The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti last week has destroyed the country and killed at least 2,189 people and disrupting the lives of around 1.5 million people living west of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The people who are affected lack medical aid and shelter, as well as running water and food. In addition they’ve also had to contend with mudslides, flooding and floods caused from Storm Grace and Tropical Storm Grace and violent gangs that have threatened the vehicles carrying equipment and other supplies.
For us Haitians this is yet another heartbreaking experience in the form of déjà vu.
Our nation has yet to fully recover from the devastating earthquake of 2010 which was caused by the misuse of foreign aid has hampered efforts to aid Haitians. Now , the question is how the aid that is about to arrive best utilized to meet the needs of the survivors and avoid making the same mistakes made in the past.
The answer is simple You can trust your faith in the Haitian grass-roots organizations who are in close contact with the victims and have a the track record of coordinating aid efforts.
Haitians are especially at risk this year. Following the assassination attempt on President Jovenel Moise in the month of June, the political landscape is unstable and the current government is battling to make sure that aid can be safely transferred from the capital to the area of disaster.
Yet, numerous organisations on the ground are responding in response to needs local to them, just as they have for many years. They collaborate with grassroots groups in education, health and development that survived the earthquake of 2010, and with specialized agencies of the United Nations. They aren’t the focus of attention yet, but these tiny Haitian organisations are performing the vital work of providing essential services to the people of Haiti following natural disasters.
Since the year 2010, Haiti has been through the ravages of four major earthquakes, and an extremely cholera outbreak. Each of these disasters demanded urgent relief. However, the Haitian government and a number of international organisations have mostly failed in ensuring that aid is actually reaching the most desperate people in villages that are remote. Deciding how to go about doing this in the future will be crucial for the country’s progress.
In the faces of those who were stricken by the quake of last week I am witnessing the same amazing courage as well as the same unstoppable spirit I witnessed 11 years ago following the earthquake which was believed to have killed over 230,000 people. However, I also see the same need for assistance. In 2010, I was about to quit my job as spokesperson for the United Nations when it asked me to be an advisor to the senior level of the peacekeeping mission of Haiti called Minustah.
I was an intermediary with my position as a liaison between the United Nations and the Haitian government, as planes full of international aid were pouring into a country that was not ready for it. The mission had lost two peacekeepers and other high-ranking officials during the earthquake. In addition, the Haitian administration was in turmoil following the deaths of the deaths of many members of the best civil servants were killed. The earthquake destroyed portions of the palace of the nation and ministries.
The chaos and devastation that after the earthquake, a lot of well-meaning stars along with donors from both international and religious organizations had to figure out what and where to put the aid they’d received. Many times they didn’t consult with grassroots organizations on the most urgent needs of people. The relief efforts were frequently not effective, wasteful and counterproductive.
The issue was not limited to private donations. In the end, American Red Cross was criticized for spending more aid dollars for its own overheads but not enough on Haiti than what it claimed. In other instances, huge chunks of aid were returned to countries that provide aid as contracts for the removal of rubble.
The Assassination of Haiti’s President
The events I saw then leave us with the challenge of how we can make things better in the present. Although it was true that the United Nations coordinated some efforts to aid the victims but it could be more effective in assisting local grass-roots groups. In the midst of unimaginable destruction it was evident the determination of the numerous medical, nursing and other humanitarian workers who fought to save lives.
We can learn from mistakes made in the past. Local communities were part of responses to earthquake of 2010 aid distribution was increased. We could find and listen to the voices of local communities and donate money directly to families who are the ones who know best what their wants are. When we purchase and distribute food to those that are in need, it is important to be mindful not to reduce the prices of local farmers.
It is a good idea to ask residents what they require can help avoid misunderstandings. I remember the chaos of trying to deliver water and food supplies from helicopters to people living near Port-au-Prince. In distribution centers where people could exchange food vouchers, some people took advantage of the other. Local organizations recommended women be given the vouchers for food first. They believed that women would ensure that their children are fed and that food vouchers would be shared fairly in their homes.
In another instance I was witness to in the aftermath of the hurricane Matthew in 2016 a group of donors who were planning to deliver building materials to farmers living in a devastated village stopped to talk with one of the farmers. The farmer politely declined , and stated that he and his neighbors had rebuilt their homes by recycling wreckage. Instead, he demanded seeds for the coming harvest, and the dairy animal that would replace one killed.
If the international recovery effort is in its early stages we can prioritize these voices and break the loop of déjà vu by rethinking how aid can be delivered to those who need it. A Haitian proverb states, “Men anpil chay pa lou”: With the help of many hands it is easier to carry the burden.
Michele Montas, a broadcast journalist, was a top advisor of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti between 2010 and the year 2011.
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