Leaving Haiti

The other day, the WHO asked aid groups in Haiti not to leave for at least 60 days. I found that kind of confusing, to be honest, because no aid agency is going to leave Haiti on purpose. Their humanitarian mission will make them want to stay – these groups do after all, want to help people. So will their competitiveness. Getting to open an office in a new country is exciting, and expands an NGO’s global reach.

NGOs will leave Haiti when they no longer have the funding to stay. They will do their best to stay – intense public fundraising appeals, unsolicited proposals to government donors, staff drawdowns, and salary cuts – but eventually there will be no money to remain in Haiti. Then, and only then, they’ll leave. (Except MSF. MSF leaves when the “emergency phase is over.” But as far as I know, only MSF does that.)

That means there is no point in appealing to the NGOs to stay. The WHO is aiming its pleas in the wrong direction. It’s not, in the end, the NGOs’ choice. We need to donate the money to keep them there, and push our governments to do the same. Whether or not the NGOs stay in Haiti is up to us.


Photo credit: Zedworks

Chosen because – that’s how you leave, right? On a jet plane?

Three bad ideas for helping Haiti

plane over Haiti

In the rush to engage on Haiti, a lot of well-meaning groups are jumping in to help. Some are brand new, and some have never worked on a disaster like this before. Most of these groups are going to be useless. Some will actually do harm to themselves or others. A tiny minority will have a positive impact. I wish those odds were better, but they’re not.

I’ve seen three bad ideas for helping in Haiti floating around recently. I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism – after all, everyone is trying to do good here. But in this case, the culture of nice may be letting bad programs hurt people. I need to say something.

Bad idea #1 – 50,000 Shoes The idea is to donate 50,000 shoes in 50 days for Haiti. They are asking for a $5 donation for each pair of shoes. The problem with this idea is that it’s based on an assumption – that lots and lots of shoes are what Haitians need right now. What if they need clothes? Or food? Or water purifiers? Should they sell their new shoes and use the money to buy those things? Has anyone done an assessment to find out if shoes are needed? To decide what kind of shoes are needed?

The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.

This is almost a good idea. The time-delimited fundraising with easy to remember numbers will drive people to donate, and they’ve got celebrity endorsements that are raising their profile.

How it could be a good idea – call it $500,000 in 50 days instead of 50,000 shoes. That would double their fundraising goal (since they are trying to provide $250,000 of shoes) but I think they could pull it off, considering their level of media attention. Then they could make a high profile donation, including a ceremony with one of those oversize checks on poster board to Partners in Health.

Bad idea #2 – Flight to Crisis Volunteer doctors and nurses are banding together to charter a flight to Haiti and help with medical care. It’s brave, it’s scrappy, and it shows amazing initiative. It’s also a horrible idea. The people don’t seem to have any plan from bringing in their own supplies and haven’t set up a place to stay in Haiti. They don’t have a hospital to work out of or any background in responding to this kind of disaster. This is exactly the kind of misguided effort I was afraid we’d see, because Haiti is close enough to the US to make it possible. For more information on why this is such a bad idea, read this account of another group of health care providers that chartered a plane.

[Edited to add: please see comments below for a response from Flight to Crisis. They are better organized than their Idealist.org page makes them look.]

How it could be a good idea – in about three months, when rebuilding gets serious and Haitians have time to think, this group could choose a Haitian hospital to partner with. They could fundraise to help it rebuild, and donate supplies and equipment. They could visit the hospital quarterly to train the providers there as needed, and make sure that the equipment is in good shape and well maintained.

Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer.

This, however, is even worse than usual. This isn’t just useless feel-goodery for rich people. This will hurt people in Haiti. Traumatized children should not be making emotional attachments to volunteers who will be gone in six months. Volunteer labor for building and construction will keep Haitians from getting paid jobs to do the work themselves. And no outsider volunteer has any business providing counseling; counseling needs a background in local culture and context that a visitor won’t have.

