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AP/Photo by Ryan Remiorz (The Canadian Press)

Chaotic aid

Haiti | Relief groups attempt to help Haitians despite murky rules, government interference, and the lack of a cohesive plan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti-In the shade of a khaki tent at the temporary UN headquarters in the country's capital city, a small group of non-governmental organizations discussed a huge subject: Where should some 1 million people left homeless by the earthquake live?

It's notable that the group was small since the UN is relying heavily on NGOs to provide care for sprawling tent cities springing up around the capital. At this meeting, representatives from about eight groups were present. But dozens more are operating in the city.

The meetings aren't required to conduct relief work in Port-au-Prince, but they serve an important purpose: finding out where others are working. And though some groups likely want to avoid red tape, these meetings offered a way to avoid duplicating efforts. That no single body knows where all the relief groups are working makes formulating a cohesive plan nearly impossible, and may lead to more chaos.

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For now, chaotic conditions are the rule. UN officials said they're running desperately low on tents to distribute to groups working with the homeless, saying they can't fill half the requests. One official said planes filled with shelter materials have been turned away at the Port-au-Prince airport, which reported a major backlog in aircraft trying to enter the country. But later that day when I left the country earlier this week, the runway was strangely clear of most aircraft.

The meetings also revealed the tightrope the UN must walk with the Haitian government. Near the beginning of a Tuesday morning meeting, a UN worker came into the tent and interrupted with a directive: Haitian President Rene Preval wanted to know what each group planned to do, and how much supplies they have coming. "Write it down on a piece of paper," she said. "He wants to know now."

What the president planned to do with that information wasn't clear. Though Haitian officials earlier indicated an approval process for NGOs to manage tent cities, the rules for gaining approval were murky. So was the UN's role in operating shelters. When asked about contradictory press reports that the body would construct camps for some 400,000 people, Margorie Charles, a Haitian liaison between the UN and the Haitian government, seemed puzzled: "If it's in the press, then it's real."

While the UN dealt with the Haitian government, many living in Haiti were skeptical about the notoriously corrupt government's ability to manage its own recovery, pointing to its abysmal track record. A 2006 report by the National Academy of Public Administration titled "Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed" noted "a total mismatch between levels of foreign aid and government capacity to absorb it." Though foreign governments, including the United States, said the majority of aid wouldn't go through the Haitian government, Haitian officials may begin to demand more control.

For now, Ben Hopp-a missionary to Haiti with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church-worries that a piecemeal plan put together by separate groups will only create more problems. He said he fears in the long run: "People will go back to their land, build again with the same poor materials and construction methods, and wait for the next disaster."

Lasting aid, said Hopp, should come with deeper aims: "I am firmly convinced that if we do not bring the preaching of the gospel along with the cup of cold water it will all be in vain."

Related coverage:

'Still in shock' | Haiti is hit by a massive earthquake followed by aftershocks, with an epicenter near the capital, Port-au-Prince | Mindy Belz and Jamie Dean | Jan. 12, 2010
Helping Haiti | WORLD provides a list of relief organizations accepting donations to assist earthquake victims in Haiti | The Editors | Jan. 13, 2010
Search and rescue | U.S. disaster experts, the U.S. military, and private relief groups head to earthquake-devastated Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 13, 2010
In the dark | Haitian-Americans hope to contact loved ones and quickly send aid back home to family and friends | Alisa Harris | Jan. 13, 2010
Weeping and waiting | Haitian earthquake victims await help, but obstacles slow relief efforts | Jamie Dean | Jan. 14, 2010
Desperation | Too many Haitians are in a holding pattern awaiting aid, as relief organizations try to make progress | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Long night | With tens of thousands of casualties, Haitians weep and wait for morning | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Deliverance | A group of orphans arrive safely in Pittsburgh while relief organizations report progress in Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 19, 2010
Crying for help | Hard-pressed Haitians seek assistance as aid groups face logistical challenges | Jamie Dean | Jan. 21, 2010
Leaving Port | Beyond the capital city are rural communities equally devastated by the quake and in need of help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
The new normal | As life and death continue their morbid mingling, relief groups forge ahead to help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
Finding home | Now that search-and-rescue efforts have been called off, attention turns to providing shelter for survivors | Jamie Dean | Jan. 23, 2010
Aftershock | Caregivers predict a second wave of death, as Haitians find moments of deliverance amid days of devastation from one of the modern world's worst natural disasters | Jamie Dean | Jan. 29, 2010
Homecoming | For Haitians orphaned before the quake, it means leaving home and starting over | Alisa Harris | Jan. 29, 2010
Crisis giving | Instant need calls for long-term strategy | Rusty Leonard | Jan. 29, 2010
An indecent grief | First lamentations, then comfort that strengthens more than soothes | Mindy Belz | Jan. 29, 2010
Hope for Haiti? (audio file) | Hear WORLD news editor Jamie Dean discuss her visit to the earthquake-ravaged country | Nick Eicher | Feb. 1, 2010
Despair and salvation | While the UN grapples with unruly crowds, The Salvation Army peacefully distributes food | Jamie Dean | Feb. 2, 2010
Crossing lines | Failing to heed sound advice, 10 Americans now find themselves facing kidnapping charges in Haiti | Jamie Dean | Feb. 4, 2010
Haiti's plight (audio file) | A discussion of the country's days of devastation and moments of deliverance | Jamie Dean | Feb. 5, 2010
Stress management | Helping Haitians recover takes zeal-with wisdom | Jamie Dean | Feb. 12, 2010
Taking charge | In quake aftermath, build new cities, says Haitian ambassador (and Bible translator) Raymond Joseph | Mindy Belz | Feb. 12, 2010
Houses of God | Grand-Goave, Haiti | The Editors | Feb. 12, 2010
Living water | Water Missions International offers long-term solutions for clean, drinkable water | Angela Lu | Feb. 13, 2010
Building blocks | While Christian Aid Ministries provides for the immediate needs of quake victims, it looks ahead to helping the country rebuild | Angela Lu | Feb. 16, 2010
Close quarters | ActionAid helps homeless Haitians deal with sanitation and security issues at camps set up in Port-au-Prince | Angela Lu | Feb. 23, 2010
Hardest hit | With nearly half a million orphaned children before the quake, Haiti's challenge to parent them just got bigger | Jamie Dean | Feb. 26, 2010
The search for miracles | Port-au-Prince is a city desperately seeking turnaround-and that's before the earthquake | Jamie Dean | March 12, 2010
Hope in the darkness | World Hope International offers Haitians practical assistance and spiritual guidance | Angela Lu | March 24, 2010
Night crawlers | A new disaster threatens defenseless women and children in Haitian tent cities: rape | Jamie Dean | March 25, 2010
Homecoming | Missionary Patrick Lataillade, who nearly died in the quake, returned to help Haitians this week | Angela Lu | March 27, 2010
Hashing out Haiti | As the UN makes recovery plans, Haitians struggle for the basic necessities for survival | Jamie Dean | March 31, 2010

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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