The Help Haiti Needs

  • Posted on: 16 January 2010
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Right now, the priority is saving lives by ensuring access to food, water, and health care.  Recovery will take many years and the assistance of the international community will be required in order to do so.  But what kind of asssistance will be most effective?  The New York Times, in its blog series "Room for Debate", asked a number of individuals connected to Haiti for their thoughts on what kind of aid should be provided and how.  They may have very different beliefs, backgrounds, and perspectives but all care for Haiti.  Taken together, their feedback is interesting food for thought that should be taken into account now and over the long term.


With traffic jammed at Port-au-Prince airport, relief groups are considering moving emergency supplies through the neighboring Dominican Republic and the use of land-sea vessels to unload supplies at the badly damaged port in the Haitian capital.


International aid groups estimate that the earthquake has affected three million Haitians, with the death toll expected in the tens of thousands. On Thursday, medical supplies, food and workers trickled in from aid agencies and other countries, but the wreckage of buildings, roads and utilities has slowed search and rescue work.


Apart from emergency relief, what kinds of aid should be sent and how? How might foreign organizations, including the United Nations, ensure that the assistance reaches the people given Haiti’s decrepit infrastructure and long history of political instability?


Repair the Government

Robert Fatton Jr. is the Julia Cooper Professor of Politics and Associate Dean for graduate programs at the University of Virginia. He was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and is the author of several books, including “Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy.”


The devastating earthquake that has destroyed Haiti’s capital has aggravated the already catastrophic economic and political conditions that have characterized the island’s recent history. As a Haitian put it: “tout ayiti kraze”— the whole country is no more.


Beyond the sense of utter terror, pain and loss that is overtaking the population, the country is in ruin. This tragedy portends the danger of a Hobbesian war of all against all, but it may paradoxically be an opportunity to create a new and more democratic society. Haitians may finally understand that a better future requires the demise of the old ways of governing and producing.


A more inclusive social pact between the well-off minority and the poor majority may well rise from the ghastly dust of the earthquake. While past history does not bode well for change, the earthquake is compelling Haiti to enter unchartered territory. Hope may not be completely dead.


If Haiti is to recover it will need enormous levels of help from the international community. The international community will, in turn, have to change its traditional methods of assistance. Without abandoning its commitment to non-governmental organizations, it must concentrate its resources on building a coherent and functioning state.


Such a strategy must entail developing a large and effective public bureaucracy, and the eventual channelling of most foreign assistance through governmental institutions. In fact, the foreign community must use this moment of reconstruction to help Haiti expand state capacity and train cadres of public servants.


It must also revise its neo-liberal policies; it ought to protect and reinvigorate domestic production that satisfies basic needs, and support the development of the rural areas. Such a strategy would stop the obscene class and regional inequalities from growing further.


The state must be placed at the center of any strategy of reconstruction because it plays a fundamental role in organizing social life as well as public and private production.  This is especially the case if the country is to build the infrastructure and enhance the life chances of the population that have been destroyed by the earthquake and recent natural disasters. While N.G.O.s and other forms of private assistance might offer some needed relief to those without shelter and food, only the state can provide collective protection and create the conditions for self-sustaining growth.


Such a state is a pre-condition for more equitable life-chances, more civil relationships among citizens, and more stable politics. If this were to happen, the earthquake’s senseless destruction may bring forth a more resilient Haiti


Aid for the Countryside

Robert Maguire is an associate professor of International Affairs at Trinity University in Washington D.C. and director of the Trinity Haiti Program. He is also a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.


Haiti needs help developing long-neglected rural areas. The impact of the earthquake has been exacerbated by the huge migration to Port-au-Prince over the past three decades, as Haiti’s rural economy and people have been neglected by both the Haitian government and, largely, by international donors. Poor people seeking a shimmer of opportunity in Port-au-Prince have piled up on top of each other on hillsides, ravines, alluvial flats and river flood plains. On Tuesday we saw the effects of this concentration of people in a city that is not built for them.


Although nongovernmental organizations have tried to fill the rural void, a strong presence of both the Haitian government and the large donors working in concert is required. Strengthening the government’s capacity is a key.  Glimmers of this approach have appeared in the Haitian government national development strategy, which was endorsed last April by the major donors (World Bank, and the U.S. government). While building back Port-au-Prince is important in post-quake Haiti, it is equally important to provide Haiti and its people opportunities to rebuild its neglected rural economies.


Opportunities for Haitians displaced by the devastation in the capital city to resettle in rural areas should be included in the post-quake recovery strategy. A kind-of ‘Civilian Conservation Corps’ approach for displaced and unemployed Haitians would be extremely beneficial for rebuilding all of Haiti.


Work With the Haitian Government

Brian Concannon Jr., a human rights lawyer, is director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Haiti’s lack of infrastructure and history of corruption should be considered in shaping the international response to Tuesday’s earthquake. But these factors should be a reason for investing in infrastructure and good governance, not for bypassing Haiti’s government.


