Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Haiti: Aid need not be delivered through the barrel of a gun

There has been much written about insecurity when delivering aid in Haiti. For the Red Cross it is all about the approach you take. Basically, genuine contact and partnership with the community. Good preparation. Involving people and being accountable to them; involving communities in their recovery. Guns, barbed wire and containment often serve to frustrate and provoke people in desperate need into an enraged mob. Aid need not be delivered through the barrel of a gun. Head Down Eyes Opener Joe Lowry reports from Port au Prince on a typical Red Cross relief distribution.

Relief distributions are stepping up a gear in Haiti. Soon the Red Cross relief effort will reach its first target of getting essential household (non-food) items to 5,000 families every week. The distribution are – unlike those reported in the media – generally smooth and secure.

"We’re doing targeted and frequent distributions," says Charles Blake from the Red Cross relief team in Haiti. "We don’t use any armed security, barbed wire or tear gas, we rely on our emblem and the goodwill the public has towards Haitian Red Cross."

Prioritizing women

It works. At the Citée Renault camp for displaced people at the edge of Port-au-Prince hundreds of people wait in line. "First priority are pregnant women, then other women, the elderly and then men," explains Charles. "The Haiti Red Cross volunteers visit the camps two days in advance, work with the committees and distribute tickets. The community feels part of the distribution just as Haiti Red Cross is part of the community." (Photo shows pregnant women, top priority to receive relief, at a Red Cross distribution this week).

Each ticket entitles the holder to a blanket, mosquito net, two boxes of sanitary items like soap, toothpaste and shampoo, and a box of kitchen items including plates, pots, cutlery and knives.

Among the hundreds of women receiving a package is Ismene Caiis, a market woman, who has queued three hours to reach the head of the queue. The distribution is done at a site near the camp, where access can be halted if the crowd gets unruly. "It happens sometimes, especially towards the end of the day when people sense the supplies are running out, but if they have a ticket they will get aid," says Charles.

But Ismene and her cousin Leckson Michel, a teacher, make their way through the good-natured crowd and back to Ismene’s tent, which the 25-year-old shares with her daughter (9) and eight-year-old son. The tent, sheets draped over branches, is about the size of a double bed and has a piece of cardboard on the floor. Nothing else.

Having lost everything

"This is really useful for us", she says, thrilled with the metal plates and pots. "Of course we need food as well but this is welcome as we have lost everything we ever owned."

The Red Cross has installed water points in the camp and runs a clinic nearby. Camp Renault is not ideal, far from it, but at least some basics have been taken care of.

The big worry is shelter, as the rainy period in May will be followed by the hurricane season. "We have been distributing plastic sheeting and tools to thousands of families but the difficulty is the density of the displaced. At least the tarpaulins gives them shade during the day and will help when the rains come," says Corinne Treherne from the shelter team. "The long-term solution is to get them back into their homes or to help them integrate into host families."

/JL (also posted on

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