Friday, February 12, 2010

Haiti one month on

It's one month today since a huge earthquake hit Haiti, and for the last while I've been intending to write about it, but wondering what to say. What kind of response can we make to such an event? Two hundred thousand people are estimated to have died – the BBC says at least 217,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and one million homeless, and some estimates put the total near to the 250,000 people who died in the tsunami in Asia in 2004. What do these figures mean? Do they mask the human pain that has been caused, the hundreds and thousands of individual deaths and tragedies that these giant numbers represent? If that number of people had died in Dublin, I would probably know many people who were gone, dozens of families affected, entire families wiped out. As a city of under two million, Dublin would be reeling for decades from such loss of life and destruction. I can only try to imagine that it's similar for the residents of Port au Prince and other areas badly affected in Haiti.

The next question is what to do. As I can do little to help directly, my immediate response was to give money to those who can help, and who are best placed to provide assistance. In my case that meant Concern, as an excellent NGO (non-governmental organisation) which had already been working in Haiti for a long time, an organisation I trust, that I know does good work, which is professional and efficient and which works in partnership with organisation in the country affected, rather than using a lot of expensive international staff and consultants. People have asked me what to do and who to give to – my answer would be first of all, do give, it's something effective we can all do. In addition, if you can, volunteer, raise funds or raise awareness for an organisation that you want to support. I recently came across, which provides a useful guide to both what to do and what not to do when there is a humanitarian disaster, and which lists Irish-linked NGOs working in Haiti.

When people ask me who to support, I advise applying the kind of criteria I've just outlined to choose an organisation, and then go with your personal preference among those that meet the criteria. Find a reputable, preferably fairly long-established organisation – the new ones that spring up after a specific disaster are often, at best, ill-placed and ill-experienced to do what needs to be done, and, at worst, are actually scams trying to profit off people's altruism in the face of crisis. There is accountability for a reputable organisation – you know where its head offices are and who works for it, it's visible and known, its policies and annual reports will be publicly available, and it won't vanish overnight. A good organisation will be fairly transparent, and will tell you about its work, its policies, its accountability, and how long it's been working in a country - if you can't find this kind information fairly easily, then it's probably better to give your money to someone else. You want an organisation that has been around a while and one that has been working in the country or region affected for some time (preferably years) prior to the disaster – that knows the lay of the land, has communication and transport networks in place, understands the culture and language and is familiar with many other dimensions of working there so that it can actually deliver aid effectively and fast in a post-disaster situation.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but larger organisations usually spend proportionally less of their money on administration and get more of it to the people who need help. A decent organisation will provide the figure – 10-20% of all funds raised going on admin is pretty good. Concern and Oxfam were both in the lower end of that range last time I checked. These organisations are also both able to give 100% of certain aspects of their fundraising in direct aid or to specific emergencies. This is because they can use some of their other fundraising to pay for essential administration, as NGOs do still need phones, paper and offices to be able to do their work. At the same time distrust any organisation that tells you that 100% of all the funds they raise goes directly to aid, and none on admin – this is simply not possible, and it's more likely that an organisation saying this either doesn't know where its money is really going, has lots of hidden costs (such as volunteers covering their own airline tickets to carry out a bag or two of supplies) or is simply trying to scam you. I also like to support international organisations that work in partnership with local organisations, who often have the expertise and experience – international groups can't and shouldn't be trying to do it all themselves, not to mention the higher costs. UN agencies and the Red Cross/Red Crescent also usually do excellent work, are non—political (entirely for the Red Cross, mainly for the UN) and often act as coordinating bodies for other groups. I'm sure there are other criteria as well that can help us to choose who to give to, so that we can know our donations are actually helping, and I'd really welcome other people's opinions on this.

Another point is that it is usually a good idea to give money without strings attached – i.e. for general use, rather than solely for the Haiti earthquake, even if it's a recent disaster that has motivated the donation. A good organisation will apportion funds to priorities which it is probably better placed to judge than you – a lot going to the current disaster, but if necessary better used elsewhere. For example, far more money than was needed was donated following the 2004 tsunami, but because the donations had been earmarked only for that event, the money could not be redirected to where it was needed more. Many of these reflections apply to donations for long-term development as well, not solely to humanitarian responses, though there are differences. While small, new groups can do some good in ordinary circumstances, say, to help a particular village build a well (I could talk about the issue of single-cause, individual led groups at length but let's wait for another day), in a disaster or humanitarian situation you want the bigger, established, experienced organisations who know how to cope.

I was also reflecting a little on how such a catastrophe reveals starkly the political and economic factors that have resulted in so many people dying. Yes, the quake was very strong (magnitude 7) and the epicentre occurred close to a densely populated city, so some casualties were likely, but the poor construction of most buildings, from homes to hospitals, has meant many more, perhaps hundreds of thousands more, people have died in Haiti than if their country had better construction standards. The kind of standards that are available in rich countries that are also prone to earthquakes, such as the west coast of the USA. I'd imagine that the relative lack of adequate emergency services, sophisticated rescue equipment, and sufficient health services to treat those who were dug out of the rubble have also contributed. The reality is that when earthquakes hit richer countries, fewer, often very few, people die.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, and is sometimes referred to as “poorest country in the Western hemisphere” - though I've never been able to determine exactly where that hemisphere is, as it seems to include Japan, Australia, Europe, North America and various other locations. Haiti occupies position 149 (out of 182 countries) on the UNDP Human Development Index, just making it into the second lowest category of Medium, and is much worse off than its neighbour on the same island, the Dominican Republic, up at position 90. Ireland occupies position 5. One wonders what will happen to both these rankings next year. Probably both countries will move further down the Index but for very different reasons – reasons that might prompt some perspective here on our own loudly complaining island nation.

And why is Haiti so poor? It seems likely that environmental factors, the slavery Haiti endured, its on-going difficult relationship with the US, and its lengthy experience of dictatorship have all played substantial parts in Haiti's poverty. So this particular event has motivated me to do more on the bigger issues that largely determine whether a 'natural' occurrence becomes a humanitarian disaster or simply a meteorological curiosity. I'd like to live in a world where everyone can live in well-built, quake-proof homes, and where everyone has access to a health system that saves lives when quakes hit, a world with a globally funded, globally managed emergency response service that acts with excellence and effectiveness whenever and wherever on the globe it's needed, and a world where people can choose not to live in a quake-prone area if that's what they want. So what's the outcome of my reflections a month after the earthquake in Haiti? I suppose it's that what I can do right now is donate to an organisation that helps people recover and rebuild now, but what we can really do to help is work harder towards the world we want.


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