133 comments on “Why Aid is Slow Getting in to Haiti

  1. I think they should learn to be grateful that anyone would help them.

    After all, when disasters struck elsewhere in the world, were they there to send aid??


    If a quake struck my area, I would be happy for any help I could get, and not complain.

    No one owes me a living.

    No one owes them anything either.

    People are trying to be nice, and they are giving up their time and money.

    They need to get out of this dependency mentality.

    • Marianne, thanks for your comment.

      I agree with some of your points. People should be grateful that others are willing to give freely to help them. Dependency in less developed countries is an ugly, ugly thing.

      By the same token, some grace needs to be extended to people who have just lost homes, posessions and loved ones. They are grieving and frightened, and angry that they have suffered what they have. It’s only natural that a small but vocal portion will lash out at whatever targets present themselves- and as outsiders, people bringing aid are an obvious place to start. By understanding that mentality we can accept their position without necessarily agreeing with it.

      Haiti does not have the luxury of an established state support structure. In the US, if you were to experience a hurricane or an earthquake, you would rightly expect FEMA or the state government to support you, because you pay taxes to them to run emergency and insurance services for exactly that sort of eventuality. In that regards in fact, the government does owe you a living, in the face of a crisis.

      The argument that Haitians are not there to support other countries is one that is heard frequently. Many people used it following hurricane Katrina, when many affected Americans in subsequent emergencies said, ‘why should we give [to country X]? They didn’t give to us in Katrina’. Which is, in fact, only partially true, as many poorer countries did give out of their own poverty to the US at that time- countries like Cuba, the Philippines, Guatemala, and even the Dominican Repubic. The New Testament story of the poor widow’s offering lends a moral slant to this kind of generosity.

      Regardless, as inhabitants of wealthier nations in an interconnected world, we need to recognize that the provision of assistance to poorer nations is going to be a one-way street (at least in terms of resource value)- we have the luxury, as mentioned above, of insurance, emergency services, etc. which nations such as Haiti do not.

      What’s important to realise as well is that we don’t give to be appreciated. The giving process is one that is in and of itself transformative- it blesses us even as we bless others- even if that generosity is not received or appreciated. If we only give so we can feel appreciated then maybe we need to look closely at ourselves.

      It is a common frustration in the aid world Marianne- I have often experienced travelling to countries where we are not met with thanks and appreciation, but with hostility and blame. However, giving is still the right thing to do when people are in need, in my opinion.

      Thanks for your time.

      • Amazing and concise, first blog that has kept me interested to read to the end. I think you have an amazing fair view of the situation, would have loved to hear you on CNN rather than many of the reporters at bay. Thank you for helping me sort my mind about such matters. God Bless!

      • Many thanks for your kind words Tatum, they’re thoughtful and encouraging. As for CNN, I think there are a lot of people (including some of those listed among the blogs I follow down the right hand column of this site) who have had quite enough of Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Anderson Cooper trying to save the world between them! :oP

    • I agree with morealtitude, Marianne. Haitians bear no direct culpability for the quake and should expect to be helped out this dire predicament. I for one would be happy to help in person, if the opportunity arose.

      We are responsible for our own actions and not for the actions (or inaction) of others.

      • Leslie, I think the key to prayer for those who believe in it is that it should never be a substitute for generosity or action. For those that don’t pray but choose to give, that giving will make a difference. For those that have nothing to give but believe in the power of prayer, there are many (including many of the survivors in Haiti) who will by faith view that as having an impact, whether physical or spiritual. When people choose to talk about prayer in place of taking some practical steps to help those they could otherwise help, then I think prayer is misused, and I think most faiths the world over would stand by that claim.

        “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (Book of James)

    • If you have no idea what it is like for the Haitian’s to live.. you have no reason to comment on them as people in need. People have always been starving in Haiti … a lot of them at one time were slaves, and now children of slaves … Catrholics brought religion to them, an in their vava’s (spelling) drawings on the grown…you can see from the design,many Catholic symbols. They do awesome art work, Paintings too. They have had to sell it cheap to people that had more… because they had nothing… many struggle to feed their families. people from Haiti are mostly thin… a normal dinner for us would be more than a feast… and would last them several days.
      Tell me how poor people can come and rescue us American’s, when the most they have had to give has been stipped away from them … for a very long time now ? I hope if anything this disaster will shine a light on how beautiful a lot of the people of Haiti are, shine on how beautiful their Hearts and art are… and how beautiful their spirits are..

      • Patricia what you just wrote is so true,,and i loved reading what you said,, about those poor wonderful ppl,, how can anyone judge them ,, i salute you,, for your powerul words..god bless all the poor haitians,

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, donations of money are far more useful than donations of food, which are bulky and short-lived and hard to transport. Money enables organizations to provide a wide range of essential services. For a great discussion on giving to Haiti, please see J’s blog “Tales from the Hood” and his post on the Haiti earthquake here. Cheers!

