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The vacuous top and the resourceful bottom in the Haiti crisis

Meeting about Haiti in Montreal on Monday, representatives from 14 donor countries and the European Union came together and committed to a detailed, specific, well-coordinated plan … to come up with a plan.

Chairman of the Conference, Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon:

We have a shared vision on the way forward, one plan that ties us all together. … Clear vision, co-ordination and adherence to principles of aid effectiveness will be essential.

Haitians wait for UN-distributed food, Jan 18, 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi.

Stay tuned for the follow-up meeting to be held at the UN in March.

In the meantime, though, stories are filtering through from aid workers on the ground confronting practical constraints of bottlenecks and distributions…not waiting around for plans.

A team of US doctors who were among the first medical responders in Port-au-Prince described their experience in a scathing WSJ op-ed:

…Our operation received virtually no support from any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department. As we ran out of various supplies we had no means to acquire more. There was no way to transfer patients we were poorly equipped to manage (such as a critically ill newborn with respiratory distress) to a facility where they would get better care. We were heartbroken having to tell patients suffering incredible pain we could not perform their surgery for at least a day….

Later, as we were leaving Haiti, we were appalled to see warehouse-size quantities of unused medicines, food and other supplies at the airport, surrounded by hundreds of U.S. and international soldiers standing around aimlessly.

The international relief and development blogger Tales from the Hood is now blogging from Port-au-Prince:

Wyclef Jean complained on Oprah about air-drops during week one: “My people are not animals…” And I would, of course, completely agree. They’re not animals. And I’d agree that air-drops are or should be a last-resort means, and are not standard relief distribution procedure. But then this is hardly a standard situation…. Back-of-the-cocktail-napkin estimates say that better than half of distribution events in Haiti since the earthquake turn violent, that violence ranging from beneficiaries beating each other up over bags of rice, to full-on looting of the truck, to shots fired and people killed. And his suggestion that perhaps he should coordinate distribution in Haiti is straight up the dumbest thing that I’ve heard in a very long time. … Maybe I should produce his next album?

A letter from the co-founder of the NGO SOIL, Sasha Kramer, provides a somewhat different perspective:

For centuries Haiti has been portrayed as a dangerous country filled with volatile and threatening people, unsafe for foreigners.

…this wall of fear … has had very serious implications for the distribution of the millions of dollars of aid that have been flowing into the country for the past 10 days. … much of the aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required UN and US military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution, meanwhile people in the camps are suffering …

And then Kramer notes the contrast among the Haitians themselves.

The most striking thing I have noticed … is the level of organization and ingenuity among the displaced communities.  Community members stand ready to distribute food and water to their neighbors, they are prepared to provide first aid and assist with clean up efforts, all that they are lacking is the financial means to do so.

If you know of good first person accounts being written by aid workers in Haiti, please add them in the comments.

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  1. avam wrote:

    MapAction, a british NGO (emergency mapping) was able to intercept text messages from people trapped in the rubble and match the GPS coordinates with SAR teams. I was involved with them some years ago (deployed to Sri Lanka post- tsumani). The work they do is both effective and important – and, although not a ‘first person account’, worth reading more about.

    Link here:

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Lots of first hand posts with some that resonate with what you’re saying here.

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  3. Chops wrote:

    Keziah Furth is an American nurse who lives in Haiti. She was on the ground alone for a week until relief reached her neighborhood, and then only dribs and drabs, none of it via the large-scale US-UN channels. Her blog is updated frequently, with photos and her own story. An excerpt from Jan 19th, written down by Keziah’s mother:

    When I spoke to Keziah early this morning, she sadly reported that she would be distributing the last three cans of baby formula today and that she had nearly depleted her stock of medical supplies. No aid had arrived; there was no word of any help forthcoming. What would she say tomorrow when the mothers held up their hungry babies? What would happen to those who needed fresh bandaging? I heard fear and despair in her voice. There was nothing I could say except “Keziah, everyone is praying and I know help is on its way.”

    I called again at 5:00 pm — Prayer had prevailed and help had arrived!! Keziah’s friend, Commander Dave Strong (Chief Liaison Mission Officer with the US Embassy) had come to check on her, bringing with him medical supplies, soap, shampoo, sanitary pads — and a warm hug & good cheer. It was the most happy of reunions, giving Kez a much needed psychological boost, not to mention enough medical supplies to keep her nursing for another day.