Help the government provide basic honest services to its citizens both in the short term and the long term. Excluding the government now might expedite aid and relief in the short run, but it will also expedite the return of the disaster relief set when Haiti is unable to handle the next environmental stress.


Haiti’s devastation exposed the disadvantages of an extremely limited government. The earthquake itself was a natural phenomenon, but its horrible toll was largely the product of manmade factors like the failure to prevent shoddy construction on precarious slopes (or provide safer housing) and a health care system already stretched to the breaking point. Sixteen months ago, and five years ago, similar factors produced high death tolls from tropical storms that hit neighboring countries harder but less lethally.


The international community should also be modest about our own aid and disaster response capability. We do not always execute relief well as seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And there are inefficiencies: a joke in Haiti says a minister skimming 10 percent from a foreign aid project is corruption, a Washington consulting firm skimming 40 percent is overhead.


Aid often conforms to needs of U.S. campaign donors over the needs of Haitian victims. Food aid, for example, reduces stockpiles of excess, subsidized U.S. corn better than it fights hunger. It sometimes even increases hunger in Haiti by undermining otherwise sustainable local farmers. When farmers cannot sell their grain because Uncle Sam is giving it away, they close down their farms and move — to a shoddy house on a precarious slope in the city.


An effective international response to the earthquake will minimize the damage of the next stress in Haiti, by including both short- and long-term measures to develop the government’s capacity to provide basic, honest services to its citizens.


A W.P.A., Rather Than an N.G.O.

Amy Wilentz is author of “Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” among other books.

After the earthquake, we’re operating in a whole new geography in Haiti, and possibly within an entirely new political paradigm. Foreign governments have been traditionally leery of giving directly to the government — worries about government priorities, transparency and honesty lie at the heart of this going back decades. Who wanted to give to Duvalier? (Of course, we did, at times…)\


So what happens is that a lot of foreign aid, indeed most of it, is filtered to the Haitian people through projects run by N.G.O.s. One estimate shows Haiti with more N.G.O.s operating per capita than any other country in the world, but those groups are not achieving that much, which is a terrible moral burden for a lot of development workers there, believe me.


What Haiti needs is some kind of Army Corps of Engineers presence (American? Taiwanese? French?), working with the Haitian government as now constituted, and a W.P.A.-like program for Haitian employees with real pay, to begin massive reconstruction of the capital as soon as is physically possible; and at the same time, rebuild highways and transport roads throughout the country, so that Haiti can have a viable national economy.


Infrastructure construction (and the jobs that go with it) plus a huge push (U.S.? Cuban? Venezuelan?) toward modernizing health care in the country. The foreign aid community should look at this earthquake as an opportunity to step in and do some good for Haitians, as well as a hemispheric opportunity to bury old hatchets (Cuba, Venezuela) and work together to better lives in this great but suffering country.


Of course people who want to steal will look at the chaos as an opportunity, too, but that kind of theft will be treated very roughly indeed by the Haitian people.


In the Midst of Chaos

Paul McPhun is the operations manager for Haiti at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.

For Doctors Without Borders and others on the frontline of this catastrophe, the previous lack of effective and functioning infrastructure adds to the challenge of serving the thousands of severely injured people who need emergency help.


The public health system was strained before the earthquake hit, and much of the infrastructure that existed before has been devastated. All three health centers run by Doctors Without Borders were severely affected and cannot be used; one collapsed entirely.


We have set up tents and people are even arriving at our administrative offices. The best we can offer at the moment is first-aid care and stabilization. But the severe traumas — head wounds, crushed limbs — requires specialized care and support, so our major priority and focus is to re-establish as soon as possible a secondary level of surgical capacity in the country.


It’s a very chaotic situation. The mobile communications systems are down making information difficult to gather. We have altogether around 800 colleagues working in Haiti, 30 of whom are international. We currently plan to have another 70 staff members available over the next few days with specialists able to respond to these more immediate emergency medical needs. Likewise, we have prepared freight, including an emergency inflatable hospital so we can set up capacity for these services.


The outpouring of support and solidarity from around the world has been about the only glimmer of hope as people in Haiti deal with the immediate aftermath of this earthquake.


Help Community-Based Groups

J. Michael Dash, a professor of French at New York University, is the author of “Haiti and the United States” and “Culture and Customs of Haiti.”

The catastrophic earthquake in southern Haiti comes at a time when Haiti was emerging from the disastrous overthrow in 2004 of President Aristide which had left the country in chaos. The U.N. peacekeeping mission had begun to restore security and stability. Haiti is in a better position to be helped than in the past when political infighting made foreign intervention difficult.


Even the poverty, the subsequent collapse of the government and the devastation wrought by a succession of hurricanes were not enough to obliterate the gains made in areas like human rights. Preval’s presidency marked a change from the confrontational politics of preceding regimes. The earthquake is in some ways akin to the upheaval of six years ago.