    • i think so too there was a man under rubble for 7 days and he lived when i heard this i was amazed but he is still very porly ahhhhhhh i want to help them as much as i can

  2. Good article. It’s easy to say the aid needs to get there quickly, but little things like logistics get in the way. Add to that the total collapse of governmental infrastructure and you have a real mess. It’s my understanding that the Air Force now has combat air controllers in place to co-ordinate the air traffic. The Carl Vincent’s choppers are also now on scene providing some heavy lift capability, so the supplies should start to flow. I would imagine that the Sea Bees and the Corps of Engineers will be on scene shortly to help with restoring the port and getting the streets clear.

    I have heard criticism that USN Hospital ships are not there yet. I believe the closest one is the USNS Comfort in it’s home port of Baltimore. Even if it was fully loaded, with a full head of steam it would have taken several days to get there at a top speed of 17.5 knots. . Having served on a ship in the USCG I can tell you there were few days when we could have set out immediately for more than a short run, and even then it probably would have been a couple of hours to recall enough essential personnel to get underway. In the case of the Comfort, they are tasked with being loaded and underway for this type of mission (this is after all, a secondary mission and requires reconfiguration of the ship and cargo,) within 5 days. They expect to be on scene in that time, so well done to the Comfort!

    Could the response have been better. Of course, that is why in emergency services we are always debriefing and critiquing our response and performance. There is always something to learn, and always something that can be improved.

    Great article and I totally agree with it and your comments as well … Thanks

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply. I don’t have much else to add- you capture the spirit of what I see as well. Nice to hear similar thoughts coming from somebody in a different branch of emergency work. I especially echo your comments about emergency services debriefing and critiquing. We often get criticized (or at least we criticize ourselves) for spending too much time in after-action reviews, but truth be told, we’re trying to stop people dying, so it’s worth the investment to improve what we do. The big challenge is always that every response is so unique and different. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to deal with a natural disaster that has annihilated the seat of government and administration so thoroughly, for example.

      Thanks again.

  3. Thank you for a rationale view of the problems in this disaster. It is very complex. Many times people get frustrated too quickly and point the finger at governments and others while most are doing their best possible efforts to provide assistance.

    Your comment about extending grace in response to the writer who commented on a “dependence mentality” was right on. It IS frustrating when people expect a handout. But a handout for someone who is too lazy to work is much different from a helping hand to assist your fellowman in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude.

    Jesus taught us to love at all times. And to forgive. And to not count another’s wrongs against them. Who are we to throw a stone when we’ve been given so much ourselves? Thank God that He does not give us what we deserve but extends grace and forgiveness through His Son.

    Keep your writings coming. When I first saw the photos, I thought “wow, he really finds the best stock photos to feature on his blog”. It wasn’t until I read your info that I realized that you took these masterpieces. They truly are stunning.

    Peace and Grace–

    • Thanks Rob for your words and the grace you express- they are much appreciated. I’m glad too you enjoyed the photos. My time in Haiti left me with some lovely memories- and some of my favourite images. The people there are beautiful despite their hardships. It’s sad to think of them going through this difficult time now.

      Thanks for your thoughtful words.

      • I am glad that people are wanting to help, but it is sad that there are not plans in place to manage the emmergency situation. A back up plan would have eliminated the problems that are now happening because the agency set up to manage emmergencies was destroyed. Perhaps this will be an opportunity that we all can learn from.

      • Good planning is essential for emergency response Gloria, you’re absolutely right. In this case we were highly unfortunate. The earthquake hit a fault-line not known for large violent earthquakes, which happened to be right where all the agencies were sitting. It was an unexpected disaster, and it’s unusual for a capital city to be so damaged by a natural disaster like this. When something is this unexpected, it’s hard to plan for.

        Additionally, planning takes money and it takes will. Haiti is a poor country, and planning for the eventuality of a large earthquake that didn’t seem likely to happen would have taken resources the country didn’t have. Haiti has plans in place for responding to hurricanes because it gets hit by them every year, and all the agencies in Port-au-Prince were set up for that instead. So there was planning, but because this came out of left field, the plans have fallen through.

        In terms of backup plans (e.g. providing remote assistance to Haiti from outside), these plans do exist and are being mobilized. The United Nations, NGOs and military forces are all mobilizing their rapid response capabilities, and are doing the best they can in the circumstances. Our agency had foreign response staff on the ground within 48 hours of the quake, which given the extent of the damage is as fast as you can expect something like that to happen. Resources are mobilized and are being slowed only by the bad logistics. So the plans are there, and they’re in operation. Some things are just running slower than we’d like.

  4. I appreciate your view as an aid worker. From the perspective of a nurse and anthopologist, dehydration and the body’s feeling of empending death makes a person desperate and will fight to survive. Sometimes doing it is all that’s needed.

