The pattern in Ottawa following a humanitarian crisis has long been predictable: first the scramble to help, then the political damage-control exercise to justify delays and disarray. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, federal officials were left explaining why it took several precious days to lease a Russian aircraft to fly in a Canadian military disaster relief team. When Israel attacked Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon in 2006, other countries managed to begin evacuating their citizens while Canadian officials were trying to book ships to do the job.
But last month’s devastating earthquake in Haiti has been an entirely different story. Although some inevitable snags have been reported, experts in large-scale relief operations have generally applauded the Canadian effort. “We can see,” said Susan Johnson, director general of international operations for the Canadian Red Cross, “that we’re in a different place than we were in some previous responses on the part of Canada.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet are basking in the praise—a welcome distraction from sharp and sustained criticism of the decision to suspend Parliament until after the Winter Olympics.
The more agile reaction this time is no accident. The federal government’s capacity to coordinate operations after a major disaster abroad has been systematically overhauled in recent years, precisely because it was previously found wanting. Among the old shortcomings: no large central stockpile of emergency aid supplies, no single federal agency with the authority to pull together the response, not even a full roster of trained public servants to call in to man the phones in an operations room.
The focal point of the updated system is a new secretariat in the Foreign Affairs Department called START, for Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force. Invisible to the public, START is largely responsible for orchestrating the Haitian earthquake response, and the task force is expected to play the key role in managing the transition from a humanitarian-relief sprint to a reconstruction marathon.
START’s core role is to make sure the federal government’s sometimes fractious parts—especially Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency and the Department of National Defence—mesh in a crisis. “It’s sometimes considered trite when people talk about a ‘whole-of-government’ approach,” Peter Kent, the federal minister of state responsible for the Americas, told Maclean’s. “But START has really brought together the departmental leadership, the professionals, and the political leadership right up to the Prime Minister.”
Although it was created in 2005, the year after the South Asian tsunami, START really began to take shape in 2006. After some growing pains, it was extensively reorganized beginning last spring. That was when Elissa Golberg was appointed to head the task force, after attracting favourable media and political attention during a stint in Afghanistan serving in the sensitive post of representative of Canada in Kandahar. Outside groups working closely with the federal government in Haiti regard Golberg as a linchpin. “I think her skills and experience are shining through at a time like this, her ability to pull people together and coordinate,” said Johnson.
As it happened, Golberg was not in Ottawa when the earthquake struck. She was in Beijing, where she had been leading a two-day disaster training session at the Canadian embassy, and had to rush home. So the U.S. Geological Survey email alert signalling that Haiti had been rocked by an earthquake on the evening of Jan. 12 flashed onto the screens of her staff while she away. Within a few hours START had convened the standing interdepartmental task force that takes charge of the federal response to an overseas disaster. That group—co-chaired by Golberg and the head of Foreign Affairs’ Latin America bureau—has since been meeting daily to coordinate the government’s reaction.
Many crucial elements in the response are surprisingly new. The most visible are the new C-17s, the behemoth strategic-lift aircraft delivered by Boeing to the Canadian Forces in 2007 and 2008. In fact, the availability of the planes for Haiti was partly good luck—they might well have been in the Middle East hauling supplies in and out of Afghanistan, in which case Canada would have had to lease private aircraft for the Haitian relief effort. Another key new element was a new CIDA stockpile of emergency supplies, built up since 2004, and warehoused in Mississauga, Ont. The field hospital in Haiti—run jointly by the Canadian and Norwegian Red Cross, and funded partly by the Canadian government—only came into existence over the past few years.
Huge planes, pallets mounded with relief supplies, and an emergency hospital were the most visible signs of the Canadian answer to the cry for help. Far less obvious, but crucial, are new arrangements to make sure the right people get deployed quickly. Only in the last eight months, START created a division to oversee one-stop shopping for experts from various branches of the federal government, the provinces and non-governmental groups—from prison workers, to experts on border controls, to justice officials. Also invisible, except to insiders, is the evidently improved working relationship between Harper’s cabinet and the bureaucrats since, say, the Lebanon evacuation of 2006. “It is obvious to observers that the civil service and the political leadership understand each other better and co-operate better when faced with a crisis like this,” said Scott Gilmore, the Ottawa-based executive director of Peace Dividend Trust, a non-profit group that works with peace and humanitarian missions, including a large operation in Haiti.
Haiti has been by far START’s highest-profile test to date, but hardly the task force’s first real-world challenge. Considering earthquakes alone, there were devastating ones in Pakistan in 2005, Indonesia in 2006, Peru in 2007, and China in 2008. After each crisis, START conducted post-mortem analyses of what worked and what went wrong. But it’s not just a humanitarian-relief unit. It’s also responsible for developing federal policy on fragile states, like Haiti, Sudan and Afghanistan, and delivering programs in those countries aimed at peacekeeping, peacemaking and preventing conflicts from erupting. Even before the earthquake, START was in Haiti working on projects like reforming the country’s notorious prisons and shoring up its border with the Dominican Republic.
It’s the long view of Haiti’s future that will matter most as START grapples with how to take the momentum behind the disaster response and convert it into a plan to rebuild the battered country. Johnson points out that unlike Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami—when coastal communities were hard hit but the capital, Colombo, was intact—Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, lies in ruins. The earthquake “took out the country’s nervous system,” she said. Reconstruction will mean not only clearing roads and building houses, but restoring institutions that were far from robust even before this latest blow.
Haiti is relatively close and Canada’s ties to the desperately poor country, centred around the large Haitian immigrant community in Quebec, are dense. Next week the Canadian Red Cross will host a meeting in Montreal of key Red Cross officials from many countries on next steps in Haiti. Nobody expects anything but a long slog, in which the earthquake will come to seem like a punctuation mark in a history of hardship. “These little kids that we see, the survivors coming out of the rubble,” Kent said, “they will be adults by the time we actually get to a point of meaningful recovery and reconstruction in Haiti.” The question now is whether the new way of operating behind Canada’s surprisingly strong start in aiding that recovery will be enough to sustain its momentum.