Disclaimer: the following blogpost is purely based on my own experiences and does not necessarily represent the situation as experienced or seen by everyone. Details are included as I have heard them and might be subject to distortion.
Today it’s exactly 1 year since an earthquake struck the island of Haiti. This disaster and the immense amount of suffering caused by it led me to set up Haiti Connect in an attempt to do whatever little I can to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild their lives and their country. In these 12 months I have learned a lot; about Haiti, providing aid, about myself, about other people and about attitudes and perception.
Together with my wife I set up Haiti Connect in late January 2010 I knew very little about Haiti or on delivering aid to disaster areas. Some would call me naive but in my opinion a certain amount of naivety helps one to break artificially established borders. I made the decision that I had skills that could help in this emergency situation and that it was my time to step up to the plate. I made no illusions about the amount of hard work involved but it would not be the first time that I had to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in.
So what have a learned in the past 12 months?
About Haiti; Even though the circumstances were terrible and the reason for my visit was to help in a disaster struck country visiting Haiti was one of the most memorable things that I have ever done. From the moment I first set foot on the tarmac at Toussaint Louverture International Airport I was blown away. The sights, smells & sounds were like a sensory overload. Amongst the destruction and misery there were bright vibrant colours and smiley faces. In its rawness it is really one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. From the cacophony of Port au Prince to the wide mountain & ocean vistas along the coast roads. In addition the Haitian people are amongst the proudest and most industrious people I have ever met. In spite of being one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and just having been struck by a devastating earthquake there are people buying, selling and/or manufacturing things everywhere. They seem to be industrious in the extreme. What also struck me is the sight of the immaculately turned out children on their way to school in the morning. Even though a lot of them lived under plastic their uniforms were immaculate. Working with a lot of Haitian people for the last year has also taught me that they are extremely proud of their country and I can see why. I can truly say that my love for this country will never go away. Neither will the mad traffic, the colourful taptaps and the revelation that Haitians are seemingly the only people who will run towards a person who is pulling a gun…
About people; I have learned a lot about people and a lot of that confirmed what I already knew. Some people prefer to criticise from the comfort of their sofa while others are willing to put themselves on the line if it helps someone in need. I have learned that so-called friends will turn their back on you at the first sight of negative publicity while new friends (and true friends) will step in and support you when needed. Most of all I have met people during the last twelve months that I would not have met if I hadn’t decided to set up Haiti Connect. Across the board these have been wonderful, generous and caring people who I hope will be my friends forever. I have learned more about giving from them than from anyone before. These people are one of the reasons why I know that Haiti will have a good future and these people by their actions serve as an example for me and are one of the reasons why I expect to be involved with Haiti forever.
Bureaucracy and greed; I have learned about these two terrible things both close to home and in Haiti. I have learned how some people in Ireland try to block charitable work for no other reason than personal gain. I have learned that while Haiti lies in ruins that certain bureaucrats still try to personally profit from incoming aid without any consideration to the urgency of these supplies. I have learned how so-called journos write biased articles about charities solely to sell more papers and without any consideration of how it might delay, hamper and damage support to disaster struck people. Gladly I can say that these kind of people are only a tiny minority. I also know that they are the ones who have to live with their actions every day while the rest of the world can turn their back on them.
One of the biggest eye-openers was the intricacies of international aid. Like most people I had heard of the larger aid organisations, mostly through their media coverage. What I had heard very little about are the tens if not hundreds of small aid organisations that rush in to help in disaster areas. These are mostly privately run organisations working with very limited budgets but generally doing fantastic work. Most of these spend every cent they receive in aid in the way it should be, by providing aid & assistance. I have become very disillusioned with the large NGO’s. By their sheer size and resources these organisations are quick to establish a presence but slow to deliver any real aid. While my experience was only limited all I saw of for instance the UN was lots of shiny SUV’s driving around, white APC’s and lots & lots of heavily armed military personnel. I didn’t see very much actual work being carried out or led by any of the large NGO’s. As an example most of the rubble being cleared seems to still be done by Haitians with hammers, chisels & wheelbarrows. Bureaucracy is so rife that large amounts of aid funds are still sitting in bank accounts and aid supplies are gathering dust in warehouses in Port au Prince. This is simply unforgivable. I was particularly galled when I heard senior UN personnel criticise the smaller aid organisations for not participating in the UN cluster system and acting outside of this. This UN person even accused of these small organisations using up UN resources when they ran into trouble. That contrast the reports that I’ve heard of medical personal becoming so frustrated with the static nature of the UN that they have set up “un-cluster” meetings in the evenings to actually make sure that aid gets delivered and medical care is provided were needed. Another bone of contention is the behaviour of the MINUSTAH troops in quelling protest marches against the lack of action. I have read reports of Minustah troops opening fire with teargas or live ammunition on protesters leading to people being injured or killed. None of this seems to have made it into the mainstream media. Another unwelcome side effect of the large amounts of money that these organisations spend on providing for and looking after their own staff is that the market prices has become completely skewed. In a country where the average annual income is $480 per person 3-4 bedroom houses are fetching rental prices as much as $4-5000 per month. Food, drink and related items are being priced similarly. This means that the average Haitian can not afford to rent a house to replace the one he lost. It also means that it is very hard to operate for a small aid organisation with a limited budget. Most of this money also does not end up in the Haitian economy as a lot of the houses, hotels etc. are owned by people not living in Haiti.
In contrast to the above I have learned of the fantastic work being done by small organisations as Renewal4Haiti, Humanity Road, The Bridge Foundation, Team Rubicon, Carl Pedre’s Sunday Project, Doctor Megan Coffee, Alison Thompson, JPHRO, GLOW Ministeries Chuck the guys at the HyPower yard in Deerfield Beach and many, many others. These the real value lies, small teams of people travelling to Haiti, working hard and living in primitive circumstances just so that they can help. Like my own organisation these work with Haitians to rebuild and improve their country. What the country needs is to not only rebuild & repair the damage done but to rebuild a sustainable infrastructure and economy. This can only be achieved by giving the Haitians themselves the means & knowledge to do so. And all that will happen in my opinion even if it takes a long time. My wife was right when she said last March that Haiti will become of 6th child. It has and it always will be.