Haiti: Stop treating these people like savages

Haitians have faced their tragedy with dignity and stoicism – not that you would know it from the way the disaster has been reported

Andy Kershaw writes of Haiti today from some perspective — he has actually been there, and in the days before Duvalierism. This is good – an excerpt:

(…) The alarmingly unanimous priorities of the spokesmen and women of aid organisations and the military, have been with “issues” (for they love that word) of “security”, “procedures”, and “logistics” (what we used to call “transport” or “trucks”). These obsessions indicate not only a self-serving and self-important careerist culture among some, though not all, aid workers (although wide experience of the profession in Haiti and across Africa tells me it is more common than donors would like to think), but that the magnitude of the crisis has paralysed them into a gibbering strike force of box-tickers. Most worryingly, it reveals that many – even selfless – NGO workers on the ground haven’t a clue about the country and its people.

There has now solidified a consensus among aid organisations that the relief they are bringing is itself a liability; that distributing what Haitians are dying for – literally – will bring on a second nightmare. So, supplies pile up at the airport because, apparently, the Haitians need to be fed and watered at gunpoint. And there aren’t enough men with guns to provide this totemic “security” and there aren’t enough trucks to move the supplies around the country. (Haiti is always absolutely full of trucks. The first relief priority ought to be fuel for those convoys, to deliver the water, medicines and food. In that order).

This self-imposed blockade by bureaucracy is a scandal but could be easily overcome. The NGOs and the military should recognise the hysteria over “security” for what it is and make use of Haiti’s best resource and its most efficient distribution network: the Haitians themselves. Stop treating them as children. Or worse. Hand over to them immediately what they need at the airport. They will find the means to collect it. Fill up their trucks and cars with free fuel. Any further restriction on, and control of, the supply of aid is not only patronising but it is in that control and restriction where any “security issues” will really lurk. And it is the Haitians who best know where the aid is needed.

An unbelievable 10,000 charities were already working in Haiti when the earthquake rocked the island, most of them tiny independent organisations. Humanitarian aid is, almost by definition, never where it is needed when natural disasters strike. But, in Haiti, what’s needed has been flown in with impressive speed. Yet the combined concern of all those organisations – many of them regarding fellow charities as professional rivals – has so far been unable to get that assistance a ride from the airport. Too much energy in the last week has been expended on bickering about procedure and the fetish about “security”.

This assumption that there is a security threat has gone completely unchallenged by an army of foreign press, equally unfamiliar with Haiti and the character of the Haitians. Indeed, TV reporters particularly, having exhausted the televisual possibilities of rubble, have been talking up “security”, “unrest” and “violence” when all available evidence would indicate anything but.

Astonishingly, among these TV dramatists, I am sorry to say, is the BBC’s Matt Frei. An incongruously ample figure around Port-au-Prince, Frei has been working himself up all week into what is now a state of near hysteria about “security” and the almost non-existent “violence”.

Over the weekend we saw him anticipating an outbreak of unrest, standing before a crowd of thousands of hungry, humiliated Haitians as they waited, patiently and quietly, to be given rations by UN soldiers. Their dignity and stoicism seemed to escape Frei who was, in any case, looking away from them while ranting about the inevitability of looming bloodshed – conspicuously unlikely, judging from the evidence of his own report. (When he is not almost tumescent about violence, Frei speculates and pontificates pompously to camera, or booms at earthquake victims in French. Most Haitians don’t speak French. They speak Creole).

(…) Haitians are extremely industrious and always busy, even though there are few formal jobs. They are resourceful, resilient, proud and dignified. On all my visits I have marvelled at Haiti’s capacity not just to survive but to function and even, at times, to flourish. (The economy grew by 6 per cent last year. Things were on the up before the earthquake dished it out again on poor Haiti.) It is a puzzle I have never resolved and a fascination that has drawn me back to Haiti more than 20 times: it shouldn’t work; nobody knows how it works; but somehow or other it does.