Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti relief efforts: Doing good, or doing harm?

By Trenton Daniel, McClatchy News

Small groups argue that their nimbleness allows them to move much more swiftly to the location of a disaster than some large, more established humanitarian groups. They count common sense and eagerness to pitch in as their best assets, and some of them have spent years here.

Global health experts counter that while the relief efforts of grass-roots charities are appreciated, sometimes these groups lack experience and get in the way.

“There’s a lot of good that can be done, but there’s also a great deal of harm that can be done,” said Jeff Wright, a disaster response specialist with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. “Who should respond are those with competence.”

Wright and other public health professionals found some do-gooder groups seeking to help – only to find they hampered urgent relief efforts and sometimes competed with Haitians for scarce resources.

As aid workers try to shelter and relocate 1.5 million displaced people, nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, also have come under fire for working at cross purposes. A property owner in the city of Delmas, for example, wanted to evict several hundred squatters, but NGOs kept delivering aid to the site – not exactly an incentive for people to pack up.

One disaster response expert recalls how after Katrina, New Orleans received a flurry of do-gooders – not all of whom were qualified to assist.

“People showed up in New Orleans, saying, ‘I’m a doctor, I have a stethoscope around my neck.’ It was unclear if they really were,” said Irwin Redlener, a physician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “It was a free-for-all. One can only imagine what happens unfettered in places like Haiti.”

The compulsion to help quake-battered Haiti was immense. Many opened their wallets, but others opted to fly in on private planes and drive in from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Haiti’s proximity to the United States influenced many to come, experts say. Few natural disasters in recent years have generated such intense interest.

Some of that has to do with the magnitude of the disaster: An estimated 300,000 people were killed, and the world responded.

Americans donated more than $1 billion, and 120 countries have pledged more than $9 billion to help rebuild.

Much of the donated money supplied critical services in the immediate aftermath of the temblor, but it also supported foreign NGOs, some of which undermined local institutions by diverting resources from their coffers. The lion’s share of aid has long steered clear of the Haitian government because of a history of graft.

The donations to NGOs “made for certain that the Haitian institutions – and some of them were very good – ended up being without any capital,” said Jocelyn McCalla, senior adviser to the Haitian special envoy to the United Nations. “The Haitian medical facilities could not compete with the NGOs because of their foreign base. They had to lay off their staff.”

Right after the quake, so many flights with aid workers tried to land at the severely damaged airport that they were locked in holding patterns over the capital; others were directed to the Dominican Republic or sent back home.

Animal lovers from the Humane Society International swooped in. So did Clowns Without Borders. And as Haiti transitioned from an emergency phase to a reconstruction effort, college spring breakers and pest control exterminators joined the fold. First-timers were plentiful.

NGO-rented SUVs still knot traffic in Port-au-Prince’s already too few streets.

The U.S. State Department’s most recent travel advisory, issued on June 24, “strongly” urged U.S. citizens not to visit Haiti. But it also took into consideration the downside of too much benevolence.

“Those wishing to assist in Haiti relief efforts should be aware that despite their good intentions, travel to Haiti will increase the burden on a system already struggling to support those in need on the ground,” the statement said.

Thomas Kirsch, a Johns Hopkins emergency physician, noted how young Scientology “Volunteer Ministers” did little to create job opportunities for Haitians.

“Rather than have college kids from California come down, it would be better to hire a bunch of Haitians to hand out bottled water,” said Kirsch, who led a team of doctors and nurses to Haiti shortly after the quake. “All that does is undercut the local population.”

One Scientologist volunteer who traveled to Haiti said her colleagues’ work was more substantial than merely distributing water. Besides, she added, the desperation in Haiti was great, as was the demand for help.

“Our feeling is you can’t have too many volunteers,” said the Rev. Susan Taylor, national director of the Churches of Scientology disaster response. “Millions of people need help, and there are so many volunteers. You can’t just throw money at a situation. You need people.”

Public health experts note that many people arrived in Haiti wanting to help but needed help themselves. Wright, of World Vision, said several groups of volunteers showed up ill-prepared.

“They hadn’t thought about where they would stay or how they would get a ride from the airport,” said Wright, who made two post-quake trips to Haiti and has worked in disasters since 1991. “They needed help helping. They themselves became victims.”

Though the United Nations also took a serious hit and lost high-ranking officials who worked in Haiti in the quake, it drew widespread criticism for its slow response in coordinating relief efforts.

The American Red Cross also took a drubbing over the whereabouts of millions of dollars in aid after the agency’s efforts weren’t apparent to some on the ground in Haiti. The Red Cross responded by saying it has shifted tactics to a three- to five-year recovery plan. Rather than using the money to distribute bottled water, for example, the group plans to fund water sanitation programs.

But other ad hoc groups wanted immediacy. Hours after the quake, Dirk DeSouza of Miami Beach found himself stirred by the ghastly images. Though he had never visited Haiti, he urged his circle of Facebook friends and their friends to drop off food, water and medical supplies at a triangle-shaped lot in South Beach.

After sorting the goods, DeSouza and his pals shipped them off to Port-au-Prince on donated aircraft. They named themselves 1st and Alton for the lot on which they gathered donations and dubbed their Facebook-driven response “Flashmob relief.”

“It’s wholesale misery going on down there,” DeSouza said. “When you see somebody dying on the side of the road, when you see somebody in need of water, you don’t need to be seasoned.”

(Miami Herald correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.)

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