Sunday, 28 February 2010

Haiti - day 48

Hello and welcome to my blog. It's nice to see you again. If you're a newcomer, this blog is unusual because it directly relates to a blog I published on 15th January titled "Haiti - day 3."
In that blog, I was highly critical of what I considered was an inexcusably slow response by aid agencies and others to distribute the accumulating aid. I urged individuals on the ground to think for themselves and, "unload the lorries, load up your backs and walk to where you're needed." Afterwards I spoke to Rosalind O'Mahony from Christian Aid, to see what she thought of my comment.
Ros is a member of the Philanthropy and Partnership team which handles public appeals following disasters such as Haiti. Within hours of the earthquake, she was in the office handling a huge emergency mailing and was well placed to know exactly what aid was required; what was delivered, when, and to whom. We began with a few facts that demonstrated that Haiti was in crisis even before the 12th January.
Prior to the earthquake, 80% of Haiti's 10 million people lived below the poverty line. According to the UN, only Afghanistan and Somalia had a lower average calorie intake per person. When any disaster strikes, food and medical supplies are normally bought inside the country and distributed to the effected area. In Haiti there was precious little of either so when the earthquake struck they were reliant on shipments from outside. This hampered initial relief efforts, as the air and seaports were damaged and there were intermittent closures of the border with the Dominican Republic.
In 2008, Haiti was hit by four massive storms in one month leaving 1,000,000 people homeless. They were still dealing with the aftermath of that when this earthquake struck.
The country is ranked 149th in the United Nations human development index. This measures "an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accordance with their needs and interests." The United Kingdom ranks 21st, 128 places above Haiti.
The earthquake's epicentre was just 10 miles from the densely populated capital of Port-au-Prince. It was just 5 miles below the surface and strong enough to cause a 10 foot high tsunami which also hit the island.
Prospery Raymond, Christian Aid's Country Manager videoed the effect of the earthquake and within hours was co-ordinating aid efforts amongst their six long-term partner agencies. Koral, was one of them, and on the first day was able to transfer some of the injured from Leogane, an area east of Port-au-Prince that was severely damaged. These agencies were crucial to Christian Aid as they were staffed by local Creole speaking people who had close ties with their communities and were well placed to assess the immediate needs of their neighbours. Without them, Christian Aid would have been hampered by the language and cultural barriers that plagued the majority of the military, journalists and aid agencies and prevented them from communicating with Haitians about food distribution.
Despite Korals’ success, it was difficult for Christian Aid to do much on the first day. There were continued aftershocks and Prospery didn't know whom, amongst his staff had survived. Those who had, "had to cope with several colleagues and family members who had died. No matter how many times they have worked on an emergency on the ground, they can never get used to seeing hundreds of bodies lying dead on the ground, people trapped screaming and everyone crying." Whilst Prospery was dealing with that, back in London, they relied on Facebook to find out who had survived.
On day two, the grim task of assessing the Haitians immediate needs continued and Christian Aid knew they had about 2 weeks to raise money with which to help them. The response was fantastic and £2 million was raised in the first week alone. Unfortunately, money couldn't be transferred to Haiti immediately as the banks took 3 days to re-open.
Just as they were re-opening, I was getting increasingly frustrated with news reports of aid not reaching those in need. In fact on day three Christian Aid was distributing 50,000 packs of food kits, water and sanitation packs and shopping for tents in Haiti. Whilst I was writing my blog in Shoreham, up in London Christian Aid were making lists; 10,000 five gallon jerry cans; 10,000 adult blankets; 10,000 children's blankets; buckets; water purifiers; and food for 10,000 for 3-4 months.
Ros gently explained what would have happened had my advice been followed. If anyone had walked out of the airport loaded with food and water, they would probably been mugged. They could have created a bottleneck as people waited for others to arrive which in turn could have prevented help reaching others in greater need. Whilst sympathizing with my frustration, she explained that the business of international aid is complex. The first 1-2 days are chaotic and the focus is on search and rescue. Hardly any aid gets through at this point. Behind the scenes, however, the aid agencies are assessing and analysing the situation so that when they can get in they can target the aid appropriately. The process is quicker if the Non-Governmental Agencies (NGO's), on the ground can provide information. In Haiti, the loss of experienced NGO staff, including the UN, was devastating because their local knowledge and communication network either died with them or was lost in the rubble.
In January there were hundreds of different NGOs in Haiti and the focus was on contacting them, pooling information and co-coordinating an appropriate response. To act before this could have lead to unnecessary duplication and loss of vital local information. Imagine, she said, if a British search and rescue team had spent hours searching a collapsed building only to find that it had already been cleared. What would have happened if an NGO had set up a field hospital unaware that there was a proper hospital a few blocks away?
It's now 48 days since the earthquake and the death toll has risen to around 200,000 with 1,000,000 made homeless. Today Christian Aid are still distributing food, medicines, hygiene kits, torches, tarpaulins and blankets; transporting the injured to medical centres; organising communal cooking; and distributing money so people can buy what they most need and support the local economy. In the future they want to help people to re-develop their livelihoods; enable people to build stronger houses, schools and shops; help children get back to normality and provide them with psycho-social support; continue working with malnourished children; and support the 1,000,000 people who fled to cities and are relying on support from a fragile countryside economy.
Ros said that whilst the response to the Christian Aid and DEC appeal has been overwhelming, there are years of work ahead and they still need our help. If you want to contribute, please make a donation, or support the campaign to drop the debt Haiti owes to the IMF and World Bank. This debt is a staggering 200 years old. If Haiti couldn’t re-pay before 12th January, what chance do they have now?
My thanks to Rosalind for sharing her valuable insights and for never saying that my advice in "Haiti - day 3" was misguided.
Chastened of Shoreham Beach is signing off now. Thanks for popping by and see you next week.

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