Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti, I'm sorry

A West Indian Calypsonian penned and sang a heart touching song "Haiti, I'm Sorry." This song captured the historical struggles of a people and whose daily existence seem to have reached its nadir with this 7.0 quake that has rocked and totally devastated the country. Haiti is and has been a fragile state. Coups, poverty and poor infrastructure and institutions have marked the governance and organiscape of the the nation. Today as the extent and impact of the Haitian earthquake unfolds, its become clear that this is a perfect disaster. A classical lesson in disasters that no graduate level course could teach. My hope is that all students of disaster are paying close attention.

The Haitian case exposes the weakness of mainstream theories of disaster and approaches to emergency management. Any centralized management apparatus is worthless because communication and transportation have become victims of the disaster. Those have collapse. Telecommunications and any other technology gadgets long the bastion of mainstream disaster management have also collapsed. It is local people relying on their knowledge, skills and attitudes that are making a different in Haiti in that 36hour windows that is considered the most critical. Whatever emergency plans and organizations exists, it seems no one is consulting or referring to them. Theories of disaster should be congruent with the response approaches and recommendations. The need to remove protection from the infrastructural, technological and economic domains to the social and cultural domains that is knowledge,skills and attitudes. This would necessitate a philosophical shift in our thinking and the organizations that promote and fund disaster research and practice.

David Alexander (2000) in his excellent blog on "Disaster Planning and Emergency Management," argued for emergency planning and management, that focused on culture and context. Given the theories are "road maps" for practice, theories that focuses on culture and context have to be developed.

While a 7.0 quake by any imagination is huge, by Haiti's, its catastrophic. The poverty, poor infrastructure, weak management, poor environmental practices, weak governance under normal conditions are disastrous. California had a 6.9 quake a few week ago but with little damage. The disaster is not in the trigger. It is in the culture and context. In the case of Haiti, the quake was just a trigger and pictures fed on television are merely, the results or symptoms of the disaster. The disaster is in the collapse of the social and cultural protections - the knowledge, skills and attitudes that is necessary to get citizens to make informed decision in every day life conscious of the risk and vulnerability. Those have to be learnt in systematic and sustained ways and has to be pervasive to address this widespread collapse. The widespread extent of that destruction and collapse is a clear indication of the pervasive nature of what the issues are and the cultural and social elements inherent in that pervasiveness are assumed.

Change can be attained through a systematic process of transmitting the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to make decisions around the persistent threat of earthquakes and hurricanes. This requires shifts in disaster management - from institutional focus to community focus, from a centralized to a decentralized approach. This may not suffice now. Relief and human suffering has to be alleviated but the future demands that new approach that responds to or at best captures the culture and context notions of David Alexander.

No comments: