Leadership in Times of Crisis: Haiti One Year After The Earthquake

Leadership in Times of Crisis: Haiti One Year After The Earthquake

Prior to January 12, 2010, Management Sciences for Health’s Leadership, Management and Sustainability Program was working with Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population to build capacity in several areas:  family planning and reproductive health; commodity management and security; coordinating HIV & AIDS awareness and community mobilization activities; and leadership development.

But after the terrible earthquake of one year ago, we who normally promote leadership in the health sector were faced with our own leadership challenges:  how to continue to lead and manage our program effectively during an ongoing crisis, and most importantly, how to ensure continued help to those who rely on LMS support. Our immediate priority:  dealing with the collapse and destruction of our office.  For months, we worked out of large tent constructed next to the LMS warehouse, a reminder everyday that many of those we were serving had been forced to move into temporary shelters.  

We also had to adapt our priorities. In addition to managing family planning commodities, the LMS team was suddenly asked to manage a big flow of humanitarian relief supplies. This was very important – getting people medical supplies, or clean water, etc. While the distribution of commodities was very difficult in Haiti even prior to the earthquake, afterward it was even more challenging, due to increased problems with infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Fortunately, one of the LMS leadership principles is to work to achieve results in spite of any obstacles we must overcome. Through the perseverance of our staff and partners, including many who normally don’t carry responsibilities for distribution and logistics, we distributed more than 1 million units of family planning commodities in the first month after the earthquake, while also delivering humanitarian relief. 

While to some extent our humanitarian logistics work had slowed down by August 2010, the emergence of the cholera outbreak in October called once again for urgent distribution of medicines and clean water, in addition to cholera kits and other items. This highly contagious diarrheal disease is relatively easy to treat with a rapid response of oral rehydration salts (ORS) or intravenous fluid (Ringer’s lactate), depending on the victim’s degree of dehydration. The challenge is to get cholera supplies quickly to those who need them. Here is where we found that much of the leadership development work we did with staff from the Ministry of Public Health and Population prior to the earthquake paid off:  teams from the departments of pharmacy, medicines, and traditional medicines all banded together to mobilize distribution and delivery efforts. 

Many others among our colleagues and partners in Haiti report that the skills they had learned in MSH leadership development programs prior to the earthquake helped them get through this tremendously difficult period.  When I ask them specifically how so, they say things like this: “Everyone has leadership capabilities.  Knowing that I am a leader has helped me to contribute to the recovery efforts.” Or, “A good leader never gives up, so despite the continuing challenges facing Haiti, I will continue to do my part.”

Despite the enormous obstacles facing the Haitian community in the last 12 months, all of us in the development community continue to see a great spirit of collaboration between government and NGO partners to advance the work.  Like all of our partners here, we believe in Haiti’s future. We will continue to do our best to ensure the health and welfare of Haiti’s people.

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Antoine Ndiaye is project director of the Leadership, Management and Sustainability/Haiti program.