  5. It’s always a challenge to get aid into countries that don’t have the proper infrastructure in these type of disasters.

    It’s nice to see that the money is pouring into the various charities around the World. I am in Canada and when I tried to make a donation today the severs for the Oxfam Canada were over whelmed with people trying to make donations and I had to try a few times before I was able to make my donation. From what I have heard that has been the case with all the various charities in Canada.

    Our prayers are with the people Haiti and we hope the money being poured into charities will help same lives and maybe lessen the pain a little for people there.

  6. Earthquakes, while devastating, are opportunities for charity and tests of character. They encourage us to venture beyond our selfishness and pettiness.

    Help a poor student by a cup of coffee. Check out this book. It has a punchy limerick about George Bush. http://bit.ly/7QK8Ik

  7. Test of character indeed, my country Indonesia, while itself is a relatively poor country, have sent some aid personels and necesities. When the news of the slow delivery of aids circulating, some of us here commented: “of course, Indonesians never really good at anything, not to mention sending aids”

    But we should have learned from Aceh tragedy, when disaster struck, it’s every kind of problems jumbled up together, from the almost impossible terrain to some local politicians accusing the US of using the relief excuse to plant their grips on the region.

    Sometimes people just forget, that it is all about humanity.

    • You raise a good point about learning from previous tragedies. One of the challenges of aid work is that every disaster is unique, with its own unique constraints and challenges. The complexities of responding in Banda Aceh have overlap with those in Haiti- mass devastation, bodies in the streets days after the event, security concerns, a hugely traumatized population, massive access difficulties, logistical delays… However by the same token there are differences. The fact that the national government has effectively been removed from the scene in Haiti, and that the aid agencies and UN on the ground in Port-au-Prince are themselves victims of the quake, add a new layer of complexity we have not seen for some time. It’s a fair comparison however- the Tsunami killed 200,000 people and affected some five million, and the Haiti earthquake is looking set to kill 100-150,000 with 3-5 million affected- at the very least it will probably be the largest natural disaster we’ve faced since the Tsunami.

      You’re right, of course. At the end of the day, it’s about how we help people survive and recover from such a devastating loss. Things will move and help of different kinds will get in, but it will never be as quick as we would like it.

  8. Thank you for the explanation about the aid effort. It answers many questions I had. I remember that after Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin the army evacuated the civilians en masse from that destroyed city. But I guess you can’t evacuate unless you can get into seaports and airports to do so. My heartfelt sympathy to all the Haitians at this terrible time.

    • Very true Lucy. In addition, you can only evacuate people who are willing to be evacuated, and many are chosing to stay. In Haiti there is really nowhere else to move them to en masse– the combination of geography, space and logistics of resettling 2-3 million people would be vast. However as it turns out many people are evacuating themselves- my friends on the ground in Haiti have been reporting for the last two days that people are teeming out of the city and to rural towns and villages rather than stay in Port-au-Prince.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  9. I see there are still so many people set in their ways,with no room for grace & mercy unless their loved ones are in trouble! It also seems to me nothing was learned from Hurricane Katrina I just pray for God to comfort and help his people,I cannot watch this same thing over again. Heavenly Father when will we get it that “Love” is more important than anything,and that we as Christians are to “Love” each other. Loving is a full time job,I appreciate your article though I could not read it all,it’s very upsetting to me.

    • Thanks for letting me know, and you are most welcome, as you have linked back to the original article. Cheers.

  10. Pingback: [REPOST]Why aid is slow getting in to Haiti. « Suikology.

  11. Hi,


    My name is Renee and I am from Trinidad, West Indies. I have been hearing and watching all the heart breaking stories coming from Haiti. What really has me sad are the orphans (homeless babies and children). I am a mother of one and I want to do something to help but dont know how. It sounds far-fetched, but I am willing to do all that I can to at least give one homeless/ parentless child a home and future. I dont know where to start or what to do and as such I am just trying to grasp at straws here. I would appreciate if you can help/provide me with some guidance or direction on how I can be of some help for these children. I feel really guilty sitting at home watching these children go through what they are going through and not help. Can you help me plz. Anyway u can I would be greatful!!!! THANK YOU.


    Renée Pollard

    • i think that we should have some kind of day where every one donates something for haiti in school we had a hat for haiti day and we raised 300 pounds that is good but lets see if it helps i hope it does.

  12. I must have said ‘wow’ and ‘interesting’ about ten times while reading this post. I never realized how complicated coordinating aid in disaster situations is. I am definitely glad that I live in a place with a pretty solid infrastructure, but I’m also quite gratified to know there are smart and compassionate people helping those who do not. Thank you!

  13. Pingback: A Lesson in Logistics « I am Ebi. I blog.

  14. this is a global issue. i think everyone should donate according to their capability, and besides that all other nations should give haiti a helping hand, without which it’s nearly impossible for the survivors to overcome this situation.

