Not Ban’s Katrina

Like Mark I’m excited that seasoned reporter Colum Lynch now has more room to stretch his legs on UN issues, but I hope that his reporting in this morning’s “Ban Ki-moon’s Katrina?” is off the mark.

Lynch writes:

The crisis in Haiti is shaping up as the biggest test of Ban’s leadership since he was selected to lead the organization three years ago. As other major natural disasters have shown, including Hurricane Katrina, failure to step up to the moment can have steep political costs.

I could argue that posts like Colum’s (particularly those with leading headlines) drive that meme, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.  If the comparison between President Bush’s response to Katrina and SG Ban’s response to the earthquake in Haiti is being made in the public debate, I believe it to be a poor one.  This is not the Secretary General’s “Katrina.”

It’s a fools errand to compare natural disasters, each one uniquely heartbreaking. But, as I feel forced to, Katrina hit a small section of a wealthy, in fact the most wealthy, nation, which could coordinate its own response. The U.S. government did not have to endure the logistical nightmare of landing in a separate sovereign nation, of providing security for and against that nation’s citizens, or of dealing with an alphabet soup of international NGOs, all with their own separate operating procedures. Katrina could be seen coming almost a week in advance, when it caused deaths in southern Florida.   And, the U.S. government did not see the heart and soul of its response effort literally buried in the catastrophe — may they rest in peace.  The U.S. president has absolute control over the response to a disaster on U.S. soil. The Secretary General wields nowhere near the same influence. In fact, the United Nations writ large is ultimately dependent on the will and resources of member states. “Katrina” was primarily a catastrophe of response, gross negligence both before and after the hurricane made landfall.   This earthquake was simply a catastrophe, killing more than 10-fold Katrina’s body count and creating a failed state the moment it hit.  

But, much more importantly, why are we discussing the leadership of one man, particularly when the tragedy is still unfolding?  Is this truly a “teachable moment”? Does his misstatement that “hundreds” were killed instead of tens of thousands deeply affect the lives of those living under rubble? As we have written often on this blog and as I mentioned above, the Secretary General’s true power is severely limited.  Could his response have been better? Perhaps.  But the true power to prevent situations like this and to respond when disaster strikes lies in examining how the international community can better ensure that nations like Haiti aren’t so vulnerable and how UN member states might better empower the United Nations to prepare for and coordinate relief efforts.  This time I hope Colum is wrong; I hope this is where the true debate lies.