A Measure of Humanity

13 Feb

The other night it rained in Port-au-Prince. The first sign that the rainy season, to be followed closely by “hurricane season”, is not as far off as it might conveniently feel to those here just for a few days or weeks.

The spontaneous camps near my employer’s office are still mostly makeshift bedsheet tents. People looked bedraggled and cold.

I can only imagine how miserable it must be to sleep outdoors in the rain.

* * *

More than any other emergency response than I have ever personally been part of, the earthquake response in Haiti has been plagued by people telling us to think about the long term now.

I mean, on one hand, who in the world would argue? It’s a total no-brainer. Who would argue with the experts  who say that we must plan now for the long term? Who ever would say that taking a long term view to the reconstruction of Haiti is a bad thing?

But I have to get this out there: The earthquake happened one month ago, yesterday, and there are still people sleeping outside, under bed sheets. Maybe we could actually deal with some of the immediate needs before holding conferences and meetings and drawing up detailed plans for the “long term”?

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not taking the side of those aid non-insiders (for example the ruggedly handsome yet perfectly coiffed or the intensely empathetic yet distractedly melancholy CNN correspondents) who complained on day-four that aid wasn’t getting in fast enough. For those who’ve already forgotten, it took four full days to have any kind of meaningful understanding of the devastation caused by The Tsunami in Banda Aceh, let alone scale up a coordinated emergency response. Cooper and Gupta make it all seem like any random layperson can rescue small children or cut through the fog to get the medicines delivered. But they can’t tell the whole story because they don’t know it themselves. Setting up a supply chain in a disaster context is hard and takes time. And to anyone who knows the industry, it’s clear that while there have obviously been hiccups, the big picture of this response effort is that things have actually scaled up very quickly in Haiti.

That famous statement, widely attributed to ICRC senior leadership defines the ethos and purpose of humanitarian aid succinctly: “to bring a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist.”

“Always insufficient.” We literally cannot bring in enough aid, fast enough, to alleviate the human suffering in Haiti right now. And saying this is not the same thing as conceding failure or admitting defeat. It is a simple statement of fact. This job is never really done. And no matter how quickly the response escalates to what level, there will still be unattended suffering and tragedy. In the context of Haiti right now, accusations that aid was slow in coming overall are can only be made by those who fundamentally misunderstand how aid works in the real world.

But all of that said, I am a little tired of all this pressure to think now about the long-term.

We’re barely past the one-month mark. People still do not have enough to eat, people still do not have places to sleep. On my walk to work every morning I pass a place where there are several large water tanks on top of a roof that hangs over the sidewalk. A couple of those tanks have leaks, and so there is a slow but constant trickle of water dribbling down. There is a line of people there almost every morning, waiting to bathe and wash their clothes in that trickle.

As we contemplate the future of Haiti there are huge unknowns. And unknowns about the unknowns. Land tenure, for example, is a desperately complicated and terribly fraught conversation. No one – no one – knows how that one will resolve. And if we can’t know how land tenure will resolve, then we can’t know with any certainty where the population will even be physically six months from now. I’m thinking that we might want to let this one play out just a little more before writing our strategies and proposals for the long-term now.

I’m also a little bemused by the Haiti experts, now all coming out of the woodwork (on a related note) talking in knowing terms about how they see solutions for Haiti’s future based on their long years of experience (no – not going to name names here, because there are some who I genuinely respect, despite the fact that I disagree with them in this instance). I don’t doubt the value of hindsight when it comes to envisioning a new future. But, um, guys… the past 20 years in Haiti do not exactly stand out as a model stellar aid programming. I’m thinking that this would be a good time for the Haiti experts to not automatically recapitulate what they built their careers doing pre-earthquake.

On Thursday I attended the Shelter/NFIs and Camp Coordination and Management (CCM) cluster meetings down at the UN log base, just near the Port-au-Prince airport. And while I believe that coordination is important, and while to be fair those meetings were both focused pretty much on actual, immediate need (I really agree with the Shelter/NFIs strategy…), it was basically a lot of foreigners standing around discussing the future of Haiti.

In that meeting, one lone Haitian spoke up. A young woman with good English. She wasn’t from an NGO. She was just someone sent by her community – on of those little tent cities down the lanes with the signs out on the main road that read, “We need water, food, shelter. HELP US, PLEASE!” The community that she represented had not received any distribution of any kind. Could someone in the meeting please come at least assess her community. They needed help.

I totally get the long-term thing. It is obviously important. And also hugely impractical at this very early stage. Yes, I know that whatever measure of humanity we have to bring will still be insufficient.

I say again, we’re just now only one month in.

People are still sleeping outside.

Can we please sort out some of the immediate stuff before moving on to the long-term planning?

7 Responses to “A Measure of Humanity”

  1. Valerie Booth 13 February, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    Keep writing.

    I’m a non-aid-type person without any ties to aid/NGO anything and I believe your perspective is sorely needed.

  2. Daniel O'Neil 13 February, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    I just came back from Jacmel and was amazed at how well they are doing both. They are working hard to improve the camps and thinking about what will happen when the rains come and how to take care of the thousands of people that have moved into the undamaged towns. It is a smaller area, but the big difference is in the local leadership. I hope someday to see that same leadership in Port-au-Prince

  3. Ian 14 February, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    As always, well written and spot on. Alas, my fear for the future of Haiti is that is will be more of the same, despite the best intentions of those who would try for a Taiwanization (again!) or a Marshall Plan ….. The reality is that 200+ years of history cannot be undone in 200 days of aid effort … and that is about all some people and agencies will give it before consigning Haiti to the “too hard to handle” file.
    Good to see you in Port last week, mate.

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