Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Haiti's Camp from Hell

Alex Wynter, a good friend of HDEO (check out his great posts on Albinism and Rwanda) has been working for us in Haiti for most of the last months since the earthquake struck. He has been regularly doing media interviews and posting stories. Alex is now en route out of Haiti for a well-deserved break - here is one of his latest and one of his best stories from Britzon Camp 6 otherwise known as the camp from hell. Photos from colleague José Manuel Jiméniz. 

Many quake camps in Haiti are unpleasant because they’re next to rubbish dumps; or dangerous for being on flood plains or at the foot of unstable slopes; or isolated and possibly forgotten for being in the middle of nowhere or buried at the end of side streets. 

But for sheer hellish living conditions nothing beats this place: Camp Bizoton 6, Route Raille.
“I’ve worked in at least 35 camps now, and none was anywhere near as bad as this,” says Jens Poul Madsen, team leader of the International Federation's Danish Red Cross relief emergency response unit, which has just done an assessment there and now plans to expedite a distribution.

Madsen, by common consent one of the most experienced and determined of the relief delegates who have worked in Haiti, uses his words advisedly.
 (Photo: A mother and child in their shelter at Haiti’s Bizoton 6 camp. The backs of the shelters face the eastbound side, their fronts the westbound).

The Bizoton 6 “camp” consists of a single file of shacks nearly a kilometre long on the central reservation of Route Raille – the busy coastal highway leading west out of Port-au-Prince.

Tyres and stones

The front of the shelters face the westbound side; their backs the eastbound.

The quake-affected residents – 965 of them according to the local committee – have placed tyres and stones on the road to force traffic to stay a couple of metres from their doors.

Even just standing outside one of the shelters is an ordeal.

Every truck that roars past spews dust and diesel exhaust right into the doors and windows. Should any vehicle linger, it’s immediately blasted forward by a cacophony of horns – standard practice in the Haitian capital.

It’s difficult to talk and – many residents say – impossible to sleep. The combination of noise, dirt, heat, fumes and stress is overwhelming.

Every trip to the toilets involves darting through the traffic. As does any trip anywhere for that matter.

“Last resort”

Parents are permanently terrified for their children, choosing simply to lock them in the shelters for much of the time.

Occasionally, they’re run down, like nine-year-old Emmanuela Mondesir was recently; she had a lucky escape, losing only a front tooth after she was knocked onto her face.

“For three days after the quake we looked for somewhere to take refuge,” says Luma Ludger, 30, the head of the Bizoton 6 camp committee.

“There was no open space at all, so in the end on 16 January we came here. It was a last resort.

“Now the camp is actually growing again. People who’ve been evicted from other quake sites are coming here.” The central strip is packed with shelters from one end to the other.

Clearly the Bizoton 6 residents need to be moved as urgently as any quake-affected people in Haiti. But asked what their most urgent daily needs are, Ludger says only, “protection from the rains”, which are intensifying, and “a safe place for children”.

“There’s just no peace,” says 31-year-old Jean Kempez, yelling above the tyre roar he and his neighbours live with round the clock.


“We live like animals,” he says, with considerable understatement as there is no developed country in which animals could legally be kept in the conditions that prevail at Bizoton 6.

Pierre Betty, 26, says that last week a car left the road and demolished a shelter that was mercifully empty at the time. “People just ran in all directions, but thank God no one was killed.”

Somewhat miraculously the camp from hell has retained a sense of community, even though there is no place to gather safely; people wander up and down the line of shacks dodging cars and trucks to meet and talk.

“My husband would like to find a job that would pay enough for us to be able to leave this place,” says Judith Sinnew, 38, who shows off the huge scar covering much of her calf muscle from the messy fracture she suffered in the quake.

What can be done?


“The first priority is to get them some proper family supplies,” says Jens Poul Madsen, “but we don’t want to provide full shelter kits because these people have to move from here – it’s just too dangerous to stay.

“The logistics of distribution will be very difficult,” he adds. “We can’t stop the traffic or assemble beneficiaries near their homes, so we’ll have to find some neutral territory where we can set up.”

Bizoton 6, it has to be said, slipped through the humanitarian net. Anyone who’s been working in Haiti for any length of time will have driven past it at some point.

Yet even here, in this nightmarish place, people smile, are welcoming to outsiders, and patient with each other.

