“Learning from mistakes”: it’s a popular phrase in humanitarian response. With the international community reflecting on the 2014 Ebola response and now bearing witness to Hurricane Matthew’s destruction and exacerbation of preventable disease in Haiti, “too little, too late” has become the norm.
A reprioritization of resiliency, redistributing earmarked funds for disaster preparedness, and instituting accountability into humanitarian organizations can push the international community away from being hungover on its mistakes toward a more proactive, grounded, and effective mindset.
Recognizing that mistakes have been made is the first step. Unfortunately, the international development community has been stuck in this mentality for far too long. The United Nation’s (UN) newly-formed Sustainable Development Goals—the 2030 global agenda for economic development—do not promote resiliency nearly enough. Improving the ability for countries to reduce shocks from crises is forgotten in the wake of the agenda.
Less than a year into the West African Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) came under flak after a publicly-released memo stated that “nearly everyone involved in the response failed to notice factors that turned the outbreak into the biggest on record”.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) took a flagship role in responding to the outbreak and in turn, told the international community what they were afraid to hear: “For the outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail—with tragic and avoidable consequences,” said MSF General Director Christopher Stokes. WHO leadership has since promised to institute reform, according to Director General Margaret Chan: “We have taken note of the criticisms that…initial response was slow…and that we were not aggressive in alerting the world”.
Following Hurricane Matthew’s Haitian course, about 1,000 deaths were recorded, an estimated one million people remain without homes, and more than 3,400 cases of cholera have been reported. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the UN was accused of introducing cholera to communities during its response activities. The UN has avoided performing an internal audit process to address such allegations.
The UN had six years to address cholera in Haiti. It’s passivity in doing so only built an environment for inflaming avoidable calamity. Such ignorance toward accountability is unacceptable and flies in the face of the 2030 agenda that it backs.
Institutional and budgetary reform to enhance resiliency as a policy are being realized, but not fast enough. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has earmarked funds and effectively reprioritized resiliency through the agency’s “Build Back Better” agenda. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, USAID instituted a $130 million program that focuses exclusively on infrastructure investment and minimizing preventable damage and health crises borne out of natural disasters.
Such strategies need to be catalyzed and brought to the forefront. The time of learning from mistakes is over. Institutions need to build in accountability measures and improve investment to promote resiliency to the top of the development agenda and maintain it in the face of inevitable disasters that will occur in vulnerable communities.
Mitch Hulse is a student in the MPPGA Program at UBC focusing on international development policy, information communication technology, and digital development principles. You can follow him on Twitter @mitchhulse.