The almost incomprehensible destruction and loss of life and immense suffering from the earthquake that struck Haiti--alas another disaster amidst the economic and political turmoil that for decades if not centuries that have ravaged the people of this nation--also serves as a warning for companies in their site selection decisions: wherever they locate.
The message is this: if you want your contact centers and other back offices to survive disasters in locations whether offshore, nearshore, or onshore then be prepared accordingly because the chances are increasingly excellent that no one else i.e. governments will protect you beforehand, during, or afterward. IOW you're on your own. To change and correct that last situation is--where politically feasible--up to you: to make sure that the authorities are doing their jobs in protecting your firm, staff, and their families.
[Full disclosure: I am author of books on site selection and teleworking (Designing the Best Call Center for Your Business, Home Workplace, on electrical safety standards (Understanding Regulations on OSHA...) and co-author with Joseph Fleischer of one on customer support (The Complete Guide to Customer Support)]
Haiti may not be a high-tech hub--though it has the strong potential to be one thanks to its hardworking, imaginative, and determined populace--but there are other struggling nations like it which are, have cities in hazardous locales, and which are also ill-prepared for calamities. Think India and the Philippines in particular. Many of these nations that are homes to and/or being circled for contact centers and back office work, utilizing their low-cost labor share the same ills: no or poorly-enforced building codes, corrupt officials, inadequate infrastructure, and poor preparation. On top of that there is political instability and terrorism amidst economic extremes make these societies fragile at best.
Then again one can make the same point about developed countries. They i.e. ours are a sadder case than developing countries when it comes to disasters because we have the money and the smarts but we don't use them right to prevent, minimize, and properly respond to major disasters. Stupidity knows no borders. Think Hurricane Katrina. Is there that much difference between what happened in New Orleans and in Port-au-Prince? Bad planning in the face of predicted disasters, inadequate infrastructure, a woefully pathetic-bordering-on-the-inept government response amidst unbelievable human loss...
Now here's something scary to think about--and I do as I live on the West Coast, shake-rattle-and-roll-country with a view of a dormant (not extinct) volcano from my apartment--California is dead broke. So what happens when the next mag 8.0 or worse hits the Bay Area or the L-A basin? Where would the money come from? The emergency services? How will those pieces be literally picked up? Who will pay for the cops, the medics, the firefighting gear, the shelter and food, and to reconstruct what was lost?
There's many more other unnecessarily shortened lives and unmitigated suffering in the works also right here at home thanks to bad decisions and incompetent and greedy officials. Like the buildings and inadequate roads constructed in flood plains. Or on the slopes of volcanoes, like the sprawl that is inching up the southwestern slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington State on top of past deadly mudflows. When Rainier blows--and it is when not if--the scale of loss and outright destruction would be unlike anything ever seen in U.S. recorded history.
The hard truth is that the smart people--the engineers and planners in developing and developed countries alike--know the risks of calamities and what needs to be done to plan for and minimize the damage from them when they do strike. They also know just how to varying degrees their governments will actually listen and do something about them, which in some cases they are e.g. building a bored tunnel to replace the 'quake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, an underground reservoir in San Francisco, but too often they are not.
So what are firms to do? Perform a hard-headed risk assessment of locations. That includes loss of staff as well as outages and damage/repair expenses. Weigh these factors in onshoring versus nearshoring versus offshoring decisions, and the communities inside those nations. Look at evacuation routes. Office parks are more vulnerable than traditional downtowns because for them there is only one way out, and those have been inadequately i.e. cheaply planned whereas cities are on grid systems with multiple escape paths.
Regardless of site, pick/build structures to the best standards not just the local ones (remember, all standards are minimums) and ensure they have proper backup voice/data/power in minimal-vulnerable sites. If there is more than one location then securely network them.
Or better yet, don't build at all. Locate functions that need only computers and phones to provide them in employees' homes i.e. teleworking. Having people work from home--in countries where there is the infrastructure--minimizes losses while providing business continuity.
Wherever one locates make sure the means are there to communicate with employees and their families before, during and after, as well to contact and stay in touch with customers. Also make sure you look after your staff and their families. People are much harder to replace than buildings, computers and phones.
Lastly, monitor and ride the tails of government officials on taking the right steps to avoid and minimize and plan for disasters like proper building standards and tough penalties (i.e. attempted manslaughter charges for those who deliberately take potentially deadly shortcuts). Tie such standards as a condition of rebuilding infrastructure in places like Haiti.
The prime purpose of governments is to protect their populations with whatever it takes. If the politicians and bureaucrats don't do that then they're not doing their jobs and they should be tossed out. It's as simple as that.
I've just been appointed as a citizen rep on my city's infrastructure committee. Trust me: I'll be raising disaster preparedness with my colleagues.
Disasters happen. People will suffer and die. More do so in poorer nations and cities than in richer ones. What you are responsible for as businesses and as individuals is doing the right thing including prompting others to do likewise. Helping to prevent is far cheaper than helping to pick up the remains.
In the case of Haiti I hope that there are large companies out there who have been considering it as a back office location--for the advantages mentioned earlier--and if they are that they work behind the scenes with the countries active in the rebuilding efforts: the U.S. and Canada, to see that the country obtains a stable political and physical infrastructure including proper building codes and security. The payoff will be immense, and in more ways than one. Win-win all around.