The Haiti Earthquake Relief Effort: Ethical Dilemmas and Leadership
Ever since January 2010, the world has focused its thoughts, hopes and desires on alleviating the hurt and pain in Haiti after the nation endured a devastating earthquake. The number of people who were killed, injured and displaced is staggering and beyond imagination.
A wide variety of people and organizations want to contribute to relief efforts ranging from non-governmental organizations [NGOs], to governments, to kind-hearted individuals. Everyone wants to rush in and save the day, or at least a life. That is a natural feeling and desire, but sadly, many times it’s impossible to do.
Spontaneous disaster volunteers—those moved to action at the spur of the moment—without proper training, supplies and equipment can sometimes become part of the problem rather than the solution. In Haiti, even disaster volunteers with proper training have had difficulties. They arrived with supplies and equipment, but not enough to solve the problems. Disaster volunteers who do not adhere to a triage process don’t help, but rather hinder, the entire process. (Triage is French for sorting. It means to determine the priorities of treatment and resources in an effort to see who can be helped with the personnel and equipment at hand, and who cannot.)
This can lead to a true ethical dilemma. If you have two weeks of supplies, equipment and fuel for your generators, how do you choose who to serve? How do you get the equipment and supplies into the areas that need it when the area’s entire infrastructure is gone—no roads, no septic, no electricity, gas or water? Imagine the scene as you arrive in the initial moments or days after a disaster to hear screams or just silence as people stand around debris where homes and buildings used to stand. You realize you do not know where to begin helping.
Who is in command to provide guidance and leadership? Prior to the earthquake, Haiti suffered from an already weak infrastructure. It has taken many weeks to set up a rudimentary organization occurring at the national level, however, the need still remains critical at the local and family levels.
Most groups sending equipment, supplies and personnel can only stay for one to two weeks. The problems and devastation are so demanding that rescuers often only have the energy to help for a short period of time. DMAT [Disaster Medical Assistance Teams] throughout the United States have managed to send teams for two weeks at a time. U.S.-based hospital systems can send their volunteers for one to two weeks at a time as well. However, the impact of the disaster will linger long after these brief injections of assistance.
The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and the Federation of Red Cross have provided assistance and will continue to do so. Presently in Haiti there are more than 40 National Federations of Red Cross housed in tents assisting the Haitian survivors. One can see that the very idea of political fighting is quiet as old enemies work next to each other. For example, the Iranian Red Cross is set up next to the Israeli Red Cross as they both try to serve the survivors of this devastating earthquake. Other NGOs and governments will continue to provide additional assistance as well.
Now, profound questions remain for the world: How can one person be of service and how can organizations help to restore the nation’s destroyed infrastructure? Only time—along with hard work and dedication—can tell.