Magazine Feature / People

Humanitarian response course hits home for Korbel prof, class

Peter Van Arsdale, a senior lecturer at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is teaching courses on humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies and on global humanitarianism this winter. Here, he gives us a better perspective of relief efforts in the wake of the Haitian earthquake crisis.

Can you explain the structure of the relief efforts following the earthquake in Haiti?
Disasters of this type are known as complex humanitarian-assistance emergencies, which is a devastating and multi-dimensional catastrophe that affects people in diverse ways but that also has a diverse range of responses. First responders — those immediately at the scene — are firefighters, policemen, the International Red Cross and the military at times. Roughly 72 hours later come the second responders — nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations that can provide essential supplies. There are also third responders who are on the periphery of the disaster zone but are just as important. They are responsible for establishing communication, facilitating e-mails and phone calls to relatives and so on.

What are the immediate needs of the relief effort?
That which is already happening: potable water, sanitation, food and shelter, which includes blankets and clothing. This doesn’t mean people should send a box of blankets over to Haiti, though. Supplies must go through a networked nongovernmental organization that has an established presence in the country. Sending a box of well intended supplies willy-nilly simply disrupts the relief efforts. We hope there can be a coordinated response and not one that is counterproductive.

What are the long-term needs then?
In the field, we use the acronym RAD to characterize the long-term needs. This stands for relief, aid and development. Relief is the short-term need; for example, getting potable water to a desperate person. Aid comes later: re-establishing phones lines to foster communication. Lastly, we have development, which includes reconstructing clinics and rehabilitating the people. The worst part is that the country has not yet fully recovered from the 2008 hurricanes that caused so much devastation.

What are other areas that will be affected by this tragedy?
Unfortunately, there are always political ramifications to natural disasters. Generally, these are the most difficult to deal with beyond the tragedy of death and injury. I foresee a government that is already short on resources and not strong on international communication producing some negative action for the prime minister. During the hurricanes of the last few years, the internal response was weak and the external communication was irregular.

Also, in general, people often start thinking about the numbers, which is a natural reaction. But it’s inappropriate to focus on the numbers because we don’t have them and because it’s more important to focus on the responses. The numbers become sensationalized and are a distraction to the relief efforts. The point is: Each person counts.

What are some of the challenges facing the relief workers?
In cases like this, burn-out is always a huge challenge. You are working 24-7 and, along with the physical exhaustion, there is emotional stress and sadness. Furthermore, the infrastructure for relief in Haiti was only partially existent before and some of that has been damaged now, so it is difficult to get supplies in. They have to come in via one of three ways: ports, air or land, and all three of those need to be used for efficiency.

How are you changing your course syllabi to deal with this crisis?
We’ll be discussing the efforts in depth, and I will encourage students in both classes to consider doing a special project on Haiti that covers this unfolding emergency. All of us Americans need to know about Haiti. According to most World Bank indicators, Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas; it comes dead last socio-economically, that’s why the response will be extra hard — they have very modest resources to begin with. And it’s the poor people who are suffering the most. The poor in such disasters almost always suffer more than others because they are not in contact with well networked relief efforts. In Haiti, especially, many of the impoverished live in houses with poor foundations as there is no architectural code in that country. Those houses are the first to crumble and fall. These people were in a risky environment and vulnerable to such tragedies. Again, though, we shouldn’t sensationalize, just try to help.

Ed. Note: Nirvana Bhatia is a master’s student in human rights at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. This interview originally appeared on the Korbel School Web site.

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