In Bizoton 6, probably not for the first time, the foreign aid worker cannot but wonder: surely the equanimity of the Haitian people must be deceptive?

ps: this post originally appeared on ifrc.org with more photos - for some reason blogger won't let me post more than one photo here - gotta find a new blog platform methinks, too many glitches /PC

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stereotypical Stigma

An image on the cover of National Geographic in a shop here in Minsk caught my eye today. It was of a young Masai woman, with her breast exposed. This in a town where soft porn is not on the shelves.

And another image, sent electronically by Reuters is really haunting me today. It’s of a black woman in Sao Paolo smoking crack. She’s hugely pregnant, surrounded by other users, sprawled on the ground, mouth open, belly out, legs akimbo.

Later in the series we see a pic of the photographer, secreted away in an overlooking building, working under a black cape that hides him and the camera.

The series of photos told me crack is a problem for black people, and if you want to film them you’d better make sure they don’t catch you.

But hang on. There’s no attempt to hide these people’s identity. They are committing a crime and their faces are revealed. They have not given any consent to be filmed. And their addiction is treated as grubby, filthy, scary.

They are portrayed as somehow sub-human. Slumped against the wall, eyes rolled back, crashed out on the manky pavement.

Sure, the life of a crack addict is a vile, miserable one. I think we know that. But I don’t think any young black Brazilians seeing this will say “that’s it. No crack for me thanks”. Worse, white Brazilian kids may  say “I can smoke a rock or two. It’s only the blacks that can’t handle it.” (Only stupid people get trafficked/AIDS/addicted).

Where’s the public good?

Where’s the photo series of Japanese businessmen falling out of karaoke bars, barfing on the street? The twenty-something alcoholic student nurse in Newcastle pissing in the gutter? The Russian comatose in the snow? The coked-up Wall Street investment banker driving his Merc through a shop window?

It seems its ok to portray black people as miserable, criminal, feral. Or as corpses. Starved in Somalia, mutilated in Rwanda, piled up on the streets in Port-au-Prince. Bloated and floating in New Orleans after Katrina.

What am I supposed to think, when I see this pregnant woman, crack-pipe in hand, feeding her unborn baby poison? Bringing a child into Cracolandia. Blame her? Forbid her to reproduce?

That’s this thinking that allows nice white people to go to Haiti and cherrypick “orphans” to export. That’s the thinking that says “oh, their life would be terrible. Their parents would jump at the chance to let them have an American education.”

That’s the logic that says “It’s not slavery. ALL African kids work on the farm during the holidays. Their parents can’t afford to keep them so they have to work on the cocoa plantations”. Here’s a song for anyone who believes that.

Aid agencies, led by the IFRC, came up with a code of conduct in the mid-90s which we still live by. Occasionally we sail close to the wind, but essentially our code is sacrosanct and it says: “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects”.

The irony is, of course, that we have to show the picture before we can criticise it.

And, knowing many excellent people in Reuters, I know they don’t just wake up and say “let’s dump on the black Brazilians today.”

I am sure they agonize on the merits, artistic, journalistic, humanitarian. And maybe, maybe they’ve thrown a stone that hit home. The truth is there is no dignity in crack addiction. But all of us, you, me, President Obama, Lady Gaga, Prince William and the entire cast of Lost were born naked, scared, but with the same right to life and dignity. And without Fernando Donasci’s photo essay I might not have had that thought today, and you might not have read it. 

Photo rights - it was not possible to use the Reuters photos referred to but we did link to the slideshow provided by Reuters for potential purchase. The photo used in this post is from the infamous Cracolandia but this time from AP and another photographer called Mauricio Lima. Interestingly, this slideshow also features the pregnant woman spoken about here. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Haiti: the first Digital Disaster

Its been over four months now since the killer quake destroyed much of Haiti's capital city, killing an (under)estimated 250'000 people in the process, decapitating government institutions and wrecking an economy that was already near rock bottom. Haiti's humanitarian impact has resonated around the world resulting in an outpouring of support and a near-unprecedented mobilization of aid agencies to a single country. One facet of the Haiti disaster response has been the pervasive and effective use of SMS technologies combined with new social media tools. Indeed, even Obama was tweeting - surely a first for an American president. Here are some reflections for you to ponder on a topic that is evolving so fast, with so much untapped potential that its manifestation and role in future disaster scenarios will surely surprise us all.

Texts and Tweets

“Hotel Montana at Rue Franck Cardozo in Petionville collapsed. 200 feared trapped.”

“We are in the street Saint Martin below Bel Air near the hotel. We are dying of hunger. Please bring us aid.”

