Why the United Nations is facing push-back as it tries to help Haiti

Tension is high in Haiti after hurricane Matthew struck last week, leaving thousands displaced and in need of aid. But destruction of roads hamper access to rural areas.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Town residents help carry hurricane relief supplies, dropped off by a US military helicopter, to a waiting truck in Anse d'Hainault, southwestern Haiti, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. Haiti struggles to find enough aid to help the millions of residents affected by hurricane Matthew.

Tensions are high in Haiti after the country was hit by category 4 hurricane Matthew last week, as thousands continue to seek aid amid collapsed homes and infrastructure.

The increased friction has led to reports of United Nations peacekeepers firing at people attempting to ransack truck convoys carrying food. On Thursday, some Haitians protested and barricaded blue-helmeted peacekeepers, claiming a UN truck had hit and killed a motorcyclist, according to Reuters. 

There are also calls for help from rural areas where access is hampered by destroyed roads.

"There's no aid that's come here," Israel Banissa, a resident in the small mountain town of Moron, told the Associated Press as he sawed wood. He said a Red Cross assessment team had stopped by his village to ask questions but didn’t leave supplies. "I don't think they care about the people up here." 

Adding to the tension is wariness over international aid organizations after the UN acknowledged in August its role in spreading cholera in Haiti nearly six years ago. In June, the Red Cross was exposed for misspending millions of donated dollars meant for rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. And international organizations have been criticized for usurping the role of the local government in coordinating aid responses after the 2010 earthquake. 

Hoping to learn from previous lessons after hurricane Matthew struck, development workers triggered discussions on social media about the best strategies for providing humanitarian aid. 

There were calls for people to donate to local charities in Haiti, which could gain more trust from residents. Others suggested supporting government-organized humanitarian efforts so the country could start to wean itself off international aid.

"It creates this culture of dependency on international organizations for services that should be provided by the government," Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "I'm just seeing a lot of power in the hands of non-Haitians."

Some other development workers in Haiti have been more direct in asking people to not donate to the American Red Cross, as the Washington Post reports, but instead focus on local Haitian-led organizations. A local magazine has published contact information of coordinators working with the government’s Civil Protection Agency. They contend that much money is wasted by international organizations in coordinating transportation and accommodation for foreign workers, instead of directing resources toward immediate local needs.

But the role international aid organizations play is also a tough act to balance, especially when met with tragic disasters that involve millions of victims. With hurricane Matthew, at least 300 people were killed by the storm, as many as 1.4 million Haitians are in need of humanitarian aid, and 61,000 are displaced, according to ReliefWeb, a United Nations-sponsored information service.

One of the biggest fears health officials have about the disaster is the risk of cholera. So far, 510 new cases have been reported. The disease has already claimed more than 9,000 lives and infected hundreds of thousands of people since UN peacekeepers accidentally triggered the epidemic by dumping sewage into a river after the 2010 earthquake. 

"There is a difference between an emergency response … the first few weeks or months, you must have a really strong response because people will be dying if you don't get them clean water, sanitation and shelter," Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response in John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "In a longer term there always needs to be a strong local capacity-building, twinning of local and international agencies."

According to Dr. Spiegel, the first needs that have to be met are basic life-saving responses such as fresh water and treatment for traumatic injuries, followed by protection from violence and mental health support. Ideally local organizations are sufficiently equipped to deal with this themselves, but it’s a delicate balance all aid organizations have to strike, he says.

Ms. Phillips says international organizations should work through the government and local officials in distributing aid and determining needs. But there is also the problem of distrust toward the government and fears of corruption.

"Since the independence of Haiti, the culture was always all governments, all officials only care for themselves," Pastor Louis Masil from the village Banatte told NPR’s Jason Beaubien. "They only care for stealing the money and not helping the communities." 

Another option, Phillips suggests, is the public could instead donate to international or American-based charities that have working relationships with local groups. "You’re empowering people to make decisions for themselves," she says.

Some American-based organizations are engaging in that form of response. Renee Lewis, executive director of Project Medishare for Haiti, says in a phone interview with the Monitor that her group works with local organizations in the Central Plateau to offer health services. They recently sent a group of volunteers to help with humanitarian efforts. She says most of their volunteers are Haitians.

"We as the responders, we have to be thoughtful and transparent about how we can help," Ms. Lewis says. She recommends that people should do some research before donating. "I don’t think every international NGO should be clustered together as bad."

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