Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti and Dr. Shah’s First Test


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Over the last week, the world has been watching the brutal aftermath of a 7.0 earthquake, which struck Haiti last Tuesday afternoon. For Rajiv Shah, the execution and delivery of relief efforts are to be his first test since taking over the US Agency for International Development (USAID) this past Christmas Eve. However, in the coming weeks ahead, after the initial nutritional, shelter and hygienic needs of Haiti are met – a real development plan for Haiti must be made.


Supplies being unloaded onto Haiti's airport tarmac photo/Google Earth

While this seismic tragedy was unexpected, the knowledge that Haiti was a fragile and poor nation with a struggling government was not. It has had a United Nations peacekeeping force and developmental presence in Haiti since 1993. In the first hours after the earthquake struck the county's flimsy structure was easily apparent and swift action was taken by the US government to provide basic logistical services that the Haitian government could not. Many other governments have pledged support, but the US has essentially taken over the command and control functions of the entire relief operation, with the US Federal Aviation Administration dictating all air traffic into Port-au-Prince's airport and the Pentagon coordinating every supply airlift and sea delivery.

One bright spot is the outpouring of civilian assistance and humanitarian aid from all parts of the world. Boosted by new donation streams such as mobile text messages and online social networking sites, these contributions have generated tens of millions of dollars with The American Red Cross alone reporting over $10 million in mobile txt donations late Friday evening. At the same time, aid workers armed with technology are using their mobile phones to pin point their locations as trouble spots on Google Maps and share this geographical information with command and distribution centers. However, while these and other factors such as Haiti's proximity to the US are in its favor, years of abject poverty, ignored development, UN bureaucracy and weak state institutions are compounding the earthquake's tremors.

As USAID's Administrator, Dr. Shah is a competent professional, with previous stints at the US Department of Agriculture and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to his official USAID bio he earned his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and M.Sc. in Health Economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and also attended the London School of Economics. Not too shabby…but Haiti will be harder than any other test he has had to face.

The relief efforts will go on for some time, but when the US leaves, albeit probably not any time soon, Haiti's people need to be able to hold up their own economy and communities again. As USAID marshals its own plan for Haiti's recovery, job creation, exportable goods and outsourced services must be the end goal of any development scheme. Good luck Dr.


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