These desperate pleas were sent by text message in the first few days after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. They were sent through the Emergency Information Service, a disaster communications project established by the Thompson Reuters Foundation, as a way to get information quickly to and from survivors of natural disasters. (Photo: a man rents mobile phone chargers by the hour in downtown Port-au-Prince . (REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/courtesy www.alertnet.org.)

It’s not your traditional cry for help. But in Haiti, with traditional media and phone systems destroyed, text messages and Twitter were often the only way desperate, hungry or hurting people could signal their distress.

The Emergency Information Service was then able to locate the callers by GPS, plot their location on maps, and referred the call to volunteers on the ground. Concrete examples include directing injured Haitians via text message to one of the few city hospitals with room to treat more patients.

The system also helped search-and-rescue teams find people trapped in the rubble. Red Cross teams on the ground received dozens of messages from people trapped in the rubble. This information was relayed promptly to evacuation teams supported by Haitian Red Cross first aid volunteers.

In addition, the Haitian Red Cross National Society and the IFRC teamed up with Voila mobile phone company to text more than 1.2 million subscribers a day with messages about vaccinations, shelter, sanitation, public health information and other vital data. The push of a button achieved what would normally take an army of volunteers days.

From ‘victims’ to first responders
The idea of using cell phone technology in disaster management is not new. After the 2004 Tsunami, it became clear that modern wireless communication could play critical role in systems for both early warning as well as crisis management.

Digital communications are only a small part of a broader strategy to give greater voice to those most affected by natural disasters. The approach recognizes that people affected by disasters are not 'victims' but a significant force of first responders who need to be empowered and engaged as part of the overall aid effort. After all, it is their recovery, their future, their lives and livelihoods at stake.

How might new technologies change disaster response?

The prevalence of new approaches that utilize, among others, SMS and Twitter; crisis mapping and crowd sourcing, raises a number of important questions for future disaster response and provides us with an important dilemma.

In an evolving emergency (such as during the first days of Haiti) when data is scarce but it is clear that the needs are both urgent and massive how can aid agencies organize themselves to respond to individual requests for help? Should aid agencies even contemplate to organizing themselves to respond to individual calls for help? In Haiti, because of the widespread devastation, the Red Cross was faced with a situation where we did not even have water and sanitation or shelter for ourselves, no telecommunications and no electricity in the first days. Because of its self-sustaining Emergency Response Units however it could still manage to set up surgical field hospitals, mass water distributions and basic health care clinics.

That is, we promptly tackled the ‘known knowns’ based on our experiences from decades of disaster response. This experience informs the type of relief provided for known urgent needs that surface in the wake of large-scale disasters. Relief distributions of essential household items such as shelter materials, hygiene kits and kitchen sets quickly followed the emergency medical and water aid, as did reuniting separated families. That is how humanitarian organizations are currently organized.

To effectively respond to tens of thousands of individual cries for help however is currently ‘impossible’ today. There are two immediate challenges to overcome. Firstly, and most importantly perhaps, is to verify the needs. To confirm that received information from individuals relates to actual needs takes resources and takes time; and time is the single most important and scarce resource in the early days of emergency response. (Photo: In the chaos of the camp at Leogane’s footbaal stadium, two hours drive south of Port-au-Prince, this man has set up a mobile phone recharging business.)

Second challenge is the diverse range of needs – in Haiti the Red Cross received urgent requests for help such as: food, blankets, blood, evacuations, tracing missing children, contacting relatives abroad, dialysis treatment, psychological support, money, tents, water, baby food, diapers, protection from looters, mobile phone chargers, clothes, prescription and off the shelf medicines, fuel for vehicles and generators, spare parts, flash lights etc. etc. etc. It takes enormous time to sift through this information, verify it and respond to it – even if it were possible it is arguably much less efficient and effective than the current emergency response mechanisms to the known urgent and life-saving medical, water and shelter needs.

Mapping a crisis has powerful potential

However, this virtual hosepipe of customized information about individual needs cannot be ignored and does have value. It is currently possible to ‘crisis map’ this crowd sourced data and categorize it into useful trending data that can then be shared with and responded to by organizations who specialize in the specific needs requested such as shelter, child protection or blood supply. But we are not there yet and it would require nothing less than a full reorganization of how emergency response is conceived and conducted today.

