Haiti: the rocky road to recovery

Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake a little over two years ago, flattening homes, school buildings, and businesses; pretty much transforming the entire city of Port Au Prince into rubble. Relief efforts came and continue by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) as nearly $5 billion in aid was promised and is being spent. But while there are ongoing success stories, half a million people are still living in camps they took refuge in right after the earthquake and they are not happy about it.

“The humanitarian response was so appreciated that few could have predicted two years later the long and deep thread of anger toward NGOs that now runs through Haitian society,” wrote Marjorie Valbrun, a Haitian-American journalist in the Sacramento Bee.

It was the topic of special television broadcasts. Cruise lines delivered supplies. Aid poured in. But was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere, killing 316,000 people, and much work remains to be done.

Haiti’s crippling bureaucracy alone makes rebuilding a slow process and cause for anger by displaced Haitians but even foreign aid workers are easy targets for resentment.

“Aid workers live in nice houses, ride in air-conditioned SUVs and frequent trendy nightclubs while Haitians live in tents or shacks.” says Barbara Shelly who visited Haiti with a church group last summer and witnessed some of the hostility.

Haitian perception is that aid money is making others rich while they suffer. There is good reason to believe they may be right. Shelly’s research revealed that U.S. for-profit companies received more than 80 percent of the Haiti contracts awarded and less than 3 percent of the funds went to Haitian companies.

“Even before the quake, Haitians had a healthy suspicion of foreigners coming in “to help” or to “keep the peace,” which usually meant imposing military rule,” said Shelly.

On the success-story side, there have been some good, solid efforts to aid Haiti too recently.

Last weekend, a gala dinner organized by Cinema for Peace to benefit Haiti, tapped long-time humanitarian Sean Penn, founder of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization and newly-appointed ambassador at large of Haiti along with Indy band Arcade Fire and others to raise more money.

Arcade Fire, led by Win Butler and his Haitian wife, Régine Chassagne, have been donating a few dollars from every concert ticket to Haitian relief efforts reports the New York Times.

“We’re just a stupid indie rock band from Montreal, and just from that initiative, we’ve been able to raise millions of dollars,” Butler said. “It’s really a mistake to think of Haiti as a place where an earthquake happened to it.”

“The earthquake really revealed what was happening there,”said Butler …which pretty much nails it.

Haiti was in trouble before the earthquake. But ongoing efforts by long-time supporters of Haiti seem to be making a difference and look to be a key factor in long-term recovery.

  • The American Red Cross is helping people rebuild their homes and lives and is improving communities with health, water and sanitation projects.
  • World Vision is helping the country respond to new emergencies including hurricanes and the cholera outbreak.
  • Royal Caribbean continues to employ Haitian workers at it’s private destination of Labadee in Haiti, has built a school for children and continues to bring supplies when ships come calling.

That’s three organizations making a difference but probably not the answer for those who choose to give. At that gala dinner, Arcade Fire’s Butler called on the crowd to collaborate in offering help.

“Everyone just talk to each other,” he said, “and try to magnify each others’ efforts.”

That might very well be a key to Haiti’s long-term recovery. It sure can’t hurt.

Flickr photo by newbeatphoto

Donating blood: Your travel history says yes or no

When I went to the library yesterday morning I wasn’t planning on donating blood, but there was a sweet older American Red Cross volunteer with lovely white hair that looks like spun sugar. She was so happy thinking that I had come to sign up when I walked towards her. I was actually on my way to meet with my writing group, but I didn’t want to disappoint her and promised I’d donate before I left. “Oh, you came back,” she said after I re-appeared to sign up on her sign-up sheet when my meeting was over.

Call me co-dependent, but there I was in the blood donation room running through the list of questions about my whereabouts to see if I could give blood or not. Sadly, I haven’t donated blood since I was in the Peace Corps. First, I couldn’t. After living in a country with malaria you’re supposed to wait for a few years. Now the wait is three years. Back when I was in the Peace Corps, I think it was longer. I kept trotting back to Africa each time my donation window appeared. With Mali, Senegal and The Gambia in my distant past, those weren’t a concern yesterday. Nigeria was a red flag.

Anyone who has lived in Nigeria since 1977 can’t donate blood. I have traveled there, but since it was only for 6 weeks I was given the all clear. (The other countries that have similar restrictions are: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Niger.) There is a form of HIV called Type O in these countries that blood screening can’t detect, thus the restriction.

Also on the list of concern are European countries. If you’ve been in European countries of a cumulative time of 5 months since January 1, 1980, you also can’t donate blood. There are more restrictions if you’ve lived or traveled in the United Kingdom. The restrictions are due to Mad Cow disease.

Looking at all the restrictions, it doesn’t take much for world travelers to get bumped off acceptable donor status. As more people travel, I wonder how much this will have an impact on blood supply? I’m glad I was able to add my pint since Asia, where I’ve lived and traveled the most, has an all clear. (See eligibility guidelines to see if you can donate.)