  15. Great article. Having been to Port au Prince I can confirm the points made about the difficulties of getting aid into the country, and the importance of making it happen. To those who wonder why we should help I’d like to point out that Haiti did try to help after Katrina. But, they didn’t have much to help with! Also, remember that Haiti was the first foreign country to send troops to help us during the American revolution. We repaid them then by refusing to recognize them as a country. We’ve got to do better, and I know we will.

    • Thanks for your comment Ned, and for your balanced view on the history of US-Haitian interactions. I am always struck, working in ‘developing’ nations, how the poorest are often the most generous. It doesn’t surprise me that Haiti tried to give to the Katrina response.

  16. There is no highway between Haiti and the Dr, there are single line roads, and they are not safe. The DR has never clamored for a road linking the two countries.

  17. It is sad what has come about in Haiti. Earthquakes are devastating. Thank you for informing us about what is happening. I did not know this much so thank you. I have also donated some money, and I encourage others to do so. Thanks.

    • Thanks ⌈βrεtt⌋ for your comment, and for your generosity. The outpouring of sympathy and support around the world has been encouraging and touching.

  18. These people live at an impoverished level that many of us in the western hemisphere will never know. I understand them being angry and why. Sadness often times turns into anger because it is a way for a person to deal with the unthinkable i.e. losing your entire family. I think people who have things like running water, electricity, a home with four walls etc…
    should try being kinder towards these poor unfortunate souls.


  19. Thank you for this post…As many of us are watching from afar, unable to comprehend all that is going on, it is clarifying to get some perspective from people who are ACTUALLY dealing with things like this on a regular basis.

    Objectivity is the face of seeming chaos is the only thing that may potentially keep us all sane!

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the post was able to help. I do hope others can understand the constraints that are being faced, without thinking that the international community is trying to present excuses for inaction. Objectivity does help- for those of us in the aid sector it is often the one thing that shields us from the tragedy that we are trying to address. That said, I’m touched by how many of you who are reading this post are expressing your own grief at witnessing what has happened to Haiti. Thanks.

  20. Great post. Very thorough and insightful. Given how long it too to respond to Katrina, we have come a long way…
    I wonder if they will consider dropping some supplies/foood in by air, given the logistical problems you have described.

    • Thanks for your comment Jackie. I haven’t heard airdrops being considered in great depth yet. There may be a few reasons for this.

      1. Setting up an airbridge with a steady supply of food takes quite a while- you need planes, pilots, fuel, flight schedules, and of course, a large supply of food in a centralized location.

      2. Food drops can only really supply staples/cereals (e.g. wheat, corn, rice)- anything else that accompanies food distributions (sugar, oil, etc.) to provide a balanced meal is too fragile to drop. This doesn’t mean that as an interim measure you couldn’t do food drops to bridge the gap, but in order to provide people with their actual food needs, you would still need a food distribution mechanism in place on the ground as well (this is the case in southern Sudan, where the World Food Program still does (or was doing until recently) food drops for grain, but this was complimented by other food being trucked out to field locations.

      3. Food drops require a substantial open and flat area to drop the food itself- the size of several football fields ideally. Such spaces are hard to come by around Port-au-Prince. In addition, the site must be protectable. If people rush onto the drop-site to grab bags of food (an easily forseeable scenario in Haiti) they could be killed by falling bags, or simply steal the food before it can be fairly distributed.

      4. The food needs are massive. A C-130 Hercules (the sort of aircraft used in food-drops) can carry a little under 20 metric tonnes of food fully loaded. That will provide partial food needs for roughly 50,000 people for one day. If we assume that 2 million people in Haiti are going to be needing food support in the coming days, that would equate to 40 food-drop flights every single day. The cost and logistics of carrying out that sort of operation are huge- not insurmountable, but not something to be taken lightly.

      5. Food would need to be dropped at chosen drop-sites, but getting it from those drop-sites to distribution points and out to the people would still need to happen. This in itself would be a massive undertaking and there isn’t yet access or infrastructure to allow this to happen.

      All up, I do actually hope to see air-drops surface as an option in the next few days, at least for discussion, if they haven’t already. However with the cost and complexity of carrying out airdrops- not to mention the need for specialised equipment and trained crews- I have a hunch investment will be placed into reopening the airport access road and reparing the offloading plant at the Port-au-Prince docks first, which should allow less complicated and more cost-effective ways of getting assistance into the country as rapidly as possible.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Yes, the logistics would be massive. The Berlin Airlift immediately comes to mind, fortunately Berlin had a 35 day “pad” of consumables, as it took several weeks to gear up and even longer to reach the full flow of 4000 tons a day.

