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How to help Haiti? The debate over Hurricane Matthew relief effort

A "massive response" is needed in Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, officials say. But what's the best way to help? Some volunteers warn of lessons learned from the 2010 earthquake.
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14 Oct 2016 – 11:08 AM EDT
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A man carries sacks of rice at a warehouse in the capital, Port-au-Prince for delivery to victims of Hurricane Matthew. Crédito: Courtesy of Alison Thompson

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Matthew Haitian businessman Maarten Boute took to Twitter with some words of advice.

“How to help Haiti: source relief aid locally, buy our exports abroad, visit our beaches, invest in Haiti and its people,” he wrote, fresh from an aerial survey flight to inspect damage.

The chairman of Digicel, Haiti's largest wireless phone service, Boute was anxious to get the company's damaged antenna towers back up and running as fast as possible.

But he also had a greater concern: how to avoid a repetition of Haiti’s notorious disaster relief effort after the 2010 earthquake that rocked the capital Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people.

As the world grasps the enormity of the latest natural disaster to befall Haiti, many donors are asking how best to help the hemisphere’s poorest country.

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How to help Haiti

Boute’s tweet was in large part intended as a reminder of the lessons learned from the earthquake, and the questions raised in its aftermath regarding the way large international relief agencies used the vast sums of money donated to Haiti.

Boute is part of the Haiti Resilience System (HRS), a group of dozens of disaster relief volunteers in and outside Haiti connected via Whatsapp after the earthquake. They quickly sprang into action after Hurricane Matthew, hiring pilots to fly into the most affected regions, cut off by swollen rivers and damaged bridges.

One Miami businessman, Michael Capponi, flew to the stricken city of Jeremie with locally bought food supplies and drove out into the muddy hillsides delivering food and water himself out of a pickup.

Capponi, who is Belgian-born and speaks French, founded his own charity after the Haiti earthquake, Global Empowerment Mission. “We have no overhead. No rent, no salaries, no employees, just volunteers,” he said.

He joined forces with another Miami-based Australian paramedic, Alison Thompson, to deliver a truck of 12,000 pounds of food and water on Wednesday to L’Asile, a mountain community of 45,000 people, an 11-hour drive from Jeremie through flooded and muddy roads.

The supplies – all purchased in Haiti – were the first aid received in the region since the hurricane nine days ago, after raging rivers cut them off.

Thompson, a veteran humanitarian volunteer and founder of Third Wave Volunteeers, worked with actor Sean Penn in Haiti in 2010, as well as responding to the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka and the Syrian refugee crisis in the Greek island of Lesbos.

“The moon is out and the stars,” she wrote via Whatsapp after reaching L’Asile late Wednesday along with a video of the supplies being unloaded in the dark.

“Our hope is that other aid groups will follow … 100s of homes and churches damaged," she said, "They really need sheets of tin for their roofs. Tomorrow we go deeper into the villagers to distribute the food - all crops are wiped out and they were living off bananas from the ground.”

Thompson said she tried in vain to get government authorities, including the United Nations and a U.S. military task force in Haiti, to mobilize a relief effort for L’Asile after a local pastor appealed for international help.

“Our urgency and nimbleness allows us to do what the large organizations cannot. They literally don’t know how to,” said Albert Gomez, co-coordinator of the HRS, and Thompson’s husband.

“They go through the cumbersome government bureaucracy. They don’t get down to the street level like we do,” he said. “We are more decentralized, we work with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and charities, as well as local mayors.”


ENORMOUS NEED

A "massive response" is required, the United Nations said this week while announcing an appeal for $119 million to deliver aid to an estimated 750,000 people in southwestern Haiti. "Some towns and villages have been almost wiped off the map," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters.


“People have nothing left at all but the blue sky above them,” said Anne Hastings, former Haiti director of Fonkoze Financial Services, the largest micro-credit organization in Haiti focused on sustainable development. “They lost their crops, their trees, their homes. There’s nothing left in some parts. It’s like an atomic bomb went off.”
The number of dead is in the hundreds, maybe more than 1,000, according to Reuters.

Hastings and others noted that the southwest is Haiti’s breadbasket producing as much as 40% of the nation’s food supply, meaning the whole country will feel the storm’s effects.

The lack of institutional order in Haiti makes things worse for larger groups that tend to work more closely with governments, she warned. The country has not had a stable government in more than a year and presidential elections had to be postponed last weekend because of Matthew.

“Stay away from the big international NGOs in the short term. The national government of Haiti is not stable enough and has too many financial problems,” Hastings said.

In order for donations to be tax deductible they need to be channeled through a U.S. charity, Hastings advised, and sending cash is a faster way to get help where it’s needed, said Hastings.

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“Don’t send stuff. Containers take forever to get there and go through customs,” she said.

To be sure, many large groups won praise for their work after the earthquake, such as the medical group Partners in Health, the feeding and housing programs of Food for the Poor, and Sean Penn’s large tent camp for thousands of victims.

SMALLER IS SOMETIMES BETTER

Less well known are the extraordinary number of smaller charities and volunteer groups working all over Haiti to tackle poverty and sustainable development, from caring for street children, to providing clean water, rural education, electricity via solar power, and sails for fishermen.

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After Matthew, Food For The Poor moved quickly to ship and install eight solar-powered water filtration units in towns across the southwest, each capable of treating up to 10,000 gallons of water per day. The group also sent shipments of food by barge to Pestel, east of Jeremie on the north coast, which is only accessible by boat.

While it too prefers cash, in the current emergency food imports are necessary due to the massive loss of local agriculture, the group said.

"The need is so great there that we must ship in rice, beans, canned milk to save people’s lives over the next six months or so until we can get them up and going again," said Kathy Skipper, spokeswoman for Food for the Poor, a Florida-based charity.

"There is no place to get food and we have to send it in to them. Their crops, their fruit trees, their animals have been destroyed."

After the earthquake some groups were accused of misspending money, hurting local businesses by flooding the country with imported goods, and riding roughshod over the local population.

The American Red Cross spent a quarter of the money people donated after the earthquake — or almost $125 million — on its own internal expenses, according to a congressional report released last year.

Red Cross officials defended the charity's work, saying the organization's spending was "entirely justifiable given the size and complexity of the Haiti program."

Before Matthew hit, the Red Cross said it pre-deployed relief supplies in the cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie in coordination with Haitian Red Cross volunteers, said Lesley Schaffer, Latin America & Caribbean regional director for the American Red Cross.

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Those supplies – thousands of cholera prevention, hygiene and cooking kits - were quickly exhausted, she said. The organization was working on a plan to follow up with fresh relief supplies, she added.

“We’re looking for a local delivery mechanism,” she said. “That’s what’s being set up right now.”

While the Red Cross seeks to make its purchases locally when they are available, Schaffer said sometimes there is no alternative but to import due to lack of available bulk quantity.

Meanwhile, Thompson and Capponi are on their third delivery. They said they have yet to see the Red Cross on the remote roads.

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