    Then, her friend Michael came over. “Kez, look what I just found in one of our rooms. Could you use some baby formula?” Keziah estimates that it’s enough to get them thru the next three days. (Some for Dorothy’s orphans and the rest for Kez’s neighborhood babies.) Baby formula! More precious than gold!

    Finally, with money given to her, Kez was able to buy enough pasta and corn (at a local outdoor market) to feed her 300 in the field. The food was cooked, distributed on plates, and gratefully and peacefully received. At the same time, Kez and her helpers were able to provide clean water to the people using a water purification system given by Bill Nathan’s friend.

    It is no wonder that the Haitian people continue in all this to praise God, singing, praying, and preaching even as their world has crumbled around them. And no wonder that Keziah wants to be there with them.

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  4. Dan Kyba wrote:

    This is not a first person comment but one printed in today’s paper. It does make one wonder whether the left hand knows what the right is doing.

    “Hollywood movie star John Travolta flew a planeload of aid to Haiti along with a group of ‘ministers’ from the Church of Scientology who performed healing rituals on quake survivors….
    The plane, which Travolta flew himself, resupplied the Church of Scientology effort in Haiti with some four tons of food aid and medical supplies and brought along over 50 more of the faith’s young, enthusiastic followers.
    The Scientologists handed out water and medical equipment at the capital’s main hospital and trained young Haitians to perform their “Touch Assist” technique that they claim can reconnect damaged nervous systems”

    Sorry, the paper (Edmonton Journal) does state the source of the brief item.

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  5. Louise wrote:

    Sasha Kramer, co-founder of SOIL, has been sending my colleague (who also used to work for SOIL) insightful personal reports from their work in Haiti in the last weeks.

    Please check

    Recent CNN Feature:

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  6. avam wrote:

    Re Dan Kyba’s comment on Travolta. I’m surprised Travolta was able to get a private plane in with supplies (although, clearly more supplies are a good thing) – but worrying that they were able to land with 50 Scientologists performing nonsense like ‘touch assist’. Those living in stressful, poor conditions following an earthquake, many still, no doubt, in shock – and in need of real medical help might be under the wrong impression that crap (sorry, forget being objective) like ‘touch assist’ from a bunch of fervent cult members will actually help them in some way. I wish the US would wise up and list Scientology as a cult (as France and Germany have) and restrict their involvement, esp with regard to overseas aid; e.g. – supplies – ok, cult members posing as medical help – definitely not ok.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  7. Emma Bundy wrote:

    Hi Bill,

    You’re so right! The first-hand accounts of people working in Haiti, especially those working with relief groups, are critical to the success of efforts there. At GreatNonprofits we’ve launched a site to gather these personal stories – we hope they will be a resource for donors and volunteers looking to get involved in a responsible way. People who want to help build this resource by sharing their experiences should go to:

    Many relief groups have already been reviewed, but we hope everyone with experience will share their stories – the more the better! As you point out, these personal accounts will be especially important as the media frenzy dies down and the long process of rebuilding begins.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Austin Holmes wrote:

    I just got back form Haiti, this Monday. We flew into Santo Domingo a week earlier, were able to coordinate with a team of Dominicans and the UN to load about 8 tons of goods that had already been collected and organized into our trucks, and crossed the border at Jimeni. We successfully resupplied our compound just north of PAP with goods for about the next 4 weeks, which should be about the time that more efficient shipping options become more viable. Our compound has been housing around 250 people at least per night within its walls, as people form the town of Mesallier come in at night for safety, medical treatment, and food. I realize that our compound is just one of the many sprouting IDP camps around PAP, but our goal was simply to meet the urgent needs that we were aware of from our Haitian contacts on the ground. Despite all the reports that I’ve read, I did witness an enormous amount of collaboration between different groups. The situation is certainly a worst-case-scenario, logistical nightmare, but the crackpot effort of aid, Dominican guidance, and Haitian will made our mission possible and helped saved some lives in our community.
    I’m interested to see what levels of collaboration are established and would personally like to see less arm-chair economists telling people the WHATs and more instructing on the HOWs of development. Anyone with a brain and the internet knows the kind of things we should be working to facilitate in Haiti. But the question for most small non-profits on the ground is “how?” When academic groups start making information accessible for the groups on the ground, perhaps creating working models of sustainability, or microeconomic business plans feasible for particular geographical regions (ie. Haiti) and stop lecturing on philosophical positions on development in Haiti, then we will see an example of collaboration that can actually do something.
    If anyone is aware of cites/databases/nonprofit consulting groups of the sort, please post in response. Thanks.

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

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