        As you so aptly pointed out, every life is precious, but the cost of such an operation would be considerable. What is more important than the material cost however is the potential human cost. (In the case of Berlin, 101 airmen lost their lives.) That cost must be weighed in any evolution. Emergency Services personnel face this decision regularly – is the risk to my people reasonable in regards to my chances of helping those in danger? Anyone who has ever had to make such a decision will tell you it is the hardest one you can make, but never the less one that must be made. (When I was an officer I would often through such scenarios into our training. When to run in and when to walk away is the hardest lesson to learn, and at times the most costly.)

        It is one I am sure has been considered, and in fact from what I have read airdrops were considered and ruled out for many of the reasons you have mentioned.

      • Landing areas secured by US Army, air drops commenced today using C-17s. I believe the drops were around 169 tons of material, water, MREs, and equipment. Elements of the 82nd Airborne secured the drop zone and distributed supplies.

        Today over 100 planes landed at an airport designed to handle no more than 16 at a time. They are packing as many as 40 planes at a time into there using every inch of grass and pavement they have.

      • Yup, the logistics operation is unfolding and developing. It will happen, and as it gains momentum, more and more will push through as some of the challenges- managed airspace, repaired roads and repaired port facilities- drop into place. It’s good news overall. What’s crucial now is that coordination on the ground can be maintained. The World Food Program has begun food distributions around Port-au-Prince and these have reportedly been going off reasonably well and without a large amount of disturbance for the most part.

      • what about all the reports of ineptitude by the organizations supposedly coordinating the distribution efforts. There is still no plan; it’s random and chaotic. Is it true that lots of the water is somehow getting delivered to the US Embassy? Why is there a priority for security over food and water. The press says the need for security is over stated.

      • Hi Nancy and thanks for your comment.

        I can’t comment on water being delivered to the US Embassy. Logistically, it may make sense if the US Embassy has a warehouse and/or a secure compound as a temporary redistribution point. Or, it may be a monumental error as you suggest. I haven’t heard about it. Likewise, reports of ineptitude- the law of averages states that some of the organizations on the ground will be doing a really good job, and others, probably not so good. If you have specific reports about specific organizations, these are both easier to verify and easier to discuss than broad-brush comments, or statements repeated off a 10-second sound-bite from the media.

        The priority for security- yes, there probably has been an over-reaction to the need for security, and reports indicate that for the time-being, Port-au-Prince is actually safer than it was prior to the earthquake. However aid can’t get through if convoys are getting hijacked or aid-workers being shot at. It’s not a matter of prioritising security over food and water- it’s a matter of prioritising it so that food and water can be distributed. We learned this lesson in Somalia in 1993-4. Thousands of tons of aid was stolen at gunpoint by militia and redistributed, or used as political leverage over starving populations. Aid in the wrong hands isn’t just aid wasted, it’s actively damaging to a context. There have been incidents of looting of aid distributions reported by several agencies in Port-au-Prince over the last forty-eight hours. The need for security shouldn’t take precedence over the need for the support of the beneficiaries. But again using Somalia as an example, the violence there has become so bad that aid agencies have had to pull out of large swathes of southern Somalia because their staff (local just as much as expatriate) are at too high risk of getting abducted and killed. Having personally been the subject of violence more than once while in the field, I will never dismiss aid staff’s request that their personal safety be assured before driving into a crowd of hungry people. Being an aid worker in a disaster is stressful enough without worrying about getting attacked.

        I assure you if security wasn’t taken seriously, and an aid distribution was attacked with violence and staff killed, the fallout would be far worse in the opposite direction- a media blame-storm, the pull-out of aid staff from the vicinity, and a likely increase in heavy-handed security measures by police and military- none of which we want to see.

  21. My heart goes out especially to the children. I’ve lived in an earthquake prone area my whole life and suffered for years as a child with earthquake related nightmares. I never even had serious loses. I can’t for a moment even imagine the suffering these poor Haitians are going through.

  22. You have explained this perfectly in my eyes, as that is the way I have seen it too. Most of us are very blessed because of the country where we are born in and the opportunities we receive because of it.
    Afflictions of any sort, help us determine our character.
    The scale of this catastrophe, is overwhelming, but in my eyes, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t love the Haiti people any less than anyone else. It’s a natural law, with natural consequences. Although, I do wish there weren’t borders and politics, and everyone could be rescued, no matter what you think you were owed. I wish, the news reporters, would hold a orphan baby, not just stand around and report about. Lend a hand, record those faces of the dead. I could happen to anyone of us, and we would want the same respond for someone to help rescue us, too.

