Nick Kozak/Sipa Press/AP

Stress management

Haiti | Helping Haitians recover takes zeal-with wisdom

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

When dusk begins falling in Port-au-Prince, a surreal sight unfolds: Scores of Haitians flood into crowded streets to set up camp for the night. Some snag the coveted spots on broken medians. Others avoid wide cracks in the broken roads. All are trying to escape the threat of suddenly awaking near half-collapsed buildings that could tumble in another earthquake.

From the back of a pickup truck in Port-au-Prince, engineers Scott Powell and Zack Graham of Engineering Min­istries International (EMI) wonder: How many people could actually go home?

It's an urgent question given the staggering figures of post-quake homelessness in Haiti: The UN estimates the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 230,000 people also left some 1 million people homeless. As many as 800,000 of those Haitians are living outdoors-many living in squalid tent cities in the capital or in outlying areas.

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But not all are truly homeless. Some Haitians' homes are intact but uninhabited because residents aren't sure if they are structurally sound. Instead of taking the risk, they live outside.

It's a widespread problem with a relatively simple solution: Powell and Graham-and most engineers-can tell a family if it's safe to return to their home in as little as 15 minutes. It doesn't take a troupe of outsiders to do the work: The process is simple enough to teach Haitians with a basic knowledge of construction, an effort EMI staffers and volunteers have been pursuing since the quake. The goal: Equip Haitians to help Haitians return home, block by block, long after aid workers move on.

The reach of EMI's small teams may be limited given the country's vast need, but the approach is instructive. As some aid agencies struggle to deliver help effectively and quickly in a chaotic environment, dozens of private groups like EMI are using local connections and simple methods to deliver critical care.

As Christians wrestle with how best to help, identifying effective groups with local connections is key. Watching how groups manage aid now may be a good measure of their potential for long-term effectiveness in a country facing decades of recovery. In the meantime, Christians outside of Haiti should balance their helpful impulses with an honest question: What helps Haiti most?

Since Jan. 12, help for Haiti has gushed from the international community: By early February, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that donors worldwide had contributed $644 million to agencies managing Haiti relief efforts. The American Red Cross represented one of the biggest recipients, raising some $231 million by Jan. 26. The group reported it had delivered 3 million pre-packaged meals, 4.2 million liters of clean water, and shelter material for thousands of people.

The UN, tasked with overseeing international relief efforts, announced it had already raised $517 million of a $575 million goal for immediate relief efforts. The group reported it had fed about 1.6 million people. But impressive sums of money didn't yield impressive success. While pallets of supplies sat in piles at the airport, thousands of Haitians scavenged for food.

For the first two weeks, UN officials worked to figure out where relief groups were operating in the area, a process complicated when many NGOs didn't come to meetings. Some meetings are confusing: In one gathering at the UN's makeshift headquarters near the airport, an official told a handful of aid groups that building displacement camps should be a last resort. When an aid worker asked Margorie Charles, a Haitian liaison between the UN and the Haitian government cited media reports saying the group would set up displacement camps for 400,000 people, Charles seemed puzzled: "If it's in the press then it's real."

Trying to deliver aid to large crowds with little structure proved predictably chaotic for the fraught UN apparatus: Peacekeeping troops from Brazil sprayed tear gas on a crowd near the collapsed Presidential Palace. Other UN teams left minutes after they arrived, unable to control the crowds. When 18 UN troops from Uruguay faced 4,000 people downtown, the crowd swarmed trucks filled with rice. Troops used pepper spray and rubber bullets to keep control. The London Times quoted one peacekeeper as saying: "Whatever we do, it doesn't matter-they are animals."

Across town, workers from the Salvation Army described a very different scene: On a Tuesday afternoon, near a tent city of thousands, the aid workers peacefully distributed 550,000 meals in less than four hours. From an email in her makeshift office in Port-au-Prince, where the group's headquarters suffered severe damage, Salvation Army major Kelly Pontsler said planning, crowd control, and working with locals are key to effective delivery.


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