[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti, killing well over 100,000 people (some estimates place the death toll much higher), destroying tens of thousands of homes and businesses and severely damaging the country’s infrastructure. Over the ensuing months and years, MCC, which had been operating in Haiti since 1958, undertook a large-scale (for MCC) humanitarian and rehabilitation response. A summary of key facets of MCC’s multi-year earthquake response can be found below. In this article, Herve Alcina, logistics and humanitarian aid coordinator for the earthquake response, reflects on what lessons MCC learned as it joined Haitian churches and community-based organizations in responding to the needs of individuals and communities devastated by the earthquake.
What were successes in the humanitarian assistance distributions after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti?
One of the things MCC did very well after the earthquake was responding quickly. So many people had pressing needs and MCC was there to respond in any way we could. We gave tarps, relief buckets, filter buckets, canned meat, comforters, hygiene kits, emergency food like rice and beans and other items that people needed urgently. We also worked with local committees in the camps. This helped us to be able to work more directly with local people and was a strength of our response.
What lessons did MCC learn from its Haiti earthquake response?
There were so many needs and so much suffering, so we chose to do evaluations after the project was underway and learned that some people had gotten supplies from multiple organizations. Some people received aid when they and their families had not been impacted by the earthquake. We learned about the need to do assessments before projects start, even if it means delaying the project by a few days. We learned that if we are going to do a response that requires specialized skills, like the construction of houses, we need to make sure that our team has enough capacity to manage highly technical projects. We should focus more on what we are already experts at, and not start to do new kinds of work after a disaster, even if there is a great need.
One of the things that was difficult about the earthquake was programming such large amounts of money. When I look back, I think that sometimes our projects were too large for partners that had never handled projects of that size. Sometimes that created conflict and led to projects that didn’t work as well as we would have liked. A challenge in distributing humanitarian assistance after the earthquake was that there wasn’t always a strong system of coordination and communication among NGOs. That is something that I think we can always improve on for any disaster response.
How has MCC Haiti integrated lessons from the 2010 earthquake response into more recent emergency responses?
We learned many lessons about humanitarian aid distributions after the 2010 earthquake. Unfortunately for Haiti, we’ve had three disaster responses in the past three years where we have been able to practice applying the lessons we learned. After Hurricane Matthew (2016), Hurricane Irma (2017) and the 2018 earthquake, we conducted rapid field assessments before considering any projects. Carrying out these assessments was very useful and made us more effective in getting MCC resources to people who were the most vulnerable.
MCC Haiti has been working hard over the years since the 2010 earthquake to do more capacity building trainings for our partner organizations on topics such as psychological first aid, how to develop better project plans and how to protect vulnerable people. All of these things have resulted in better disaster responses from MCC and our partners.
Essential learning from the 2010 earthquake response thus include the following:
- We have learned that we need to build on the expertise and specializations of our staff. We have learned that we aren’t as good at housing projects, so we no longer do them, but we are very good at short- and long-term agriculture work, so we have included this aspect in many of our disaster projects where people lost their gardens and livelihoods.
- We learned that sometimes projects can be too big for partners to manage, and that they need smaller-scale projects that gradually expand, so MCC has worked to build our partners’ capacity more gradually and intentionally with smaller projects that progressively get bigger, instead of seeking to develop really large projects like after the 2010 earthquake, projects that proved hard for partners to manage. This has allowed us to build stronger partners who we are more confident in their capacity to implement larger projects.
- An important lesson that we learned from the evaluation of MCC’s earthquake response is to stay true to our values. MCC in Haiti works with vulnerable people, and sometimes those vulnerable people are harder to get access to—they are farther away from MCC offices and there might not be a road that gets to them. Yet we have worked hard to not forget these isolated communities, even when other NGOs have abandoned them. For example, after Hurricane Matthew in 2017, all the large NGOs went to the south of Haiti, where some of the worst destruction was, but there were also people who lost their homes and gardens in the Artibonite Valley, people who didn’t have a voice to say they needed help, but our partners knew that they needed our help, and advocated for these people so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. MCC responded to them, bringing these communities canned meat, comforters and relief buckets. Through these small actions, MCC stood in solidarity with these often-neglected rural communities and recognized their suffering.
- A major lesson we have learned is to pre-position humanitarian resources, allowing for faster and more efficient relief distributions. Every year, MCC Haiti receives a container filled with basic emergency supplies MCC might need if a disaster strikes Haiti again, supplies like comforters, relief buckets and canned meat. We keep these material resources in storage right on our office grounds, so we are ready at any time to respond. This pre-positioning allowed us to respond within 48 hours to a recent disaster. I am proud that we have been able to help people quickly in their time of need.
Herve Alcina has coordinated MCC Haiti’s logistics and material aid responses to the 2010 earthquake, Hurricane Matthew (2016), Hurricane Irma (2017) and the 2018 earthquake.
Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Picador, 2013.
Farmer, Paul. Haiti after the Earthquake. New York: Public Affairs, 2012.
Frerichs, Ralph R. Deadly River: Cholera and Cover-Up in Post-Earthquake Haiti. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2017.
Katz, Jonathan M. The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. New York: St. Martin’s, 2014.