  23. Very interesting summary and indeed you have covered most of the key points which make it difficult to provide help, so awaited by Haitians.
    The only thing I would like to add and probably this point is pretty much distorted by the media which does the footage from Haiti but – why do we see Haitians begging for help but doing absolutely NOTHING to help themselves?!! (Again, as we see it on a screen – so I might be wrong)
    Why do they calmly sit waiting for help to come (and I’m talking about the ones who were not injured, of course) or as you said “blocking the roads” instead of HELPING to clear them, HELPING to unload cargo ships and/or to clear port infrastructure from the debris.
    Why did BBC showed healthy men running around the collapsed house and doing absolutely NOTHING to save a still alive person under it. That survivor was lucky that the UN soldiers were nearby who just started … DIGGING! Nothing sophisticated but simply digging… I don’t understand the locals.
    Of course, it might be that Haitians don’t see themselves as a nation yet, they are scared and separated … probably used to rely on external help for too long feeling themselves as victims. And it’s really heartbreaking when I look at people who suffer physically and emotionally because many have lost their friends and relatives. But for God sake! There are still alive people under the ruins, there are people who need supplies and can’t move…. and they are lucky ones who remain at least physically fine and they do nothing to help their own countrymen, their ex-neighbors … That’s an amazing indifference we see there when the whole world community has remarkably united to provide help for people who don’t do anything for it to come on time. There are many Haitians who are victims, but much less who are survivors … (I hope you know the difference between those two words)

    • Thanks for your thought-provoking comment and for sharing a perspective that’s a little different to some others being posted here. I’d like to pick up on a couple of things you’ve said here just to help folks understand some of the issues at stake.

      I’m really pleased you talked about what you see on the screen and acknowledge that this is open to being skewed. I’ve been doing a lot of media interviews over the past five days and I can tell you that the media are not reporting facts per se– they are telling a story, and one they hope will catch their viewers’ attention. Many news outlets do some research, pick a couple of angles that grab attention, and then develop these angles specifically. So, in the Haiti context for example, the bulk of the media is really picking up on the violence/food-riot angle, on the delays-in-logistics-angle, on the involvement of foreign assistance (especially US military and search-and-rescue teams). They then build a story around these themes to show the viewer. Not necessarily a false story, but certainly not the full picture.

      The question to ask is, why is the media showing pictures of foreign search and rescue teams, and not Haitian rescuers? Well, on a simple level, the media is playing to US/British/Australian audiences, who want to see their donations hard at work, so they want to see US/British/Australian rescue teams pulling people from rubble. These are the images that will stop people flipping the channel to see what else is on.

      Here’s some facts from earlier today on foreign search and rescue teams. As of about 10pm Haiti time on Saturday, there were 1,200 foreign search and rescue personnel in Haiti, and about 100 sniffer dogs. Collectively over the days since the earthquake, they had pulled 83 people alive out of the rubble. That’s about on par for foreign SAR teams- a pretty normal figure following a major disaster.

      I don’t know how much it costs to run a SAR team. I can assure you it’s expensive. The bill for 1,200 SAR personnel, complete with dogs, specialised equipment, transportation, lodging etc. will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per day.

      Every life is precious. Every life saved is worth an investment. I’m not interested in making a judgement call about what dollar value you place on the life of a Haitian child pulled from the rubble after 8 hours of digging by one rescue team, as one was this afternoon. That life is a cause for celebration. Absolutely and unequivocably. Note however that a single team can spend hours and hours recovering a single person- or body. It’s no wonder the total number of lives saved is relatively small. Remember too that most of these teams don’t reach ground zero until 48 hours after the earthquake. Most urban burial situations have a window of 72 hours during which people trapped alive in rubble can be rescued. After that, most will be dead. And it’s an arithmetic curve- meaning, for every hour past the point of burial, a disproportionately small number of people will continue surviving.

      Here’s the flip-side of the coin.

      There are between three and five million Haitians living in the quake affected area. Somewhere between 50 and 150 thousand appear to have died. Uncounted tens of thousands were injured. Many of those injured- I would imagine also in the tens of thousands- would have been partially or completely buried at some point in the earthquake- hence receiving injuries. Those thousands of people had to be dug out by somebody.

      As mentioned in my post, experience shows that the people who do the saving of lives are those people who in the first minutes and hours after a quake rush to their homes and their neighbours homes, and pull out friends and loved ones. They are the best to respond a) because they get there first before people die and b) because they know who to look for, and where. In the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003, the buildings were made of mud-brick which crumbled to dust without leaving air-spaces. Anybody who wasn’t pulled from the rubble in the first few minutes suffocated. Locals saved thousands of lives, compared to the few dozen saved by international rescue teams.

      I am in daily contact with several personal friends in Port-au-Prince in the course of my job. Yesterday they drove past a flattened school where dozens of Haitians were digging through the rubble with whatever they had available. Colleagues from our office in Port-au-Prince, within minutes of the quake hitting, were frantically trying to get home so they could rescue their loved ones. Haitians throughout the city have been working tirelessly since the quake hit to free people from the rubble. Their efforts will be credited with saving many thousands of lives.