The collapse of the National Palace and the U.N. headquarters should not negate the fact that Haiti is in a better position to be helped that in the past where hostile regimes and political infighting have made foreign intervention difficult. Also the progress made in stabilizing the society should help with reinstating the rule of law and respect for state authority. The fact that the impact of the earthquake is concentrated in Port-au-Prince and the southern Haiti means also that recovery and rebuilding can be focused and not spread across the country’s mountainous terrain.


Port-au-Prince at present can be likened to a massive camp of displaced people and initial aid must respond to that reality. Recovery and rebuilding must however be ultimately directed at the elements of civil society that had first appeared with the anti-Duvalier opposition and gave a voice to Haiti’s silent majority. In recent years the emphasis on economic privatization and foreign investment has shifted the emphasis from community-based organizations often seen as inimical to U.S. interests. In the absence of a strong Haitian state, the citizen action groups for social change need to be central to any transformation of Haitian society.


Similarities to New Orleans

Daniel Wolff is a documentary film producer and the author, most recently, of “How Lincoln Learned to Read.”

I last worked in Haiti as the co-producer of the Jonathan Demme documentary, “The Agronomist.” And since then have been working with him on “Right to Return,” a film about people trying to return to New Orleans. These projects affect how I see — and mourn — the disaster in Haiti.


We need to get medical aid to Haiti immediately because Haitians have so little to fall back on. The United States government was criminally negligent in its immediate response Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There were a number of reasons, including a general lack of organization, but one can’t help but wonder if the lack of response had to do with the socio-economics of those most affected — they were poor. It was as if the U.S. government only recognized its wealthier citizens, while the poor were considered less important. No one said that, but no one had to: the images broadcast over TV and reproduced in the media showed low-income families left to fend for themselves in the post-Katrina heat and destruction.


In the brief time since the earthquake, Haiti has already produced similar images. And I’m afraid we’ll see more in the coming weeks: the remains of a country which we have long neglected. The U.S. can’t repeat the mistakes of New Orleans. We need to get medical aid to Haiti immediately; indeed, with urgency and compassion because Haitians have so little to fall back on in this time of need.


Floods and earthquakes can’t be stopped; what we can do is help make sure the basic resources and educated citizenry are there to respond. While I’m concerned that government corruption may mean that aid and relief won’t reach those most in need in Haiti — that was true before the earthquake. Our real challenge is not only the disaster, but the on-going, everyday emergency


A Model in Papaye

Ruxandra Guidi, a freelance journalist, is communications director for Amazon Watch.

Foreign aid accounts for almost half of Haiti’s budget. And at the top of the country’s complicated and never-ending aid pipeline is Minustah, the U.N. peacekeeping and stabilizing force that has been in the
country since 2004.


In the past six years, the Haitian government and MINUSTAH increasingly focused aid on shoring up the country’s security, such as building up the professional police forces to battle corruption and fight gangs. A growing number of Haitians have grown wary of this priority, and advocated simpler and homegrown solutions to poverty, deforestation, joblessness and lack of infrastructure.


Smaller groups and institutions, like Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, Lambi Fund, or the micro-lending organization Fonkoze, have shown that the need to address both poverty and instability go hand in hand. They’ve been working, with a proven record on the ground, day in and day out, with the local communities, addressing health and food production.


While it’s important to send aid to Haiti now, it’s also essential to think about whether this money will reach the people who need it most, and whether it will help Haitians in their efforts to rebuild their country.


The difference between life in Port-au-Prince, the capital, and much of the countryside seemed obvious when I was there as a reporter in 2008. While people in the cities lacked basic services and relied on
international aid for everything from a job to food, the quality of life in the countryside seemed much better, even as people faced a hard time finding employment and getting their kids to school.


In communities like Papaye, in Haiti’s Central Valley, people could grow their own food, reforest their land, and have a sense of community. They could work outside the development aid system, and create solutions that addressed their needs and their way of life.


As Haiti faces what is seemingly its worst catastrophe, it is important for us outsiders to question what we consider to be help, and focus instead on helping Haitians rebuild what there was of that community effort.

Give Haitians Training

Arthur M. Fournier is vice-chairman of family medicine and associate dean for community health at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami. He is a co-founder of Project Medishare, a charity dedicated to improving heath in Haiti.


If there’s a silver lining to the challenge of providing aid, it may be that Haiti’s large diaspora and our close proximity to Haiti means that there are many here in the United States who understand the intricacies of Haiti and know how to navigate through and around them. The extended network of support from Haitians abroad will be an important factor in responding to the disaster.


Make local groups part of the international aid effort.  There are already good models for how to help Haiti make lasting change. Paul Farmer at Partners in Health and Jean William Pape at Weill Cornell Medical College, for example, have shown in their work that impoverished communities with few resources can combat diseases and improve health care.


The approach they take (as is the approach of our project in Haiti) is to build long-term partnerships with local groups and to help train their doctors and workers. That lesson should be part of any international effort to rebuild the country now.

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