Sorry, I’m Just an Aid Worker…

26 Mar

I’m intrigued by the number of aid non-insiders who ask me what the future of Haiti will be like. What will happen long-term? What should happen long-term? Is relocation better than de-centralization? What about that big donor summit coming up over the weekend? Will this or could this be the beginning of a ‘new Haiti’? And although I never say it in these words, the response in my head is always about the same:

How the hell should I know? I’m just an aid worker…

* * *

Haiti is now in that incredibly unsexy purgatory between full-on disaster response and actual long-term community development. The urgent life-and-death needs of earthquake survivors have mostly been met. At least for now. And yet it is also obvious that we are a long ways from being in a place where anyone can think in any concrete terms about the long-term future.

Land remains a key issue. No one can really say where several hundred thousand people will be physically three or even six months from now. And worse, no one knows when we will be able to say. There are conversations about large-ish tracts of land about to be made available for relocation, but the system being followed by the government of Haiti for identifying these tracts seems somewhat haphazard to outsiders. For example, one large tract – a place called Les Oranges – was under fervent discussion at one point. Different players vying for position to provide different services to some 17,000 people who were to relocation to Les Oranges. And then we all woke up one morning to discover that it was immediately and quite simply “no longer an option.”

There was some vague information about disputes over ownership of parts of it, but in the end, it seemed mainly that Les Oranges was to be the site of a large development project funded by the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). Those NGOs who had been part of the discussion of who would provide what services to Les Oranges suddenly found themselves… for want of a better term, out of work.

Then there were suddenly rumors and discussion of three more large tracts to be opened at Croix de Bouquette, Carrefour, and Corailles. Aid agencies are back to vying for space and negotiating who will do what. While all three of these sites have both positive and not-so-positive things associated with them, I personally hope that they are confirmed as soon as possible, so that those agencies who are even now agreeing to provide shelter, water and sanitation services, heath, education, etc. can just get on with it.

* * * * *

It is incredibly important that good decision get made for the future of Haiti. Millions of actual people suffering in Haiti right now deserve at least that.

President Obama, President Clinton and a great many others have waxed eloquent about the need for the rebuilding effort in Haiti to be “locally led”, to “build back better”, and all of the other classic isms of international community development. On one hand it is very tempting to make cynical observations about how well “locally led” worked for Haiti in the century that preceded the earthquake, and how that bodes for a “locally led” future. On the other hand, it is also tempting to make very cynical observations the fact that the 2010 Donor Conference for Haiti – perhaps the event that will more than any other will shape Haiti’s future, for better or for worse – will be held in… New York!

Per the historical norm, despite untold rhetoric and perhaps even honest desire to the contrary, what will happen to Haiti is being decided elsewhere.

* * *

While the cameras are rolling and the column inches are being written, it is easy for many – sometimes even aid workers themselves – to feel as if they have more impact than they do. We are the ones on the screen handing stuff out, talking about the challenges, raising money to help those who need it.

It has become the fashion in some corners of the twittervese and blogosphere for irate, articulate Haitians (ironically, many not actually living in Haiti) to berate the humanitarian community and in particular the NGOs for being slow, for letting things fall through the cracks. And while I feel and even in some way share their frustration, I think that it is also at least partially misplaced.

As well, as always seems to happen, sometime between month two and month three after a large, high-visibility rapid-onset natural disaster, we start to get “probed” by investigative journalists looking for a controversial story. It ranges from open confrontation to sort of sly prying, somewhere from accusing the aid agencies of intentionally mismanaging funds or being grossly incompetent, to accidental failures, to flat unethical behavior.

But this has to be heard: There are INGOs in Haiti right now ready to rock ‘n’ roll with the capacity to put in transitional shelter on massive scales, including supporting infrastructure such as sanitation, community centers, and educational facilities. Someone – please – tell us where we can build them. Not one or two. But thousands.

It is important for grumpy Diaspora and investigative reporters alike to understand that we – the aid agencies – are in this instance really at the mercy of forces beyond our control and processes into which we have precious little input. It’s fair to ask why things are moving slowly on the recovery and reconstruction front. But it’s not really fair to ask the aid agencies, the NGOs, the aid workers. See, the real conversations about what happens and what will happen all take place elsewhere, and we’re not on the guest list. The decisions that matter the most – land, relocation v. decentralization, etc… – will be made behind closed doors, based on priorities that are not necessarily ours.

Sorry, we’re just aid workers. Our job, like always, will be to try to help deal with whatever comes next…

9 Responses to “Sorry, I’m Just an Aid Worker…”

  1. Peter 27 March, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    Working in Haiti made me think how much I love this work, making a difference. But at the same time, a kind of despair engulfes me. As I don’t know the answers neither.

    • J. 30 March, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

      Makes at least two of us. On all of the points that you mention.

  2. An Ex 6 April, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    I quit working in “the industry” (longer term development aid) after 5+ years because I felt that so little was being accomplished. Lots of privileged people earning decent salaries to do work they could feel good about (so much better than those profit mongering drones). But what were the real, lasting impacts? As I think you said somewhere on this blog, we the aid workers always benefited more from the aid arrangement than did the supposed beneficiaries.

    I’m curious about what keeps you motivated. Is it that when helping people in crisis, something is always better than nothing? What about longer term aid?

    My compliments on your blog – it is thought-provoking.

    • Anonymous 14 April, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

      You clearly worked for the UN didn’t you…

      • J. 15 April, 2010 at 8:12 am #

        er… no.

  3. Anonymous 8 April, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    am also working here for a large INGO… i’m not as concerned that we’re “not on the guest list” – at least we are in the HCT meetings, the cluster meetings, have opps to actually input. what appalls me is that HATIANS themselves are nowhere on the guestlist. have you ever been to a meeting at logsbase or elsewhere where any local voice is heard? this is always the case in emergency responses. every humanitarian evaluation since the tsunami has recommended including local people in decision making, but we still can’t manage to do it.

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