U.N. aid chief 'disappointed' with Haiti earthquake relief efforts

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

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 world body's 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 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 United Nations' 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 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.

A "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," Holmes, who described himself as "disappointed," wrote in the e-mail. "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 fed 3.4 million Haitians and that more than 850,000 people get daily five-liter rations of water. More than 66,000 people have been employed under a U.N. cash-for-work program.

Holmes acknowledged that the relief community has "achieved a great deal in Haiti."

Still, Chris de Bono, a spokesman for UNICEF, said the logistics of procuring material have been difficult. "It's now in the pipeline, and it's certainly a priority for us," he added.

Holmes noted that Haiti will face heavy storms in the upcoming hurricane season. "This is a major test for all of us," he wrote, "and we cannot afford to fail."

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