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A multiple choice post on Haiti disaster

Which best describes Port-au-Prince?

A) A hotbed of looting, machete-wielding gangs and violence.

“Downtown Port-au-Prince now feels like a war zone. Gangs with machetes rule the streets here.” – CBS News 1/14/2010

“Hundreds of people desperate for food and supplies swarmed downtown Haiti yesterday, climbing atop piles of broken rubble and shards of glass to get to canned goods, powdered milk, and batteries buried underneath. On the main boulevard, the Grand Rue, their desperation flared into violence at times as teenage boys and men scuffled over goods, and some sparred with sticks. Police fired warning shots into the air but were powerless to halt them.” – Boston Globe, 1/19/2010

B) Currently being saved by American and international rescue teams (with heroic assists from Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta).

“On Tuesday, the White House press office emailed out the YouTube clip below with a subject line, ‘AMAZING VIDEO: Crowd starts chanting USA, USA during L.A. County USAR rescue.’” – Huffington Post 1/19/2010

C) Full of relatively calm people trying to get by amidst overwhelming destruction.

“The mood managed to stay mostly calm, as residents carried leather-bound Bibles to pray outside their ruined churches.” – New York Times 1/18/2010

“One saving grace is that in spite of reports of violence and outbreaks of looting, the overriding atmosphere across the capital is of patient resignation rather than a society on the brink of collapsing into anarchy. – Financial Times, 1/19/2010

D) ALL or NONE of the above.

This is not to diminish the extent of the devastation in Port-au-Prince, the poor state of governance and infrastructure even before the quake, or the degree to which many survivors must be thirsty, hungry, tired, weak and in shock. But I wonder if some media coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath leads to a distorted picture of Haitians as either crazed and violent on one hand, or completely helpless and awaiting our rescue on the other.

Earlier this week on his blog, Chris Blattman asked whether robbery was as widespread as some news reports and photographs seemed to imply. This perception mattered, he said, because “an aid and security policy designed for thieving, ungovernable, progress-resistant Haitians looks very different from one that views civil society institutions as shaken but fundamentally strong.”

How would an overblown perception of violence and insecurity in Port-au-Prince affect the delivery of disaster-relief aid?

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  1. booksquirm wrote:

    It causes confusion at best in the majority of people who don’t work in the industry and who do base their understanding of things for which they don’t have first hand experience, on news reports and tv shows. These are the people who will or won’t support development organisations and will or won’t press their local political representatives (and employers if they work in big corporations) to push for more humane foreign policies. To misrepresent people in the interest of selling more advertising space is extremely irresponsible, encourages ‘what’s the point’ and so undermines everything that requires collective input in our societies. It’s anti-people propaganda, and maybe unwittingly so on the part of the sensationalist-hungry journalists.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 2:54 am | Permalink
  2. All the above. That’s my impression from reading a couple of blogs coming from Haiti. I think there’s been much less violence that the impression in those news reports, and I think the real stories people have endured are worse than we can ever understand through photos and stories taken in from a distance.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  3. Ted H wrote:

    D) All of the above

    The Haiti population has segments that will react differently. Some of Haiti’s bad seeds will take advantage of the destruction and go on a spree of looting and violence. You will have those Haitians that just go into shock and act erratically. You’ll also have some Haitians that are calm, but greatly distressed about their loves ones and all the destruction.

    How do I know all of this about the Haiti population? Because people are people. We saw the exact thing happen post-Katrina. You could just replace Haiti with Louisiana and Haitians with Louisianians and my sentences would still be accurate. I would go so far as to suggest that the degree to which those behaviors are exhibited are directly proportion to the level of destruction (and possibly to the level of pre-disaster poverty).

    In terms of the disparity of coverage, it likely depends on the reporters point of view. There is no official government crime statistics right now, obviously, so all a reporter can do is look around and talk to some people. Depending what segment of the population or what area they witness or their source witnesses is going to skew the coverage.

    In terms of perception effecting relief-strategy, what perception the media presents to us is absolutely irrelevant from that stand point. If the people on the ground coordinate their observations of the situation they should be able to get a cross-section of what’s going on and then plan accordingly. The perception of the people organizing the aid in Haiti is the key, not what the press thinks.

    To answer the broader point, if Haiti does move into chaos I think, rather unfortunately, you’d have to institute some version of temporary martial law to facilitate aid and stabilization of society. I would absolutely hate the idea of having foreign military (I don’t think Haiti’s military / police are very functional right now – if they ever were) playing a large role in helping establish martial law because I think it send a really terrible message to the Haitian people, but the alternative of having the nation fall into chaos seems like a worse option.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  4. Didier wrote:

    Video gravitates towards action and drama. A gaggle of young men looting an abandoned supermarket will get more play on CNN than people quietly going about figuring out how to rebuild their lives or even just quietly waiting for help, particularly if it can help Wolf Blitzer generate talking points for the Wasington pundits to profer their generalizatoins about the need for more security – which they do no matter what the circumstance.

    Haiti is an uncertain environment and there are risks, but most people there are ready and willing to cooperate because they know their survival depends on it and they will given the opportunity to do so.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  5. David Smith wrote:

    Not being there, I wouldn’t venture a guess at the answer. I have 25 years of China experience, and what I know of that is that western media rarely portrays China in ways that are congruent with my experience; I know Indian experts who feel the same about India; I have to assume that Haiti under duress is similar.

    Haitian immigrants I know have never indicated that Haiti has strong civil society institutions at all.

    I wouldn’t expect even a realistic perception of violence and insecurity to deflect disaster-relief workers. They are committed and selfless. All credit to them.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Question:
    1. As an experienced aid worker but unfamiliar with Haiti or the language there I wondered if there is a way I could volunteer to cover the work responsibilities of someone in the US (or elsewhere) who has the necessary skills and experience and thus might be facilitated to go.

    I don’t know if there is any way to do this but as an example, I am a public health specialist and medical epidemiologist. If someone that was qualified needed/wanted to go to volunteer in Haiti (or other disasters) but they required coverage for their regular job (e.g., health department, or program, or community development or academic insitution) then someone like me could volunteer to fill in. This may seem like insanity to some but, I can also imagine situations in which it could be helpful. Ever heard of it? Is it just nuts?

    Posted January 23, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink
  7. I believe that we should not use the word looting unless the context of the situation is well described and appropriate. It is a disservice to call taking food from a collapsed grocery store in times of hunger and uncertain services looting.
    It is resourceful and sensible. Yes, it is possibly taking private property but in times of emergency it might also be called re-allocation, coordination of resources, and health protection. Perhaps before the rescue teams pull out they could rescue goods (particularly those greatly needed, perishables, or limited shelf life) and then help make sure they are distributed asap through the best available mechanisms. In fact, they could assure the removal of goods is done with as little risk as possible since untrained people could easily be hurt in unstable rubble.
    If MSF went into the same store and picked up bandages, bottled water, nutritional supplements, or anything else they would not be reported as looters nor would the activity be called looting. If we are truly worried about loss of property by store owners then make a fund for them to reimburse losses of stock from earthquake esp if they help make sure that the stock is available for relief efforts. now.

    Posted January 23, 2010 at 1:00 am | Permalink
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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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