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Top U.N. aid official critiques Haiti aid efforts in confidential email

The U.N.'s top humanitarian relief coordinator John Holmes scolded his top aid lieutenants for failing to adequately manage the relief effort in Haiti, saying that an uneven response in the month following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake was undercutting confidence in the U.N.'s ability to deliver vital assistance, according to a confidential email obtained by Turtle Bay.

The email, 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 by 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.

In Haiti, the U.N. has given the World Health Organization the lead role in coordinating the distribution of medicines from governments and scores of private relief agencies. Others, like the World Food Program (WFP) and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) oversee the delivery of food and the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation.

The cluster strategy has developed in recent years to head off traditional conflicts between competing aid agencies that provided overlapping services to populations in need. But it has been showing some 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. "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."

Holmes said that the international relief community has "achieved a great deal in Haiti." U.N. officials say that the WFP has provided food to more than 3.4 million Haitians and that more than 850,000 people are receiving 5 liter rations of water per day. Over 66,000 people have been employed under the UNDP cash-for-work program, mainly in support of drain clearing and debris removal, according to a U.N. situation report.

But he also said, "it's clear that there remain major unmet humanitarian needs." Holmes said that all 12 clusters continue to "struggle without the capacity required to coordinate efficiently the large number of partners involved in the operation. One month into the response, only a few clusters have fully dedicated cluster coordinators, information management focal points and technical support capacity, all of which are basic requirements for the efficient management of a large scale emergency operation."

Holmes said the U.N. was lagging most seriously in the provision of non-food items like 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.
For instance, about 40 percent of displaced Haitians are still in need of transitional shelter. "Over 87,000 tarpaulins have been distributed along with over 17,000 family size tents," according to a situation report. "This has reached about 24 percent of an estimated 1.3 million in need of shelter support," according to an OCHA situation report.

UNICEF estimates that a total of 1.1 million displaced people in Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Petit Goave, Gressier, and Jacmel require emergency latrines.

U.N. officials say 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.

"We have big push on sanitation that's taking place right now," said Chris de Bono, a spokesman for UNICEF. "It's been logistically difficult. 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 and rain with the hurricane season. "With the rainy season looming, these unmet needs are taking on additional urgency, not least from the health and protection points of view, and given the potential consequences in terms of both politics and security of large demonstrations in some sensitive places."

"Part of the problem relates to our overall operational capacity. I fear we have simply not yet injected the necessary resources in some areas in terms of capacity to implement practical programmes and deliver on the ground. The magnitude and complexity of the disaster are such that all major organisations need to deploy their most experienced disaster response staff and to make sure they are procuring, delivering and distributing what is needed as quickly as possible. This is a major test for all of us and we cannot afford to fail. 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."

Full email below the jump:

Dear Colleagues,

Exactly one month after the earthquake, I visited Haiti to measure progress in the humanitarian operation and to gain a better understanding of the challenges we continue to face as a community in our efforts to support the national authorities in their emergency response. It is clear that, thanks to the collective efforts of so many people and organizations, we have achieved a great deal. However, it is also clear that there remain major unmet humanitarian needs, particularly in critical areas such as shelter, other NFIs, and sanitation.

With the rainy season looming, these unmet needs are taking on additional urgency, not least from the health and protection points of view, and given the potential consequences in terms of both politics and security of large demonstrations in some sensitive places.

Part of the problem relates to our overall operational capacity. I fear we have simply not yet injected the necessary resources in some areas in terms of capacity to implement practical programmes and deliver on the ground. The magnitude and complexity of the disaster are such that all major organisations need to deploy their most experienced disaster response staff and to make sure they are procuring, delivering and distributing what is needed as quickly as possible. This is a major test for all of us and we cannot afford to fail. So I ask you all to take a fresh hard look at what you are able to do in the key areas, and pursue a much more aggressive approach to meeting the needs.

Regarding coordination, 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. In most of the twelve clusters established, cluster coordinators continue to struggle without the capacity required to coordinate efficiently the large number of partners involved in the operation. One month into the response, only a few clusters have fully dedicated cluster coordinators, information management focal points and technical support capacity, all of which are basic requirements for the efficient management of a large scale emergency operation. 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.

Among the many lessons already identified from this disaster is the need for robust cluster coordination teams with adequate seniority to take charge of cluster coordination at the outset of the response. To place one person as a cluster coordinator is simply inadequate and falls critically short of what Global Cluster Lead Agencies have committed to.

We cannot, however, wait for the next emergency for these lessons to be learned. There is an urgent need to boost significantly capacity on the ground, to improve coordination, strategic planning and provision of aid. Good coordination between clusters and within each cluster is needed not only to channel the contributions of UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, IOM and NGOs, but also: (1) to ensure close coordination with the efforts of national authorities; (2) to channel the contributions of the private sector; and (3) to make maximum use of the logistical support and other assistance provided by the military. OCHA stands ready to assist and can provide further support and advice, when needed.

I would therefore like to repeat my request to Global Cluster Lead Agencies to boost their cluster coordination teams immediately, and to provide sustained coordination capacity on the ground. I would also like to request NGOs to look at ways of strengthening their own capacity on the ground and to consider contributing personnel to support cluster coordination efforts.

The scale of the devastation in Haiti has overwhelmed everyone. Despite the untiring efforts of so many people, we are still struggling to provide enough basic assistance in some vital areas to Haitians affected by the earthquake, many of whom remain in life-threatening situations. We can scale our efforts up further and we must do so urgently.

With best regards,

John Holmes

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

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