Page last updated at 17:14 GMT, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

How does Haiti differ from post-tsunami Aceh?

Tsunami damage in Aceh, Indonesia (27 Dec 2004)
Large areas of Aceh were flattened by the 2004 tsunami

The last international disaster on the scale of the January earthquake in Haiti was the tsunami that devastated coastlines across Asia in 2004. The death toll in the territory of Aceh in Indonesia was similar to that in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

The BBC's International Development Correspondent David Loyn, who reported from both towns, looks at the differences in the international response.

Within days of the tsunami hitting Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, an Australian army combat engineering battalion had landed with a large force of trucks, earth-moving equipment, and water purification systems.

They were the most visible sign of an international response that swiftly brought ashore huge quantities of food, shelter, and basic sanitation.

A fleet of vessels, including a Greenpeace ship in the area, was commandeered to move aid to where it was needed across a wide area.

US soldiers unload a helicopter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (15 Jan 2010)
US army efforts in Haiti focused on water and basic meals

In contrast, the most visible sign of aid in the same timeframe in Haiti was the sight of US Navy helicopters ferrying ready-to-eat meals and bottled water from the fleet anchored offshore.

Aid professionals shook their heads at this approach - so good on TV, but so ineffective at delivering the quantities of relief necessary to help the three million people believed to have been affected by the Haiti earthquake.

But at least the US forces were doing something.

In the squalid makeshift camps that emerged on the streets and on any open ground in Port-au-Prince there was no sign of the shelter, sanitation nor packs of basic essentials like soap and buckets that usually characterise the first wave of aid donations.

So what had gone wrong? When there was such huge international generosity, both by governments and individuals, why has it taken so long for effective aid to reach those who need it?


Part of the answer lay in the security briefings that aid agencies received.

US soldiers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (12 Jan 2010)
The fear of insecurity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy

Some isolated scenes of looting and the sound of occasional gunfire reinforced the view of security advisers that the streets of Port-au-Prince were a war zone, and it found itself re-categorised into the same bracket of cities that included Baghdad and Kabul.

That kept many aid workers firmly behind the safety fence at the UN compound.

Another problem came in the sheer scale of the US military deployment.

An aid official from a major and reputable international organisation told me last week that when he had tried to secure landing rights for a relief flight from Europe, he was told by the US authorities that the next available landing slot "was on 9 February".

The airstrip is filled instead with US transport planes bringing in troops and military equipment.

The problem is that this bottleneck means that the threat of worsening security could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If they do not deliver the aid fast, they will need all those troops.

Despite the enormous loss of life, the Haitian response to the earthquake has been characterised by the patience and resolve of a people who have suffered much.

But patience is not limitless.

Damaging legacy

The most effective response has come from the World Food Programme (WFP), which has succeeded in raising food distribution from a few thousand a day to hundreds of thousands.

A shanty town in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (26 Jan 2010)
Haiti's economy and infrastructure were struggling even before the quake

But because of the enormous need and failures elsewhere in the system they need to spend far more time negotiating security issues than they otherwise might.

The third major issue in Haiti was in the lack of coordination of aid. One reason for this was the huge loss of life in the UN system - more than 80 dead, including the head of mission.

But there was similar dislocation to the staff of aid agencies in Aceh, and there the system recovered far more quickly, so that a new co-ordination network could deliver aid across a far wider area than was affected in Haiti.

The biggest difference between the two countries was their starting point.

Indonesia is a rapidly developing nation, while Haiti is the only country in the western hemisphere on that unenviable UN list of those defined as Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Corruption and the legacy of colonial interference have conspired against good governance.

At the best of times, water and power are unreliable, and the streets are filled with rotting refuse.

So it was hard to expect the efficient disposal of more than 100,000 corpses, while broken water mains continue to flood streets that were not otherwise affected by the earthquake.

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