      Remember as well, four days on from the quake, that most rubble that can be dug through by hand will have been dug through- the rest requiring specialised equipment that local Haitians will not have access to. Most people who will survive the quake have already been pulled out; almost everybody else buried right now is either dead, or will shortly be dead. If people knew where their loved ones were buried at the time of the quake, they will have dug through those locations by now. So there is a lot less for local Haitians to do, while the small number of search and rescue personnel (for whom, I hasten to add, I do have a great deal of respect, and who risk their lives to save every life they recover) with their specialised equipment and training can tackle more complicated burial sites.

      So my question really would be, why does our media chose to show pictures of Haitians sitting around and focus on foreigners digging through the rubble, when in fact this is an incredible distortion of the reality of what is happening, as you rightly alude to at the beginning of your comment?

      I don’t doubt that there are some groups of men sitting around doing nothing, I hasten to add, or that there aren’t gangs making trouble for selfish gain, or that there aren’t some lazy people out there. But seeing a few shots of a few men sitting around is not indicative of what has generally been happening in Port-au-Prince since the quake, nor can we surmise that therefore a significant majority of Haitians are sitting around while their countryfolk are dying.

      You’re absolutely right- there is a huge difference between victims and survivors. In any calamity there are both, and the media loves to show victims because it attracts attention, because humans have a warped tendancy to want to keep watching suffering. Survivors don’t get the same attention on our news media. However I can attest that there are vast numbers of survivors in Port-au-Prince right now based on the eye-witness accounts that I am getting across my desk regularly, and simply by looking at the magnitude of what has happened and the part that local Haitians have played in it versus the part that outsiders played. The majority of Haitians are working to pick up the pieces of their lives amidst the shock and violence of what they have just been through as best they can.

      I close with an observation that the news cameras weren’t rolling in Port-au-Prince until 48 hours after the earthquake, but that the largest portion of the rescue and recovery efforts- carried out by local Haitians themselves- would have been completed during this time- indeed, during the first 12 hours. So we don’t see those pictures. Their contribution and the incredible bravery, sacrifice and drama of those moments, never made it into our living room. But this is the reality of what happened in Port-au-Prince, and not these 15-second snippets we see broken down for drama’s sake on our evening news bulletin.

      Thanks again for your perspective.

      A note for others reading this thread:

      I am aware some people may take offence at the tone or perspective of the comment to which I have just replied. I have chosen to publish it on this post because I think the perspective raised is one that is echoed elsewhere in the public mindset and is worth discussing and addressing. If you also wish to respond to it, feel free to do so but kindly respond with courtesy and respect. I will not publish derogatory or inflammatory posts- there have been a few already posted on this site- as I want this to be a place for discussion and learning, not aggression.

      Thanks for your opinions and for honouring each other here.

      • Thank you very much for giving us an insightful view on what’s really going on over there. Thank you very much that you reacted pro-actively to my comment and found time for replying even though, now I understand it, it might’ve sounded arrogant to you, but at least it’s a good lesson for me and others how distorted one’s opinion can get by just watching a TV.
        I’m very much relieved knowing that people still unite and help each other even if it happens mostly during the time of common danger. Also we can see that contemporary media lacks transparency and has quite low level of professional ethics (and I don’t know whether those are reporters or the editors who cut off the rest of the footage or both) and still being aware of the fact that it does have a tremendous effect in forming public opinion.
        Thank you very much indeed!

        P.S. You can edit this part: if I may I’ll create a post quoting your reply to my comment here so that one could clearly see what a person could see on a tube which might not (and often doesn’t) correspond to the reality. Cheers!

  24. I flippped over to wordpress to get away from the insane banter of the larger news sites, and was a little worried when I saw the title of your article. I am tremendously relieved to have read what I did, and wanted to say a small thanks for taking the time to explain the logistics of this nightmare.

    • Thanks for your response and comment Josh- glad that these words provided a slightly different perspective for you, that’s what I wrote them for. I appreciate your taking time to say thanks.

  25. My job basically consists of talking to the Pilots flying across the Atlantic Ocean and as I’m sitting here waiting for flts to call( it’s slow at 6 am) I”m came across this blog and after reading about half of the blog an advisory came through for a flight heading for Haiti and this is what it said: ……. because you are landing MTPP( Port-au-princ) expect holding of up to 2 hours, there is a possibility that there is no fuel or other services available, you can only stay on the ground for 2 hours…. The flt advised that they can’t hold for 2 hours so now we are trying to figure out if they can land there or not.

    • Thanks for sharing your insights and experience Lisa. Yes this is a common problem right now- both Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo airports are heavily congested, and flights into PAP especially are being requested to ensure they have enough fuel for the hours they will spend sitting on the apron, and to return them to another airport for refueling, as there is simply not enough fuel in Haiti to keep them running. In the city itself, queues are hundreds of yards long for people wanting to get gasoline- in some places they are not allowing vehicles, only people with jerry cans.

