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Quakes and disasters: How to help

Interview: How relief agencies respond to emergencies and long-term problems.


Are too many of the emergency responses just band-aids that patch up the most immediate problems but do not address the long-term problems?

Haiti is a good example. MSF has been working in Haiti for 19 years because there are structural problems in providing health care. Not many other organizations have been in Haiti and people did not pay very much attention to Haiti. But now with the earthquake there has been a great deal of media attention, for a long time. It is easier to get people interested and to get donations for Haiti.

But still the emergency response that you see is short term. In the next few months several organizations are going to be leaving the country. Right now there are 396 NGOs in the health sector working in Haiti. In the weeks to come, only 15 of them will stay for more than six months. By the end of this year the majority of the groups will be gone. Haiti had long-term issues before the quake and the disaster worsened the situation. Haiti and Port-au-Prince will need aid for years to come. The disaster attracted a lot of people and aid to Haiti. The world has discovered what the situation is like and now they care.

Doctors without borders deputy director Marie-Noelle Rodrigue
Marie-Noelle Rodrigue of Doctors Without Borders

We do not want to be cynical about this but once you have dealt with many disasters you can see these cycles.

Now with Chile, the world’s attention has already moved on from Haiti. Medical and public attention concentrates on the most immediate disaster.

But look at the situation in Congo, there is no big disaster but the population is suffering and people are dying there from a lack of access to food and health care. This has been going on in Congo for 20 years. Unless there is something really big going on there very few people hear about Congo.

Somalia is another problem area that needs a big response. There is the ongoing war there and there are so many problems. The population is having a very difficult time. Nigeria has areas where people are having terrible difficulties. But these countries have not had the big disaster that has brought the cycle of response: the media attention, the public identification, the political attention and the donor response.

I know how the world works. The world’s attention goes to the emergencies. I am pleased that people now know what Haiti looks like and what the situation is like there. But now I don’t want them to forget completely about Haiti because there has been an earthquake in Chile.

Do emergencies like earthquakes and floods divert attention and funds away from the long-term development challenges?

Disasters attract a lot of people and aid to a country. The disasters can divert attention for a while but it is up to all people and organizations to return to the long-term needs.

It is not easy to raise questions to keep the focus on long-term problems but we try to keep donors focused on those long-term problems, which include medical response to epidemics, the gaps in health care, the lack of access of populations to primary and secondary health care.
TB and HIV/AIDS are big long-term challenges. We at MSF have advocated treatment for HIV for several years but there was resistance. Now finally the donor community has made the availability of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs a priority. We are engaged in this battle.