One challenge for instance, relates to the ‘risks’ potentially associated with crowd sourcing which must first be mitigated and dealt with. Without getting too detailed here there is real potential for vested interests to manipulate data (particularly in a politically-charged context) by mass blasting misinformation via text or twitter to attract aid into their neighbourhoods or worse, to wrongly signal widespread sexual violence with the intention of sparking off reactionary but unwarranted violence by the offended ethnic group. Unproven allegations of this have been made in DRC for instance where the ground-breaking crowd sourcing mapping tool Ushahidi is widely used.

But hasn’t information always been the first casualty of conflict? An indication of desperation. Such known risks of information abuse, with potentially lethal outcomes, should not detract from the massive good and value that a tool such as Ushahidi can bring. Indeed, people learn quickly – in Chile during the earthquake that struck almost 3 months ago, citizens quickly developed their own version of a crowd-sourced crisis map using freely available Google mapping softwardGoogle themselves quickly launched an online person finder application which has been widely used (almost 80’000 people registered to date) to excellent effect (note: this is of course a ‘traditional’ area of the Red Cross – tracing – being increasingly ‘challenged’ by media companies such as CNN and Google).

Nothing New, not really

And then of course there’s Twitter – perhaps the most powerful crowd sourcing tool out there; at least the one whose huge potential is simultaneously being tapped and explored. Information is so easily transmitted via SMS or online that it can transmit and filter millions of data messages per second. In Chile in particular the speed and efficiency of, for example, search and rescue information channelled through Twitter was hugely impressive.

Chile Twitter lists #terremotochile and #fuerzachile (labeled after President Bachelet's message of strength to the Chilean population) served as central repositories, not only of information but of connections. There have also been two main search and rescue lists distributed via Twitter and later on Facebook, blogs, media and beyond Ayudemos a Chile (Helping Chile) and Terremoto Chile (Chile Earthquake)

Why is Twitter so popular – in my opinion because it is nothing new: Spread the word, let others know - unite in difficult times. And that’s the bottom line. New media, new online tools must be used and adapted to increase humanitarian impact and relevance during times of disaster (and also during times of quiet, by improving early warning systems or enhancing accountability to people affected by disasters for instance).

Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Youtube, to name a few, have also greatly improved and changed the way aid organizations are communicating to the media, donors and the general public. These social media tools enable a two-way conversation. The days have passed when organizations can rely on controlling their message and mass broadcasting it in a uni-directional fashion via traditional print and broadcast channels.

Today its about engaging with your audience; about trying to communicate your message to guide, encourage, engage and influence your stakeholders and, importantly, enlist them as active supporters. Social media in an instant breaks down the staid, clinical, impermeable boundaries that institutions have a tendency to create. Instead, it strips away the divisions and demonstrates clearly that your organization, your national Red Cross society, is about real people; real people who can be easily connected with and maybe even supported in terms of promoting your humanitarian message, fundraising or advocating in the interests of the most vulnerable. This evolving ‘humanization’ of organizational culture and increasing engagement of ordinary citizens into political and business thinking, which is being unwittingly and undeniably achieved by online media, may be one of the reasons why it’s not so ridiculous after all that the Internet has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize!


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Happy birthday dear tragedy

We in the aid business are getting very good at marking the anniversaries of massive tragedies. Heck, we even win awards for it. Tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes - you can rely on the aid agencies to bring out any number of glossy publications and e-products to mark the first month, second month, third month, six months, nine months, one year, two years… five.. ten.. even 25 (yes, the Chernobyl disaster happened 24 years ago, look out for the reports next year).

Our commemorations generally have an “x months (or years) after the storm/quake/eruption/outbreak/flood life is slowly getting back to normal for villagers in etc and so on”. When it isn’t. Or when “normal” means abject poverty. (photo credit to 12 year old Zhao Lei who entered the photo as part of a Red Cross competition to document life 2 years after the Sichuan quake in China, You can read her story about the photo here and view more entries from this youth photo project here).

Why do we do it? What impact does it have? Of course we have to show the sunny side, otherwise it means we have failed, that years after a disaster people are still living without shelter, clean water, food security, education, infrastructure - much like they were before the disaster, in fact.

We also do it in solidarity but even there I’ve something of a bad taste in my mouth. With the technology we have we ought to be able to let the affected communities plan the commemoration themselves, and tell it like it is, for them. If they want to, of course.

But how critical are we of what we did, of how we spent the money? The media is, finally, nipping at our heels like Jack Russels (maybe we need Rottweilers?), sometimes completely missing the point of course, but at the same time waking us up, copping us on.

And how critical are we of each other? Of the communities themselves and the governments who have the first duty to react and care?

