New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



43 N.Y.U. J. INT'L L. & POL. ___ (forthcoming 2011)


The earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010 was perhaps the largest urban natural catastrophe in recorded history. It killed more than 220,000 people, injured 300,000, and displaced 2.3 million. The world’s reaction was swift. The U.S. military was deployed, specially trained search and rescue units were dispatched, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) quickly set up essential programs. In the first six months of the humanitarian response, 1.5 million people received some form of shelter; 4.3 million people were given food; and 1 million people were provided access to potable water on a daily basis. However, for displaced Haitians, life continued to be difficult and grew more perilous for many. A large number of those displaced still lacked secure access to basic goods and services. Rapes and other forms of gender-based violence were increasing, perhaps precipitously. Forced displacements had begun, spurred on by the desire by landowners to clear their land of IDP tent camps. Without effective mechanisms to hold powerful NGOs to account, expressions of dissatisfaction took different forms. In the rainy heat of Port-au-Prince, graffiti reading “Aba ONG volè” (Down with NGO thieves) began to appear on walls in Port-au-Prince.

In this fraught context, the desire to measure progress is compelling. The assessment of progress in the humanitarian sphere has involved the prominent use of indicators. These metrics are in widespread use in post-earthquake Haiti. But these metrics, aimed at responding to demands for quality and accountability, raise many questions of their own. Based on empirical research and focusing on the use of indicators in Haiti, this Article examines leading standards and indicators developed by professional humanitarians in the last dozen years. Integrating specific understandings of human rights, these self-regulation projects attempt to codify the “lessons learned” by the humanitarian community following a series of humanitarian failures. Using the language of management and the logics of audit, the indicators projects encapsulate the knowledge and expertise of professional humanitarians across key sectors. As such, they represent an impressive collaborative effort by a transnational network to learn lessons and evolve professional practices in an incredibly challenging environment. At the same time, the standards and indicators tend to treat the core tensions that led to their creation as technical problems, displacing rather than solving those issues. Indeed, current debates over what to measure and monitor via these indicators may be understood as symptoms of the unresolved tensions inherent in the humanitarian endeavor today. These tensions are visible in the humanitarian response in Haiti. For example, indicators-related issues concerning coverage and scope of services, the management of the dividing line between emergency relief and development work, and the role of the operational community in ensuring protection of disaster-affected communities, have been discussed as technical problems in Haiti. This Article uncovers these dynamics and suggests that a focus on the tensions elided by these technical discussions could allow humanitarians—perhaps working together with human rights advocates—to more effectively harness the power of numbers and audit but also to understand and perhaps transcend their very real limits.

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