Humanitarian work challenging in Haiti

Doctor urges patience as relief efforts continue following January's earthquake

BY CHRIS HERLINGER, ACT ALLIANCE | PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI | February 10, 2010


A man poses with a temporary shelter he has built for his family in a spontaneous camp for quake survivors being established in Croix-des-Bouguets, Haiti, north of the capital Port-au-Prince. Quake survivors continue to move as aftershocks continue, and reports of aid deliveries in one camp will provoke families from other camps to migrate there.
Credit: ACT Alliance/Paul Jeffrey

In a perfect world, distributions of humanitarian aid after a major disaster would occur without a hitch. Everything would be orderly and proceed with precision.

But life is messy and Haiti is far from perfect. Humanitarian practice, even during relatively small emergencies, is hard and imperfect work a fact often not fully understood or appreciated by donors and even non-emergency staff of humanitarian groups.

In light of the challenges poor existing infrastructure, massive damage and the huge toll the earthquake has taken on everyone - the need to accept some imperfection and to improvise has become part of the daily realities of aid workers.

“You need to be patient to do this kind of work,” said Emmanuela Blain, 30, a medical doctor helping distribute food and goods in and outside Port-au-Prince for ACT Alliance member the Lutheran World Relief.

Blain knows something about the need for patience. A recent distribution in Gressier, 20km west of Port-au-Prince, got out of control when local police demanding tents refused to do much to calm an unruly crowd. By contrast, a distribution at the Santa Teresa camp in Port-au-Prince the next day went off without problems.

Why the differences? One reason was that Gressier residents had not received any assistance they were simply tired and angry. Another was the presence of police officer Harry Brossard in Santa Teresa who urged the crowd to be patient and said he would personally stop distribution if problems began. The tactic seemed to work, Brossard said. He wanted to see food distributed to those who needed it. “We need food for these people,” he said.

The crowd in Santa Teresa better understood the need for distributions to target the most vulnerable than the crowd in Gressier did. “I think they have to think about the other people (eventually),” said Willy Louis, a security guard. “But it’s no problem for me. Pregnant people and the disabled should come first.”

Marie Dany F. Volter, 34, who like Blain and most aid workers here is Haitian, said first-time distributions like Gressier “are never easy.” That is particularly the case when aid is urgently needed and where it may not be easy to work out all distribution details in advance.

Bobby Waddell, senior emergencies advisor for LWF who is working with Blain and Volter, said any number of things can go wrong in major humanitarian crises. These can include bottlenecks in the aid “pipeline”, coordination problems, and a feeling that more staff were needed to do the job.

The patience Bain described is certainly needed now, nearly a month after the devastating January 12 earthquake. “Coordination and distribution remain difficult (and) overall public interest in Haiti may be waning, but needs will remain for months to come,” said Dirk Salomons, humanitarian affairs program director at Columbia University in the United States.

Salomons notes other potential problems. “There are initial information gaps, as not only the physical infrastructure breaks down, but also communication systems like cell-towers and landlines,” he said. “So chaos ensues.”

And then, in Haiti, there are the difficult pre-existing realities.

“It’s a special place, a special country, it has is own context, it’s chaotic in normal times, and it’s a challenging place to work,” Waddell said.

Those realities exacerbated what became a unique catastrophe: “a direct hit on a capital city which then paralyzed an entire country,” he said.

The trick, Waddell added, is maneuvering around the challenges while still being accountable to donors and, most importantly, those needing the assistance.

The job is not going to get any easier. In the end, he said, everyone affected by the earthquake is vulnerable in some way, and in coming months Haiti faces a rainy season and the threat of storms, floods and hurricanes. “How do we prepare for that?" Waddell asked.

In other words, the challenges in Haiti are just beginning.


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