Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Victims of Haitian disaster are choosers, not beggars

International aid efforts for Haiti must not turn into a debt mountain that burdens the beleaguered nation for years to come, writes Jim Clarken

The aid effort in Haiti is getting into full swing. The Northern Irish people have once again shown their willingness and generosity in responding to this human catastrophe.

The big question now is, how do you put a place like Haiti back together? It was already a human disaster zone and has now been battered by the worst earthquake in 200 years with the infrastructure and the state destroyed.

Bizarrely, experience teaches us that the way to do this is by talking and listening.

Talking to all the agencies and governments that are trying their level best to help so that the aid effort is coordinated and reaches those places that can be so easily overlooked in the glare of the media's spotlight.

And, more crucially, listening to those whose lives have been turned upside down by this catastrophe: they are best-placed to know what they need. It is about doing aid with people rather than to people.

But talking and listening alone have never put a roof over people's heads or food on the table. What has to go in tandem with this consultation is targeted swift action. The first thing you need for good relief is to have a plan. That plan will be based around finding out how many people are in need and where they are.

The internationally-agreed 'Sphere' relief standards lay out the rules and regulations that all aid agencies should abide by, such as how much water people should get and what food and medical care they are entitled to.

The important thing to remember is that the provision of these basics of human life is the right of the people of Haiti - not just charity to be bestowed on them.

For longer-term reconstruction, fundamental decisions need to be taken early on as to what life is going to be like for communities, not just individuals.

It is no good, as happened in Aceh after the 2005 tsunami, to say that everyone will have a house if you don't also think about building the roads and infrastructure that make a town.

Co-ordination of all these efforts is crucial and dependent upon strong leadership of the aid effort.

An agency, preferably the national government, but if not then the UN, should be in charge of the plan and assign tasks. It should be strong enough to say 'no' to efforts that are not in the best interest of the people affected.

During Southern Africa's drought in the early 2000s, governments did refuse GM maize seed as food aid. They insisted that the seeds must be milled into flour so as not to contaminate the nations' maize crop.

We must always remember that the victims of disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti, are not beggars, they are choosers.

They are active citizens, not passive victims. They want to take control of their lives and futures and will not be sitting down twiddling their thumbs waiting for the aid effort to get into gear. We would see far fewer survivors if that was the case.

It is striking to see that people in Port-au-Prince have already begun organising themselves and have created what may look like makeshift collection centres and temporary tarpaulin shelters. We must work with them to ensure that the long-term effects of our current efforts are what the people of Haiti need most.

At the moment, inevitably the focus is on the short-term relief effort, but Haiti's long-term future is at stake.

Haiti is already mired with $890m of foreign debt and should not be further burdened. International aid, such as that from the IMF, should be given in grants, not loans.

Today's aid lifeline should not end up being tomorrow's debt noose.

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