Fernando Llano/AP
A grandmother cuddles with her grandchild on the grounds of a school where residents are taking refuge after being displaced by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake, in Les Cayes, Haiti, Aug. 18, 2021.

After Haiti quake, aid workers make respect a part of relief

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Saturday’s earthquake in Haiti shook many people outside the country, too. It stirred memories of the tumultuous aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake – of tent cities rife with illness and sexual abuse and of an international humanitarian response that largely excluded local people from decision-making.

But it seems things may be different now. Where Haitians were largely ignored in 2010, foreign emergency aid workers are now being scrutinized for their sensitivity to local voices and local needs. Haitian NGO activists and other professionals are demanding that their knowledge and experience be taken into account.

Some things have not changed since 2010, such as government corruption, widespread hunger, and problems reaching the worst-hit areas. But, says Mark Schuller – an expert in the nonprofit sector at the State University of Haiti – the fact that “people are looking to Haiti for a Haitian solution is a good sign.”

Why We Wrote This

The aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was an example of all that can go wrong with international disaster relief. But this time there are signs that lessons have been learned.

When a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti last weekend, it made many outside the country tremble as well.

The temblor kicked up memories of the tumultuous aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 quake, of tent cities rife with illness and sexual abuse and of an international humanitarian response that largely excluded local people from decision-making. Since 2010, Haiti has been held up as an example of all that can go wrong with international disaster assistance.

But this time, local and foreign aid workers say, things may be different.

Why We Wrote This

The aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was an example of all that can go wrong with international disaster relief. But this time there are signs that lessons have been learned.

That’s because last time around, “we learned a lot about community-driven support” and “how can the international system support local efforts instead of the other way around,” says Kirsten Gelsdorf, director of Global Humanitarian Policy at the University of Virginia.

Much has not changed in Haiti since 2010; government corruption, widespread hunger, and problems reaching the most affected areas persist. But there are signs of a new approach to disaster response, offering hope that lessons from past mistakes are informing today’s actions, according to local nongovernmental organizations, academics, and international aid practitioners.

These include a charter of minimum standards for aid organizations arriving in the country, drawn up by a coalition of Haitian-led NGOs, and moves to strengthen coordination among local civil society groups, international aid organizations, multinational bodies, and the government.

The death toll from Saturday’s quake has climbed beyond 2,000 people, and tens of thousands are homeless, largely in the southern part of the country. Delivery of emergency aid has been hindered by a tropical storm that arrived on the quake’s heels and a weak state that has allowed criminal gangs to take control of swaths of the country, including the only roads from the capital to the worst-hit areas.

Haiti’s president was assassinated last month – a still unsolved international scandal – adding a growing political crisis to the mix.

Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
Doctors from the U.S. organization Medic Corps transfer a man injured in the 7.2 magnitude quake to a helicopter at the Ofatma Hospital in Les Cayes, Haiti, Aug. 19, 2021.

A “Haitian solution”?

There were widespread calls on social media this week for donors to seek out Haitian charities or to give directly to the government, in the light of what many saw as a misuse of funds by international groups in 2010.

A document written in Haitian Creole and English, composed by Haitian NGO professionals alongside U.S. peers and diaspora activists, underscores an increasingly visible effort to focus on a “Haitian solution” to the problems left by the Aug. 14 quake.

“Haitians living in the country and abroad are justifiably skeptical of foreign assistance,” the document reads. It’s now time to “support organizations that ... [build] a more equitable Haiti for Haitians.”

It goes on to lay out a series of “minimum standards” to prevent the same mistakes seen in 2010, inviting organizations that are soliciting donations for work in Haiti to pledge respect for Haitians.

“Haitian professionals are asserting themselves. There is a robust effort to say, ‘You need to work with us,’” says Mark Schuller, professor of nonprofit and NGO studies at Northern Illinois University and an affiliate faculty member at the State University of Haiti, who helped translate the document into English.

“That people are looking to Haiti for a Haitian solution is a good sign,” he says, expressing his measured optimism that this disaster response will be different from the past.

Listening to what local residents want and respecting them as human beings may sound like no-brainers. But in an emergency setting, where the priority is pulling people out of rubble, keeping people from starving, and curbing exposure to further danger, it’s not always easy, or natural, to stop and ask a community what it needs.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Children play soccer in an open area in the center of the Terrain Acra camp, one of the camps that sprang up after Haiti's 2010 quake, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Nov. 17, 2010.

There is a “natural inclination to say, ‘This is what you must need,’ because we’ve done this before and we know what is needed,” says Langdon Greenhalgh, co-founder of the disaster response organization Global Emergency Relief, Recovery & Reconstruction (GER3), who has worked in emergency response for more than two decades.

But “sitting down and listening, talking, and making sure the community feels at the forefront of the design and leading the actual response itself is so important for setting up recovery and reconstruction,” Mr. Greenhalgh adds.

He believes more organizations are taking similar approaches to local partnerships and collaboration today than in 2010.

Mouths to feed, or people with brains?

Thinking has changed over the past decade in other ways, too, which many expect will make this response different – and more effective – than in 2010. That includes “specialized” aid, which may have been viewed as a perk in the past but is now more widely accepted as key to recovery, such as schooling, trauma support, and opportunities for play for children under age 5.

Other methods, such as direct cash transfers, have also gained traction since 2010, and Ms. Gelsdorf expects them to play a major role in Haiti’s disaster response this time around. “Instead of just sending tarps, tents, bags of food, and clothing from overseas,” aid groups can funnel money directly to those in need, she says. “It’s not only more dignified, but more effective, and it stimulates local markets.”

That’s not to say the international community isn’t needed. Its capacity to mobilize funds and resources – particularly in the early days of vital search and rescue – far outstrips the government’s ability.

So far, the response feels pretty similar to 2010, says Tony Boursiquot, head of the Haiti office of Star of Hope, an NGO that focuses largely on access to quality education. International resources – from clean water to medical supplies to helicopters – seem to be flooding in. He’s OK with that.

“Right now everyone wants to help, and the response needs to be immediate,” he says, noting that even the best-equipped aid groups from the United Nations and the United States are finding it hard to reach those most affected by the earthquake. “We will see the real difference in what happens longer term,” once the initial emergency is over, Mr. Boursiquot says.

Though experts say the 2010 earthquake response taught the need to involve the Haitian government more closely, some locals have their doubts. There have been many complaints by quake victims that they feel abandoned by their government.

The authorities are promising to do more. “We will not repeat the same things that were done in 2010,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced this week. “A lot of donations were made to the country, and a lot of money was spent without seeing the impact.” But Haiti is still scrambling to coordinate its response, reportedly borrowing a plane from the neighboring Dominican Republic to survey damage.

Dr. Schuller says this shouldn’t be grounds to discount the government or its vital role in coordination.

“Treating people as mouths to feed instead of people with brains is unfortunately part of the impulse to do good. It’s not unique to Haiti,” he says. But “we can change the rules of the game.”

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