The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti a week ago has devastated the country, killing at least 2,189 people and upending the lives of about 1.5 million people west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. These people lack medical assistance, shelter, running water and food. To compound this catastrophe, they’ve had to deal with flooding and mudslides brought on by Tropical Storm Grace and gang violence threatening the convoys carrying equipment and supplies.
To us Haitians, it’s another wrenching episode of déjà vu.
Our country is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, when the mismanagement of foreign aid hindered efforts to help Haitians. Now the question is how the new aid that is starting to arrive can be best used to meet the needs of survivors and avoid the grave mistakes of the past.
There is an answer: Trust the Haitian grass-roots networks that are in direct contact with the victims and have a record of coordinating relief efforts.
Haitians are especially vulnerable this year. In the wake of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last month, the political situation remains in flux, and the de facto government is struggling to ensure that aid can be safely transported from the capital to the disaster area.
Nevertheless, many organizations on the ground have been responding to local needs, as they have done for years. They work with grass-root groups in health, education and development that remained after the 2010 earthquake, and with specialized agencies from the United Nations. They don’t make headlines, but these small Haitian organizations are doing the essential work of delivering basic services to residents after disasters.
Since 2010, Haiti has endured four earthquakes, four hurricanes and a devastating cholera outbreak. Each one required urgent humanitarian relief. But the Haitian government and various international organizations have largely failed to ensure that assistance actually reaches desperate people in remote villages. Figuring out how to do so this time will be key to the country’s recovery.
In the faces of people stricken by last week’s quake, I see the same incredible courage, the same indomitable spirit I saw 11 years earlier after the earthquake that is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people. But I also see the same call for help. In 2010 I had just retired from my position as the spokesperson for the United Nations when it asked me to serve again as a senior adviser to its peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as Minustah.
I acted as a liaison between the United Nations and the Haitian government as plane loads of international assistance were streaming into a country unprepared for it. The mission had just lost 102 peacekeepers and senior leaders in the quake. The Haitian government was also in disarray after many of its best civil servants died. The earthquake destroyed parts of the national palace and ministry buildings.
In the chaos that immediately followed the quake, many well-intentioned celebrities and donors from international and religious groups were trying to decide how and where to use the aid they had collected. In many instances, they failed to consult with grass-roots organizations about people’s most pressing needs. The relief efforts were often counterproductive, ineffective and wasteful.
The problem went beyond private donations. The American Red Cross was criticized for spending more aid money on its own overhead and less on Haiti than it had claimed. In other cases, large slices of aid would return to donor countries in the form of contracts for rubble removal.
The Assassination of Haiti’s President
What I witnessed then presents us with the question of what we can do better now. While the United Nations coordinated some efforts to provide aid, it could have done more to support local grass-roots networks. Amid unimaginable destruction, what stood out was the dedication of the many doctors, nurses and humanitarian workers to saving lives.
We can absorb lessons from previous errors. When local communities were involved in the response to the 2010 earthquake, aid distribution improved. We can seek out and listen to their voices and give money directly to families, who know best what their own needs are. When purchasing and distributing food to populations in need, we should be careful not to undercut local farmers.
Simply asking residents what they need can avoid missteps. I still remember the chaotic attempts to drop food and water kits from helicopters to residents near Port-au-Prince. At distribution sites where people redeemed food vouchers, people often cut ahead of others. Local organizations suggested that women receive food vouchers first. They rightfully assumed that women would make sure children would be fed and that the food would be fairly shared in their households.
In another case I witnessed, after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, a group of donors that was preparing to send building material to farmers in a destroyed village stopped to check with one of them. The farmer politely declined and said he and his neighbors had already rebuilt their houses with recycled wreckage. Instead, he asked for seeds for the next harvest and a dairy cow to replace the one that was killed.
With the international recovery effort at an early stage, we can prioritize such voices and escape Haiti’s cycle of déjà vu by rethinking how aid gets to the people who need it. As a Haitian proverb says, “Men anpil chay pa lou”: With many hands, the load is lightened.
Michèle Montas, a broadcast journalist, was a senior adviser to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti from 2010 to 2011.
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