On Jan. 12, a devastating earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck Haiti, leaving over 200,000 people dead and over 1 million people homeless throughout the country. Almost immediately, the world’s more prosperous countries and many of Haiti’s neighbors, prosperous or not, responded with pledges of material assistance. Over spring break I had the opportunity to observe and participate in the efforts of Haitians and donors to cope and recover from the quake. I traveled to Port Au Prince, Haiti, where I worked with a local NGO, Hospice St. Joseph, in the hard hit community of Christ Roi.
Although I had been told prior to the trip to prepare for the “sight and scent” of death, the destruction, the dire conditions, and for the despair and anguish felt by so many people, I only came close to fully appreciating the scope of the tragedy upon arriving. There’s no running water, electricity or sanitation in Port Au Prince. Streets are lined with thousands of little shacks and sticks covered with tarps, rubble and debris are still everywhere, businesses are still shut down and vast tent cities with tens of thousands of people each have been formed. After witnessing all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where is all the money that has been donated to the relief effort?
My primary task while working with Hospice St. Joseph was to contact and meet with the agencies directing the relief effort (UNICEF, World Food Program, World Health Organization among others) in order to assess what was being done in Christ Roi and throughout the affected area, determine which organizations we should coordinate with, and most importantly, to procure much needed medical supplies, food, water and shelter for St. Joseph’s child and maternal clinic and children’s nutrition program.
Sadly, the latter effort was a frustrating, albeit illuminating, failure. After two weeks of one-on-one meetings, cluster meetings, phone calls, e-mails and being transferred from one person to the next day after day, I received no supplies for my organization to distribute. No food, no water, no medicine, no tents, nothing. My experience was not an isolated incident. The director of Hospice St. Joseph was unaware of a single local NGO or community organization that had received any assistance from the agencies in charge of coordinating the relief effort. He personally had gone directly to the United Nations’ compound, where these lead agencies were located, and just like me, made no progress in receiving supplies for those people we were striving to serve.
Right now UNICEF, WFP, WHO and other large international organizations are directing the relief effort in Haiti. Much of the money and resources coming into Haiti are channeled through these organizations and “intended” to be distributed to (usually large international) organizations operating in Haiti. What seems apparent from my experience in Haiti is that those coordinating the relief response are detached from the situation. You can’t fully understand what Haitians are going through by sitting in an air conditioned office or hotel. You can’t experience life on the streets by driving through them instead of walking on them. And you really can’t help people if you don’t meet with them, talk with them, listen to them.
That is perhaps the greatest obstacle in Haiti right now. Those people who know and understand the country, the people and their needs, are not sufficiently involved in the decision-making process. Local organizations that have been operating in Haiti for years and are run by Haitians have been swept aside by large international agencies and NGOs that just arrived in the country and are coordinated mainly by Americans and Europeans. As a result, the relief effort has been poorly managed. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have yet to receive any assistance.
How do I know this? I toured Port Au Prince, traveled to the provinces and went to Leogane, near the epicenter of the earthquake. I walked the streets of the devastated capital, I lived and worked in one of the worst affected areas, I lifted rubble side by side with people who had lost their homes, and I climbed over rubble to meet with people struggling to survive.
I spoke with hundreds of people while I was in Haiti. I was fortunate enough to come across someone who spoke English and Creole and was willing to assist me as my translator. I heard anger, frustration, sadness, faith, hope, uncertainty and determination in their voices. Many are thankful to be alive, others are questioning God for why the earthquake occurred, others are blaming the government for corruption and the problems of the relief response and many are blaming the UN for ignoring and neglecting them. On more than one occasion, I was told this was reminiscent of “master and slave” all over again.
There was one question I would ask that consistently produced a unanimous response, however. In each place I went, I asked Haitians if they had received any assistance at all after the earthquake; any food, water, a tent, anything. The answer was always no. Over the course of two weeks not a single person I met and spoke with had received any assistance at all.
Although many Haitians have been neglected by the relief effort, there are of course hundreds of thousands of people who have received assistance. Several camps have been set up that are receiving services, and many people have received food, water and medical care. However, when nearly 2 million people were affected by the earthquake, more than two months have elapsed and billions of dollars have been raised, providing assistance to such a small proportion is unacceptable. If the responses I received are any indication, the majority of Haitians have yet to receive assistance, especially in the areas outside of Port Au Prince and in areas that are less accessible. Most aid seems to be concentrated in the areas closest to the airport, where the international organizations, both public and private, have set up operations.
What should the focus of the relief effort be? What does Haiti need right now? Haitians desperately want someone to take charge, to work through the bureaucracy and corruption, and to lay out a plan and vision for the future of Haiti. Removal of the rubble from the streets and communities is needed. Food, water, medicine and shelter, especially with the approaching rainy season, are vital. Jobs are needed to help rebuild the country and produce income. Schools and businesses must be reopened. Infrastructure must be built outside of Port Au Prince so that people will have opportunities if they move to the rural areas. Haitians want to help shape the future of their country and be a part of it, not become idle bystanders.
Last week the International Donors Conference Towards a New Future for Haiti was held in New York. Billions of dollars in assistance were pledged by the international community to Haiti over the next several years. Ensuring that those pledges become actual commitments is vital for Haiti’s reconstruction. Furthermore, economic assistance is only part of Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction. Responsible and responsive leadership is needed in Haiti. Ensuring that each and every Haitian receives the necessary resources to survive must be the goal of the international community in Haiti. How do you work towards accomplishing this goal? How do you ensure that aid is effective? Start by listening to the people.
Brian Price is a senior in Trumbull College.