PORT-AU-PRINCE —The slow delivery of humanitarian aid to Haitians has become something of an embarrassment, if not a scandal. All last week, I encountered earthquake survivors who either had not received any relief such as food, water, basic shelter, or had not seen any aid workers in their part of the city. Still others said I was the first foreigner they had met, which in some cases was a week or more after the disaster.
It is possible to write some of this off as white lies, with people trying to clamor for attention by making the case that their street or block has been neglected, and therefore should be prioritized. However, the ubiquity of these complaints and pleas suggests that most are more likely to be true than not.
The blame game can only go so far, however. Haiti’s government has been reduced to meeting in a police tent, and a shell-shocked President Rene Preval was widely criticized for failing to address his people in a timely and urgent manner.The slow delivery of humanitarian aid to Haitians has become something of an embarrassment, if not a scandal.
All last week, I encountered earthquake survivors who either had not received any relief such as food, water, basic shelter, or had not seen any aid workers in their part of the city. Still others said I was the first foreigner they had met, which in some cases was a week or more after the disaster.
The international airport at Port-au-Prince has one runway, and the control tower was damaged during the disaster. The seaport was badly hit, rendered unusable until last Friday. The US military was accused of prioritizing military flights over relief cargo in the initial days after it took control of the airport, and visits by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, followed by another led by her husband, UN Haiti envoy Bill Clinton, sparked some criticism when the airport and airspace were closed off temporarily.
Slowly, progress has been made in addressing the needs of Haitians, but NGOs have limited funds and resources to enable them single-handedly to get around the logistical and infrastructural difficulties posed by the earthquake’s impact and are in some part dependent on governments and international organizations resolving these issues.
But is the delay and backlog as bad as that marking the relief operation carried out after the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Burma? The Irrawaddy got some perspective from a man with first-hand experience of both disasters.
GOAL emergency coordinator Brian Casey arrived in Port-au-Prince three days after the earthquake hit. It should have been a day sooner, but the damaged airport meant that many flights could not land at Port-au-Prince, requiring a diversion to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and a five-hour drive across the border from there.
In contrast, he left famine-addled Ethiopia immediately upon hearing about Nargis, arriving in Bangkok the night after the 3.5 meter wall of water, driven by 135mph winds, swept over the Irrawaddy delta, washing away perhaps 140,000 Burmese lives, though the exact figure will never be known. The Haiti death toll could reach 200,000, according to government estimates.
“We spent 9 days in Thailand, fruitlessly trying to get access to Burma,” Casey said. By the 10th day, we heard that there might be visas available in Sri Lanka so we flew down to Colombo.”
Visas secured, Casey and GOAL colleagues were in Rangoon 12 days after the disaster hit.
Despite the lag, they were still among the first aid workers to get into the country after the emergency, not counting the handful of UN agencies and NGOs with an ongoing presence in Burma.
“There were hundreds of people in Thailand who had come to work on Nargis,” said Casey. “Most could not get any further. I’m talking about big organizations with a track record in saving lives. They could not get in.”
The Irrawaddy spoke to Casey in Port-au-Prince 10 days after the Haiti earthquake. Despite the admittedly slow-moving relief effort, Casey says that “7,000 people are getting food and shelter from GOAL, and will be starting cash-for-work projects withing 48 hours.” At the same stage after the Nargis disaster, Casey and colleagues were still seeking permission to enter Burma.
“When we got to Rangoon, the city was in darkness, and for the next seven weeks, electricity flickered on and off.”
The Burmese junta makes billions in foreign exchange by exporting electricity to neighboring countries while its own people go without.
Unlike Haiti, Burma has a wealth of natural resources, but the country has been dragged down by violent and incompetent military rulers. Haiti has had a long and sorry history of bad governance as well, and its own rulers have not been shy about lining their pockets – with development aid rather than resource revenues.
The poorest country in the western hemisphere, even before the earthquake, Haiti has been wracked by coups, counter-coups and intermittent reigns of terror perpetrated by state police and paramilitaries, and by violent gangs.
To get emergency relief assistance down to the Irrawaddy delta, GOAL bought shelter, hygiene and basic medical kit at vastly inflated prices in Rangoon. Some Burmese volunteers took the material down to the affected region, while the agency went through the roundabout, tedious and time-consuming process of trying to register as a NGO.
“Our local partners were very nervous about working with a foreign organization,” Casey recalls. “They wanted to help, many lost friends or family during the cyclone, and understood the needs.” However many resigned, citing subtle intimidation and monitoring by the Burmese military.
“We found that some Burmese were so wary of speaking with us, we could not get any information,” he said. “They did not want to be seen associating with us, as it would make them suspect in the eyes of the authorities.”
“We could not get down there, therefore we had no way to distribute ourselves. We could not monitor, or evaluate, or verify that aid was getting to those that needed it,” he said. “Therefore donors and governments were prevented from funding us.”
“Despite the failings of the Haiti relief operation in general, we have already distributed more in assistance here in nine days than we did in 4 months trying to help in Burma,” Casey said.
“The obstacles here in Haiti are different than Burma. Haiti’s infrastructure was not great before the earthquake, but it was destroyed on Jan. 12,” he said. Combined with the impact of nature and concerns about security, this obstructs the aid effort.
In contrast, Casey said the obstacles in Burma were man-made, “the government got in the way big-time.”
Casey said that there are no Haitian government or bureaucratic obstacles to aid getting into or around the country. In contrast, he spent seven weeks in Rangoon, and explains that “GOAL was there for four months in total. We were never allowed to leave the city.”
Still, the Haitian government has been widely criticized for its inability to help its people after the earthquake. Several earthquake survivors I interviewed over the past week said that their leaders had gone into hiding after the disaster; others told me to write that aid should not be sent through Haitian government structures, and questioned my counter-argument that according to some analysts and experts on Haiti, conditions in the country had improved over the past 3 to 4 years.
At Fontamara, close to the Carrefour district of Port-au-Prince where the earthquake hit particularly hard, Pierre Ronald said, “We hear on radio that billions (in development assistance) are given to Haiti every year by the US and others. We don’t see it. Either its all lies, or it goes somewhere else. It doesn’t get sent to here,” he said, pointing a plaza where a few dozen women and children lounged under plastic sheeting, sheltering from the mid-morning sun.
The Haiti government has its critics, and rightfully so, but at least it is not getting in the way. In contrast, Casey said the Burmese junta went out of its way to stop aid workers accessing the Irrawaddy delta, where 3 million were left homeless and the region destroyed.
Almost two years later, he is visibly baffled and infuriated by the callous indifference shown by the junta to the disaster and its aftermath, not to mention its deliberate obstruction of assistance to its own people.
“If you leave dead bodies floating in lakes and floodwater you facilitate the spread of water-borne diseases.
If you prevent or ignore the need to send medical supplies, you ensure that people have no defense against these diseases,” Casey said.
“It is my firm belief that the junta sought to create a second emergency after the cyclone, a second wave of death from disease, hunger, thirst and neglect.”Show