U.N. coordinator takes staff to task for management of relief efforts

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; 6:58 PM

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations' top humanitarian relief coordinator has scolded his lieutenants for failing to adequately manage the relief effort in Haiti, saying that an uneven response in the month after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake has undercut confidence in the United Nations' ability to deliver vital assistance, according to a confidential e-mail.

The e-mail, which provides a rare and highly critical internal assessment of the massive U.N.-led relief effort, portrays an organization that is straining to set up enough shelters, latrines and other vital services for Haiti's displaced population. It also warns that a failure of the U.N. system to improve relief assistance, particularly as the country faces the onset of heavy rains, could result in political unrest and mass demonstrations.

The criticism from John Holmes, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, focuses on the U.N.'s sluggish implementation of its humanitarian "cluster strategy," which assigns key U.N. relief agencies responsibility for coordinating the delivery of basic needs in 12 sectors, including water, health care and shelter.

The cluster strategy has been developed in recent years to head off traditional conflicts between competing aid agencies that provided overlapping services. But it has been showing signs of strain.

"I was disappointed to find that despite my calls for the Global Cluster Lead Agencies to strengthen their cluster coordination capacity on the ground, very little progress has been made in this critical area," Holmes wrote in the e-mail. "This lack of capacity has meant that several clusters have yet to establish a concise overview of needs and develop coherent response plans, strategies and gap analyses. This is beginning to show and is leading others to doubt our ability to deliver."

U.N. relief officials confirmed the authenticity of the e-mail, but Holmes's office declined to comment on it.

Officials said that the U.N. World Food Program has provided food to more than 3.4 million Haitians and that more than 850,000 people are receiving five-liter rations of water per day. In excess of 66,000 people have been employed under a U.N. cash-for-work program.

Holmes, in his e-mail, acknowledged that the international relief community has "achieved a great deal in Haiti." But he said that all 12 clusters continue to "struggle without the capacity required to coordinate efficiently the large number of partners involved in the operation."

Holmes said the United Nations was lagging most seriously in the provision of non-food relief such as shelter, which is overseen by the International Organization for Migration and the International Federation for the Red Cross, and sanitation, which is managed by UNICEF.

U.N. officials said that they have launched a massive procurement operation to secure more materials but that their efforts have been hampered by a bottleneck in the airport that has led to a backlog of up to 1,000 relief planes.

"It's been logistically difficult," said Chris de Bono, a spokesman for UNICEF. "We've had a lot of trouble getting materials in. It's now in the pipeline, and it's certainly a priority for us."

Holmes urged relief coordinators to step up their efforts, noting that Haiti will face heavy storms in the upcoming hurricane season. "This is a major test for all of us and we cannot afford to fail," he wrote. "So I ask you all to take a fresh hard look at what you are able to do in the key area, and pursue a much more aggressive approach to meeting the needs."

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