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.
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.
She described the group's strategy: Workers register each family in the displacement camp and give each one a distribution card that they present for food. They devise a one-way flow of traffic and use plenty of personnel, including members of the 82nd Airborne. They ask for help from local people who know the crowds and can help prevent fraud. (Seventy-five of the 100 staffers working on the relief efforts are Haitian.) They maintain an element of surprise, not delivering on the same schedule.
Perhaps most important, says Pontsler: "We want to [help] in a way that allows people to retain their dignity and find hope." She says the process hasn't been easy, but it's been orderly.
Other groups follow similar strategies. Michael Hill of Catholic Relief Services said local volunteers and U.S. soldiers have helped his group maintain order in tense distributions of food: "CRS knows from years of experience you can't just back up a truck full of food and fling the doors open."
Since some of the initial deliveries, the UN has adopted a more structured system, pre-distributing coupons, and allowing only women to line up for food at the 16 distribution sites. The UN says the new system is working, though one site reported problems with Haitians producing counterfeit coupons. UN World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran said the new system helped the group move past the "quick and dirty" delivery method that had caused chaos.
No quick remedy exists for the problem of homelessness. With rainy season coming as early as April, and hurricane season commencing in June, transitioning beyond plastic tarps and tents will be crucial. But tents and tarps remain the focus for delivering short-term aid. That's why EMI engineers believe helping people return to habitable homes is so important. EMI teams in Haiti have helped with water purification and camp planning, in addition to home assessments.
For home assessments, EMI works with organizations with local connections-Food for the Hungry, World Concern, and Project Concern International-to identify Haitian workers for a one-day training program. The next step is a practicum: EMI staffers show Haitians how to apply the principles at homes around town.
The process requires some finesse, especially if residents are still wary about returning to homes that volunteers deem safe. Josh Ayers, an EMI staffer, explained the personal touch: "Sometimes it really took us looking them in the eye and saying: 'I would sleep here tonight.'"
Steve Corbett, a professor at Covenant College and co-author of When Helping Hurts, a book designed to help Christians understand the best strategies for alleviating poverty, points to other feasible strategies, like cash-for-work programs. The UN is already paying more than 30,000 Haitians to clear rubble in Port-au-Prince. Other groups, including Oxfam and Food For the Hungry, are also paying Haitians to clear debris and trash.
On the streets of Haiti, it's clear that cash is still critical: Long lines form at markets, and street vendors peddle wares. At local money-wiring offices, huge crowds sometimes wait to get inside to collect cash from overseas relatives. The cash is an essential component to keep a devastated local economy moving.
It also keeps Haitians moving. Corbett says that after immediate, critical needs are met, aid workers should encourage Haitians to help with recovery. Medical needs will likely continue to require outside help for a long time-needs like disease control (a growing worry) and physical therapy for thousands with amputated limbs.
But beyond those needs, Corbett says aid groups and volunteers should avoid taking over work that Haitians can do: "Part of helping people get back on their feet, not just materially but internally, is them contributing to their own progress." He says allowing Haitians to work encourages dignity and a work ethic, and causes local people to invest in their own recovery.
For now, Corbett says he fears a massive influx of short-term mission teams undertaking building projects that could otherwise employ Haitians. He suggests groups consider sending people with technical expertise to help instead. A smaller group of experts could take the cash a bigger team would require and use it to hire local help: "Rather than a whole team spending $1,500 each to go, that $1,500 can hire an awful lot of Haitian labor."
Corbett says the impulse to help Haitians is biblical, and he doesn't want to discourage good instincts, but Christians should apply wisdom in how to help.
"Proverbs talks about zeal without wisdom being harmful," he says. "We have all the zeal-and it's good zeal-but without wisdom, it's not necessarily going to be a good thing."
Jean-Robert Cadet is worried that his own history will repeat itself in the lives of newly orphaned Haitian children: Cadet became a child slave in Haiti at age 4. The founder of the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation now works to help Haiti's thousands of child slaves. Cadet and other child welfare advocates warn that the thousands of children separated from parents or orphaned after the quake need urgent help to escape the same evil.
Child trafficking was a massive problem in Haiti before the Jan. 12 quake: In 2009, the U.S. State Department named Haiti a special case for the fourth year in a row, singling out the nation for its severe cases of trafficking men, women, and children for forced labor and sexual exploitation.
The department estimates that the majority of Haiti's trafficking cases are found among the nation's 90,000 to 300,000 "restaveks"-poor children living with rich families who often turn them into domestic slaves instead of providing the better life they promised the children's parents. Sixty-five percent of Haiti's
UNICEF has set up a center in Port-au-Prince to register unattended children and search for living family members. At UNICEF centers-sometimes just makeshift tents-staff care for neglected children, providing food, water, and shelter.
So far, the highest-profile case involving Haitian children has involved 10 Idaho Baptists charged with kidnapping 33 Haitian children they described as orphans. Haitian authorities did not accuse the Americans of trafficking but said they did not have the proper documents when trying to cross into the Dominican Republic with the children on Jan. 28. Haitian authorities also say many of the children weren't orphans. While those arrested could face prison sentences, on Feb. 11 a Haitian judge recommended their release.
The Americans acknowledged their documentation error but insisted they were trying to help. But evidence mounted that some in Haiti warned the group not to transport the children. Steve Hersey, director of Quisqueya Christian School in Port-au-Prince said the group's leader, Linda Silsby, approached the school's compound the night before they attempted to cross the border. Hersey refused to help and warned the group that their plan was "unconscionable." He added that he urged the Americans to connect with reputable Haitian organizations experienced in dealing with displaced children: "It was clear they had little understanding of Haiti law and customs."
'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
Chaotic aid | Relief groups attempt to help Haitians despite murky rules, government interference, and the lack of a cohesive plan | Jamie Dean | Jan. 28, 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
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