Good question. No easy answers.
I have been in communications with many friends and colleagues who naturally wanted to spring into action at the news that Haiti had indeed weathered great damage following the battering by tropical storms Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. As in 2004, Gonaives became a muddy lake that trapped more than 250,000 people in a deathly grip. Other areas to the south and north of the historic anchor – Gonaives is the city where Haiti was formally born as an independent nation – suffered greatly as well. Reading the news accounts communicated by major international dailies and the wire services, one could almost smell the stench, feel the horror and the despair, and the weight of a country that is certain to wither away without a Herculean effort by its citizens and international allies.
But old habits die hard. So I have patiently explained to them the following which I will put to you, the reader, as succinctly as possible:
What not to do:
- Use the occasion to get rid of used clothing.
- Purchase canned food and bottled water to deliver to some agency that foolishly accepts these donations.
Why are these wrong-headed?
- They will probably never get shipped to their destination and just end up in a warehouse in the proximity of the agency to which such donations have been made.
- They will stress the resources of the agency that is handling these donations, since the cost of handling and shipping is not taken into account when such donations are made.
- Even if they get to their destination, they will not reach the people in distress in time to make a huge difference.
What is the alternative?
- Give cash to a professional relief organization that is involved in the relief efforts
- Raise the profile of the emergency with:
- Friends and relatives
- Public and private sector leaders
- Plan for the next stage when the spotlight is off of Haiti
Why is this alternative the best course of action?
Disaster relief is first and foremost a professional business. There is a whole industry devoted to disaster relief. Industry practitioners provide tents, bottled water, protein-packed food, blankets, cots, etc… They can get planes, trains and helicopters moving very quickly. They have a good line of credit or the capital to use in an emergency. The International Red Cross’ estimate of $4 million needed to provide assistance to 10,000 Haitian families is based on a professional survey and knowledge of the needs in such emergencies. Since it already has the capital to fund the emergency operation or can quickly borrow that sum of money through a standing line of credit, it can deploy its people quickly and deliver the assistance almost immediately. But if it keeps spending without bringing in revenues, it will go bankrupt. This is where the individual giving comes in.
On September 10, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched a $108 million coordinated appeal for Haiti. In essence it’s the international community’s best attempt at the time of the appeal to identify both the immediate needs and the short-term needs in Haiti. For a more detailed account of the needs identified by international relief agencies and the government of Haiti, as well as periodic situation reports, you can bookmark the Haiti page of Relief Web.
This said, when you are directly affected (either via family or friends or simply love of country) you want to do something directly instead of through proxies. You may fear that these agencies will not care as much as you do, and that they will not intervene in the areas where you believe they should. For instance, since much press attention is focused on Gonaives, the Southeast is not getting the attention that it deserves. Same thing with the Central Plateau whose capital Hinche bore witness to the amount of water that the rains dropped on Haiti since, to anyone’s recollection, it seems that this was the very first time one could see houses completely submerged by water. Following is a video of Hurricane Gustav’s impact on a school in Jacmel, to the southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
You need to take a deep breath and hunker down for the long run: after the immediate emergency is past and Haiti returns to its chronic emergency state, that is when sustained engagement from you will really matter, along the lines of the Cuny principles
I have called attention to the longstanding efforts of the Lambi Fund to promote sustainable food production and environmental protection in Haiti. Another deserving non-profit agency is the Matènwa Community Learning Center, based on the island of Lagonav which reports that 39 families have lost homes which will cost $1,000 each to rebuild. And at the micro level there is the individual appeal from an advocate of children’s rights, in particular the elimination of restavèk slavery in Haiti, who has to cope with putting the pieces back together AND continuing to struggle for social change.
Ideally, a permanent relief fund should be set up by Haitians in the Diaspora, with the goal that it be as well managed as the Red Cross or OXFAM for example. Specializing in disaster relief, it could be set up to be the communication lifeline between Haiti and its Diaspora, the coordinator of volunteer citizen relief assistance, if folks wish to volunteer 2-3 months or more helping in the rebuilding phase, the repository of the skills base that is available in times of emergency, etc… The sky is the limit, as long as the will and the skills are there. This takes planning and does not happen overnight. Public sector support may be essential to implementing such a vision. Therefore advocating for such support in the Haitian and international arena is a necessary component of the citizen-led activities that are necessary to bring Haiti to the stage where it can weather storms as well as its neighbor, the Dominican Republic.
Campaign Launched to Increase US Assistance to Haiti
I am pleased to report that the following campaign has been launched in NY. It is self-explanatory so I won’t bother with the details. I do hope that it will be emulated across the board by Haitians who are sick and tired of being sick and tired of doing business as usual.
The Honorable George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Dear Mr. President:
We applaud the prompt commitment of the United States to storm-battered Haiti, via a $10 million emergency assistance and the redeployment of US Navy ships to provide support to the relief efforts in Gonaives, Haiti’s most stricken city.
The immediate needs are so great in Haiti that the UN has launched a $108 million flash appeal on behalf of its agencies and affiliated international NGOs. We are doing our part in contributing to relief efforts from our savings as well as in urging and collecting donations from friends, relatives and colleagues.
Yet we are fully aware that unless the emergency response is associated with development efforts that put Haitians to work building or rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, its agricultural, manufacturing and commerce base, the relief efforts will be for naught. One, 2, 3 or 4 years from now, Haiti may suffer even more extensive damage as a result of its inability to protect itself from the storms during hurricane season and to pick itself up quickly after they pass.
Our appeal to you, Mr. President is two-fold:
- Please make a bigger commitment to relief and development efforts in Haiti on behalf of the United States. Use your leadership to ensure that at the very least, all of the needs identified in the flash appeal are met.
- It has long been recognized that Haiti’s salvation lies partly in the significant involvement of the Haitian Diaspora in nation-building efforts. Implement a policy of constructive engagement with the Haitian Diaspora in the US so that the knowledge, skills and expertise we bring to the issue are effectively used in the recovery and development efforts under way and in the future.
Once again we thank you for your prompt response to Haiti’s plight and look forward to the contributions that together with our government we can make to get Haiti on an irreversible path to social and economic progress.
City, State, Zip Code
CC: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton
780 Third Ave
New York, NY 10017
Senator Charles Schumer
757 Third Ave
New York, NY 10017
N.B.: this appeal obviously originates from New York. Send copies to the Senators and Representatives in the state where you reside, in addition to the White House. If enough of you do it, and individualize the letter (describe, for example, a crisis that you know of personally), your appeal will get the attention that it deserves. If no action is taken, then you’re allowing decision-makers to hold sway over your future and that of Haiti. Indecision and inertia are some of the reasons why Haiti is in its current dire situation.