issue and start a more effective aid distribution. This has to be improved.

3. The 'too much' aid challenge
A compelling  paradox is that sometimes too much aid is worse than not enough. Aid amounts to in-kind assistance where a country will give useless items.  Famous examples include donations like Viagra, ski jackets or Father Christmas costumes after the 2004 tsunami or incompatible electrical equipments and foreign languages instructions manuals during hurricane Katrina's emergency response.

Also another appalling effect of receiving too much aid is to having to destroy or re-route excess in-kind donations. For example Indonesia disposed of 75 tonnes of out-of-date medicines following the 2004 tsunami foreign aid or destroying and donating around 350,000 MREs because of out-of-date beef import regulations after Katrina's emergency response. [6]

Even if one looks at cash donation, especially if it is always the preferred option, there is a high risk of not being able to spend it all. Only 39 per cent of the total 2004 tsunami money donations and 31 per cent of Hurricane Katrina's cash donations have been used to date. Haiti's foreign aid management will hopefully learn from those costly mistakes.

4.The priority setting challenge
Complaints have been voiced on, not only how slow the aid was being distributed, but also of a clear tendency to focus on security reinforcements over food/water/medical aid distribution.

Those complaints targeted the USA - who controlling the airport -- for transporting its military personnel ahead of emergency aid despite an acute humanitarian relief need. Several aid agencies voiced their concern on the initially-expressed exaggerated fear of looting and violence situations. But the reality resurfaced when in certain parts of Port-au-Prince, several violent gang actions erupted. In addition, security concerns remained high with the 4000 'escaped' prisoners from the capital's jails and the experience of dreadful violent past experiences, hence the UN-Minustah presence. Subsequently the USA on 16 January, even if previously ruled out, opted for food and water air-drops in remote areas of Haiti. Finally on 18 January the issue was resolved in a UN-USA agreement to prioritise humanitarian flights over security increase.

In retrospect criticism against the USA on this issue might have been too premature. Let's keep in mind that only the USA is capable of deploying such a military emergency response operation at such short notice. The UN-Minustah force, even with over 9000 uniformed personnel before the earthquake and keeping in mind that they suffered losses, would have been challenged in addressing the scale of this aid management. And the 18 January  resolution to increase its capacity by an additional 3500 men would not have been an immediate solution since several weeks will be needed to actually physically have those troops on Haiti soil.

Nonetheless the lack of coordination between the three main entities handling the Haitian relief (International Organisations, States and NGOs) needs to be addressed urgently. Several propositions have been formulated over the years to alleviate this disaster diplomacy ballet but none has found a way to counteract seeking one's own interests. There is an urgent need to empower the United Nations to be able to deal effectively with those kinds of emergencies.  A first step in that direction could be to bind more strongly civilian and military aspects and insist on deployment speed, by, for example, re-initiating the idea of a standby ready-to-deploy UN Peacekeeping force with civil protection components. 

Dr. Sara Ulrich is a Visiting Lecturer at King's College London and Simulation Director at Simulstrat Ltd



1. Compared to the 1970 Bangladesh cyclone with 300,000 deaths; the 1974 China Earthquake with 242,000 deaths and the 2004 Tsunami with 226,000 deaths

2. As of 27/01/2010 and only focusing on humanitarian donations not reconstruction pledges

3. As of 27/01/2010.

4. See the table below as of 27 January.

5. 13,000 were already stationed there.

6. For more details see: The impact of Hurricane Katrina's crisis management on Transatlantic Relations, Occasional Papers series, Texas A&M University, EU Center, February 2007, http://eucenter.tamu.edu/Publications/OccasionalPapers/Hurricane_Katrina_Crisis_Management.pdf and  my contribution in RUSI's 2007 Emergency response and Civil Defence workshop's report, p.43, http://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/RUSI_Emergency_Response_Workshop_Report.pdf


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