How it could be a good idea – It’s almost impossible to rescue this one, but short-term volunteers could offer brief, targeted English or French classes to Haitians who needed them. They could cover technical topics that local teachers might not be able to offer. Not in a week. There really isn’t anything useful you can do in a week. But two months might work. It really wouldn’t qualify as disaster response – or rebuilding – but it would at least be useful.

For more information on how to help in Haiti, take a look at my Aid Watch post.

Photo credit: simminch

Haiti – Some Thoughts and Some Links

Rescuers in Haiti

Right now, the immediate emergency stage is already over, barring severe earthquake aftershocks. Tales From the Hood has some great posts up on Haiti and disaster relief. One excellent point:

The first phase of an emergency response is carried out by ordinary citizens in their own neighborhoods. Now, a day after the earthquake, the most nimble international aid agencies are just getting “feet dry” on Hispanola…All of those agencies will make dramatic statements about their life-saving relief work. But remember: At this moment people are being dug out and pulled alive from the rubble by their neighbors, husbands, mothers, and cousins…

I have a post at UN Dispatch on the health impact of an earthquake. Here’s the fast version – after the initial injuries are over, you need clean water, good toilets, and decent housing as fast as possible to prevent typhoid, dengue, and malaria.

Tales From the Hood, Aid Watch, and Good Intentions are Not Enough all have suggestions for who to give to for Haiti. My own suggestion is this – the single most important thing you can do when choosing where to donate is to pick an organization with a history in Haiti. That will make all the different in the speed and quality of their work.

I gave my own Haiti donations to two groups: Partners in Health (PiH), and Architecture for Humanity. PiH, founded by Paul Farmer, has an excellent reputation and a long history in Haiti. It’s also big enough to absorb as many donations as it gets. Architecture for Humanity has longstanding ties to Haiti, and strong relationships in country. They will be focused on the rebuilding effort, which is very important. Experience with the Tsunami showed that it’s easy to waste funds on building new structures that are culturally and environmentally wrong. I trust Architecture for Humanity to help make sure that Haiti builds back better.

Edited to add one more thing – Haiti doesn’t need donated goods right now. It’s difficult and expensive to ship donated stuff, and most donations will not be appropriate for Haiti. Now is the time to give cash.

Photo credit: American Red Cross

Humanitarian neutrality isn’t dead because it never existed

Humanitarian neutrality is dead. The sooner we stop mauling its rotting corpse, the better off we’ll all be. In fact, I don’t believe humanitarian neutrality ever existed. It’s not a corpse at all; it’s a figment of our imagination that we’re finally abandoned. The provision of humanitarian aid changes the dynamics of a conflict situation. It is therefore inherently not neutral, and it was naive to ever believe it could be.

Mary Anderson started talking about do no harm in 1994, and recognized that aid has an impact on the conflict, and is therefore never neutral. It was naive of us to ever pretend it was. Here’s what she had to say: “All aid programmes involve the transfer of resources (food, shelter, water, health care, training, etc.) into a resource-scarce environment. Where people are in conflict, these resources represent power and wealth and they become an element of the conflict.”

The targeting of NGO workers in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia is appalling, and brutally dangerous. But what protected Medecins Sans Frontieres and the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan in the 90s was not some airy-fairy belief in neutrality. It was the Taliban’s belief that the NGOs were not keeping the Taliban from achieving its goals. Combatants in Afghanistan no longer believe that, or are not organized enough to enforce rules. Mourning the end of neutrality is a dangerous sidetrack that keeps the real issue from being addressed.

All of that being said, I think that a particular NGO or project can nonetheless be known as honest and fair and therefore have a humanitarian space to operate in. But that’s not based on an abstract concept of neutrality or humanitarian space. It’s based on earning the trust and respect of local populations, and on convincing all sides of the conflict that your provision of aid will not turn the tables against them. That’s not an easy game to play, but it’s the only one we have. And, despite histrionics to the contrary, it’s the only game we’ve ever had.


(photo credit: DVIDSHUB)

Chosen for pretty obvious reasons.