Look at the disasters we responded to in the 80s, or the 90s. How much has changed for the pastoralists of Ethiopia, the children of Somalia? How have we failed to improve living conditions in sub-Saharan Africa? In rural Asia? In the remoter parts of the ex-USSR (where life expectancy is falling - actually it’s falling all over, even in the cities due to poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, violence).

What could be done better?

A release on the wonderful Alernet Expresso tells me: “Aid workers have expressed concern that recovery work in cyclone-affected Myanmar may be hampered by the disbandment of a coordinating group set up to oversee aid efforts.”

There’s the problem for you. All we can really do is express concern, because outrage, shock, disgust, despair, vitriol, sorrow, scorn, spleen and so on and so forth would have us out of the country as quick as you can say “the road to Mandalay”.

I’ve had issues (and pints) with John O’Shea from GOAL at times but I watched him with relish on an Al Jazeera report when he was venting about access to Haiti

He was advocating one single leader (actually Obama, a non-starter and he knows it) to go in and take charge. While he was in full flight the anchor wailed “bu..but..what about political sensitivities?” O’Shea barely suppressed a mischievous grin and gave a bitchslap of an answer. “I’m sorry, I’m only a rank  and file  journalist and aid worker. I don’t understand words like political sensitivities when two million people need help.”

Granted, being unaware of sensitivities is a recipe for disaster, but you can be sure O’Shea is well aware of them, despite his protests.

So what to do? Fight the good fight, keep up the work, but ask questions all the time. Use the aid to get the access to ask the questions. Use the access to get the aid in, ask the questions. Keep asking the questions, like Bob Geldof did. “Why hasn’t that man got any food” he repeatedly asked an official in Ethiopia, back in the day. And while it’s a cute trick, it’s still a good strategy.

Don’t put up with bad standards, don’t accept “we can’t do any more”, don’t accept it when our team is working a turnkey operation. Get out there and change things. That’s why we’re doing this job.

Isn’t it? 


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Worst Places in the World to be a Mother

Save the Children is an organization HDEO has encountered in many contexts and forums over the years and it remains an NGO for which we have respect in every aspect. Their advocacy work in recent years has really taken on an important momentum and we would like to highlight their most recent report, focusing on maternal health which basically looks at the worst places in the world to be a mother and proposes solutions to remedy this situation. 

I find it horrifying for instance, that one in seven women in Niger is likely to die while pregnant or in childbirth (compare this to one woman out of 47'600 in my own country). One of the main pillars in the much-lauded Millennium Development Goals (or MDG's) is precisely on the area of maternal health - the deadline to 'bridge the divide' and ensure equality for all women and children is fast approaching in 2015. With organizations like 'Save' I hope we can move at least in the right direction. A mother and child (who barely recovered from near-fatal malnutrition) in Mauratania. Most women in sub-Saharan Africa give birth with no skilled health worker present. (IRIN photo)

Eight of the bottom 10 countries as ranked in Save the Children’s annual Mother's Index, which ranks the best and worst places to be a mother, are in sub-Saharan Africa, says the NGO. 

Afghanistan, Niger, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Sudan, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea form the bottom 10; while Norway, Australia, Iceland and Sweden come top. 

One in seven women dies in pregnancy or childbirth in Niger and one in eight in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone; while the risk is one in 25,000 in Greece and one in 47,600 in Ireland. 

“The problems around maternal and newborn health have been raised for many years, but there still remains so much to be done,” says Houleyemata Diarra, Save the Children’s regional adviser for Africa. “There are not enough skilled attendants at births, and governments are not taking into account where health workers are needed - in communities.” 

Over half of deliveries take place at home in most sub-Saharan African countries, with no skilled birth attendant present, according to the UN Children’s Fund. 

Save the Children is calling on governments and donors to prioritize building up a workforce of female health workers to serve in their communities and local clinics. 

These workers should be incentivized with better training, pay, and support for career growth, says the NGO. 

It costs a lot to train a doctor or run a hospital, but the cost of giving community health workers basic training - to diagnose and treat common early childhood illnesses, organize vaccinations and promote good nutrition and newborn care - does not have to be exorbitant. 

In Bangladesh the NGO found that providing female community health-workers with six weeks of hands-on training and some formal education caused infant mortality rates in affected areas to drop by a third. 

“There are a lot of models of this working well around the world,” said Save the Children’s Diarra. “African countries need to follow these examples.” 

/PC with thanks to IRINNEWS.ORG