“Aid Is Slow In Haiti” Doesn’t Paint the Whole Picture
Before you read another “aid is slow in Haiti story,” let’s stop and do some math. Aid doesn’t just appear. It’s been about ten days since the earthquake. The population impacted in Haiti is geographically dispersed in a rural region away from major airports. Estimates say 40% of the impacted area’s population has a down or damaged house. The dispersed nature of this disaster will make aid distribution tricky because it’s very difficult to give aid to four out of ten neighbors, but not the other six. Particularly in Haiti, where there are consistent unmet needs.
Current estimates are that 53,000 houses were totally destroyed and another 77,000 are damaged. Realistically, those two groups need different things. But in the beginning, they will be treated the same. The working estimate is 130,000 houses with an average five family members each, equaling 650,000 people in need.
Food and basic medical aid arrive first because those resources are already in the country. They just need to be gathered and delivered to impact zones. Next will come tarps, blankets, buckets, mosquito nets, mats, masks, hygiene kits (soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.) and kitchen kits (pots and pans, plates, etc.). Water is also a need, and it will come in many forms–filters, trucked water, tanks, bottles or tablets to make water potable. People who are displaced will also need a place to poop. Aid may include setting up latrines or distributing bags for people to poop in, then throw away.
Special populations have other needs, as well. Schools will need big tents set up. Hospitals need specialized equipment. Eventually, kids might need school-learning materials. Infrastructure, like pipes or public buildings broken during the earthquake, will need to be replaced. All of these items are complicated to deliver, each in their own ways. Lighting, electricity and security are also important, and there will likely be numerous approaches to fit each camp or community’s situation.
How About Some Tarps?
Let’s start with tarps because it’s simple to understand. We know aid groups will give more tarps than destroyed homes because of unmet needs. Let’s pretend they are super strict and determined to only give out 130,000. Now, I agree, a tarp for five people who just lost their home is not enough. But it’s rainy. The government of Haiti is not allowing tents, except for special populations. Consumer tents fall apart super-fast in the Caribbean. Industrial or military tents are very expensive and huge.
Big organizations won’t just give any old tarp. The international aid community has standards called “Sphere,” which define materials best used in relief and how to distribute items. For tarps, which are also called “plastic sheeting,” there are quality standards in terms of seam strength, weight and how they handle the weather. The international aid community created an interagency Quality Control committee, which inspects the quality of production from the major manufacturers. Small organizations who don’t know about or follow the standards may give out commercial tarps.
The ideal scenario is to give out tarps along with “shelter kits.” Kits usually come with two tarps, plus “fixings” like nails, a hammer and pegs to actually erect a tent using the tarps. In different parts of the world, they customize kits and might give out machetes in tropical climates or even axes. In Haiti, they 100% do not want people to cut down trees to make tents. So in camps or dispersed settlements, they will also try to distribute little wooden poles to make the tent ridge.
Big organizations and governments have supply pipelines that may already include thousands of kits and tarps in storage somewhere. But no one has 130,000 in Haiti right now. At about $20 each, the tarps without shipping will cost $2.6M. Tarps can be purchased in huge rolls (cut by hand, hard to distribute right away), boxes (one per), or kits (two tarps, plus fixings). Or they might just be folded up. There are many different vendors, and different organizations have options usually in a catalog or through commercial bids. The UN keeps stuff strategically positioned in warehouses around the world.
Sea freight is obviously the cheapest way to deliver the tarps to Haiti. But it is slow. Average timing for commercial sea freight is six days from Miami to Haiti. Our projected 130,000 tarps will fit in about 24 containers (40 foot containers, with pallets). Each container will hold about 20 pallets, equalling 480 pallets of tarps. There’s only one port in Haiti that can handle unloading 24 shipping containers, and that’s in Port-au-Prince. The road to the south can’t support huge trucks, so let’s say we use box trucks. They hold six pallets each. We need 80 box trucks and wherever they end up probably needs a forklift.
Then you have security. There’s only one major road to the South, and at the moment, it’s controlled by gangs. The aid community and government of Haiti has negotiated with the gangs and are able to run one convoy a day, but they have a seven-truck limit. So even without traffic, plus all the forklifts and trucks you need, it will take 12 more days to get those 80 trucks to the south. I’m not even going to get into the fuel shortage and the cell phone service problems.
Once trucks get out to the rural areas, they have to take mountain or unimproved roads to reach people. And giving the stuff takes time. Just physically handing people tarps. If you spend 3 minutes per person, you can give out 240 tarps in a 12 hour day. In order to empty one of those box trucks (1625 tarps), you will either need seven teams working simultaneously all day or seven days.
So even if someone magically sent a ship the moment the earthquake struck Haiti, you’ve got:
130,000 tarps 6 days shipping
12 days to load 80 trucks and drive the convoys
2-3 days to get out into the hills
1-7 days to pass out the stuff
That’s 21 days in perfect conditions.
How It Gets Even More Complicated
Unfortunately perfect conditions do not exist. Because it gets worse. For a lot of reasons.
One: Most aid groups aren’t going to use the same supply chain. The UN organization IOM has asked groups to only order through their supply line. They will bring in tarps and give them to smaller groups to pass out. But small organizations don’t know how to access that supply line so they are going to bring in their own stuff. Big organizations will too. Maybe they want to distribute tarps with their branding on it or they already have tarps in a warehouse in Miami they want to get rid of. Also, the tarps aren’t in Miami. They’re in China or India.
Two: People need all the things on our list, not just tarps. So there is massive simultaneous pressure on the exact same choke points in the system. The port, the forklifts, the trucks, the road and the convoys. This is what people mean when they say the infrastructure is weak in Haiti. There are a thousand things that could go wrong. Traffic, or your phone dies, or it rains and the road floods. And then that causes a ripple effect, slowing down every other organization waiting for access to the same road, or warehouse, or truck, or driver.
Volume alone can break the system. Logistics are fragile. Imagine a spider web, at some point too much weight will cause it to collapse. When a state is underfunded and weak, you don’t know where that breaking point will be. We saw this in strange ways in 2010. For example, there weren’t enough license plates. So even though there were plenty of vehicles, no one could drive them. Also, they ran out of storage at the port. People couldn’t get their stuff through customs, so their containers sat there. Then they were charged for storage at astronomical rates.
Three: The government will be overwhelmed by all this. Each separate shipment requires at least a cursory approval. So the workers down at the ports and local officials will have to interact with many more actors. There’s just not enough hours in the day. In real life, aid will come in by air and smaller shipments by sea. It spreads out the pressure on the port, but many different stakeholders means coordination gets extremely difficult (impossible).
Realistically, the 21 day timeline will likely double. Past disasters indicate it will take about five weeks to two months to distribute 130,000 tarps.
Keeping It in Context
I don’t object to the premise. Aid to Haiti is slow. But it’s meaningless without context. It just makes Haiti and aid organizations look incompetent, which they are not. The slow aid stories also confuse donors and aid recipients because they make it seem like nothing is happening.
People want aid fast. But then you also need to explain that fast equals expensive. Air shipping on a tarp is 10 times more expensive than sea freight. So now imagine hundreds of little organizations, all shipping by air, then shipping independently once they arrive. Every organization hires logistics people and drivers and needs warehouse space and the prices skyrocket. Where does the money go? Right there. You don’t see anything, but there it goes.