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A 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, a natural disaster that would affect millions and kill an estimated 230,000 people. Here, a store burns in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010.
A 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, a natural disaster that would affect millions and kill an estimated 230,000 people. Here, a store burns in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. (AL DIAZ/Miami Herald/TNS)

Ten years ago this month, I was buried alive by the largest earthquake to hit Haiti in a century. My colleagues and I were trapped for 55 hours in the wreckage of the Hotel Montana, alternating hope and despair as six of us waited for rescue in a space no bigger than a closet.

This life-changing experience was my first international program visit as CEO of IMA World Health, a faith-based public health nonprofit organization working in Haiti and in other places of need, such as the current Ebola outbreak zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the 10 years between these two gargantuan emergencies, the ability of the international community to respond is still not good enough.

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The problem isn’t necessarily generosity. In the aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake, private individuals donated more than $16.4 billion on top of billions by governments and international agencies. Most of those funds were spent on providing essential services, such as food, water, health care and housing, as well as clearing rubble so that more than a million people could begin to rebuild. I am alive today because of a rapid international response that found and freed me from the collapsed building. But in Haiti, as in most emergencies, urgency waned and the focus of the international community quickly moved on to the next big thing.

Unfortunately, that urgency needs to last years if not decades.

In most disasters, only about 5% of all funds actually go to long term recovery. After the initial rush of funds, the work of recovery and rebuilding often goes unfinished. In Haiti today, 10 years later, there are still significant numbers of people who can’t return home, who are settled in makeshift housing that still feels like a camp.

Recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and the Congo are also perfect examples of what is wrong with how we approach emergencies. Only when the outbreaks began to spread to neighboring countries were billions contributed to addressing it. Yet, much of that support has not been spent on solutions that will reduce future vulnerability. The conditions that created the outbreak, like very weak health systems, have been made even weaker by the outbreak. Money that had been going towards primary care, HIV/AIDS, malaria and other disease prevention programs had their resources either reduced or diverted to address Ebola. Following the West Africa outbreak of 2014, the post-disaster situation created more deaths than the outbreak itself.

Today, people in Congo understand that the pressure to contain Ebola is a short-sighted response. A response that seemingly ignores the scores of Congolese who die of malaria. A response that excludes local organizations and civic leaders, in favor of international foreign staff who ride around in white trucks, far removed from day-to-day challenges that existed before they arrived and that will deepen after they leave. One of the reasons the Ebola outbreak in Congo is the longest in history and has not been contained is due to the inability to address local community needs and, with it, the pattern of short-sighted responses.

As we seemingly move into a world where disasters and complex emergencies will be more frequent and intense, we need to rethink not our initial response but our long-term approach. In the wake of a disaster it is hard to think ahead through the chaos. Organizations instead need to account for this ahead of time and accept that the cost of rebuilding is part of the cost of any effective response. The traditional response that invests in the rush of immediate need and fails to plan for the longer-term ignores the lessons of history.

I am living proof that urgency is critical. I am grateful for the rescuers who freed me and my colleagues from the rubble of the Hotel Montana 10 years ago. In any emergency, speed is critical to saving lives. Yet if saving lives is the ultimate goal, how we respond to disasters must address the longer-term problems that keep people vulnerable in the first place.

Rick Santos’ (rlswdc@gmail.com) is principal of NXPivot, LLC and former CEO of IMA World Health, and is currently a senior advisor to IMA World Health and Lutheran World Relief. He lives with his family in Silver Spring.

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