  26. Pingback: Terremoto Haití.Ayuda Humanitaria . Act 16 enero 2010 «

  27. Of all the dozens of news reports and opinions lately, this is the best I’ve read yet on the Haiti earthquake.
    And all the comments are right on, with only a couple clueless responses.

    One of my family went to Miami to assist FEMA. He is able to help from there without going to Haiti and getting in the way of rescue work. And one less mouth to feed there.

    A bit of positive news, from the Hands and Feet orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti: http://handsandfeetproject.org/home.php

  28. Thanks for this post. I agree with some of your points.

    The UN should start identifying places in each continent or region which could be a good place to set up their regional headquarters. Where logistics and supplies will be place in the particular area so that whenever there will be disasters things will be properly coordinated. And the distance from the disaster area would no longer be an issue.

    UN planes, helicopters and ships should also be stationed properly. I suggest that UN should invest more in technologies that will identify disaster prone areas in different parts of the globe. Plans and alternatives should be look into by every country in the world in order to at least minimize the damages of these disasters. I’m talking about proper zoning, urban planning and creating alternate ports and airports.

    We should not be very dependent to the US Gov’t. The International Community has a big role in providing aid to the poorest nations in the world. Each country should work close together to have disasters teams that will help other countries in times of big disasters.

    I know that UN also suffered in this tragedy and I would like to thank them for extending their services to the people of Haiti. God Bless the rescuers and the people of Haiti!

    Thanks Again!

    • Hi and thanks for sharing your thoughts. So you’re aware, the UN does extensive planning and prepositioning for emergencies. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has regional headquarters in all the major disaster-prone regions of the world- three in Africa, one in Dubai, one in Bangkok, and the one for Latin America and the Caribbean is in Panama. Likewise, UN agencies have logistics hubs and prepositioned supplies in various locations around the world, just like many of the other responding agencies globally. My organization has half a dozen on five continents. The problem is not distance from the disaster zone, the problem is the in-country logistics challenges such as the damaged seaport and the small airport. There’s days’ worth of aid backed up in airports throughout the Americas waiting to fly in, and which could be there in hours, but Haiti just doesn’t have the capacity to receive it right now.

      The UN actually has relatively limited resources in logistics. UNOCHA doesn’t have planes, boats and choppers at its disposal. The UN only receives what donor governments make available to it, and unfortunately many donor governments do not follow through on their financial commitments to the UN (the US currently owes about $850 million dollars to the UN against a total UN-owed debt of $920 million globally- click here for details). The World Food Program usually takes the lead on UN logistics and hardware (including ships, planes and helicopters), but the hardware is usually donated to specific responses. Likewise with peacekeeping operations, the planes and vehicles used are donated by member states to specific missions. The UN does not have a standing army nor does it have a huge fleet of vehicles waiting to roll out of the gates at a moment’s notice. It’s simply not that well resourced.

      Part of UNOCHA’s job is to identify high-risk zones around the world and plan for reducing that risk. There are detailed maps and surveys available for countries around the world, and most risky areas are well known. Planning for these risks however takes time, money and willpower. The poorer the country, the harder these things are to come by. The UN has no authority to tell any state in the world what to do. It is up to the governments of countries at risk to prioritize what risks they need to respond to, and take measures. Sadly, my experience is that most governments (not just Haiti’s) are far more interested in re-election than they are in investing heavily in a disaster which may never happen (such would have been the thinking about a massive earthquake in Port-au-Prince). You are of course right, however- proper urban planning could have prevented some of the death and destruction that the Haiti quake caused.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      • There actually were UN warehouses of food in the city, again, the problem is getting it out of collapsed, damaged buildings and then transporting it on impassable streets.

        On an unrelated note, your comment on the US is taken, however as a Yank, I must point out that our annual contribution is somewhere in the vicinity of 2 Billion a year or close to a quarter of the UN budget. The next closest country is Japan (Between 15 and 20% – exact numbers seem to be hard to find). The next highest is somewhat below 10%. This is not counting “voluntary contributions” or direct aid to member countries.

        Could/ should the US do better? Perhaps, but at the same time there are UN programs supporting things like abortion – or to use the preferred language reproductive rights, that I can not in good conscience support. OK … vent/rant mode off … I just could not let that go by.

  29. I can speak upon this as a sailor’s wife whose sailor was currently sent to Haiti on the USS Carter Hall. When I recieved the news that my husband and the rest of the sailors of the Carter Hall as well as 4 other ships were being sent for the Haiti disaster relief mission I can honestly say that I experienced anger. This anger wasn’t towards the Haitian’s but toward the fact that no matter what disaster happens US is the first to run to the rescue. In return when our natural disasters happen it seems that our own kind takes longer to respond.

    I know that the Carter Hall was given less than 24 hours to pack their bags, kiss their families goodbye and head on their way to pick up Marines in NC then inroute to Haiti. I can see where the Haitians have anger because of their loss but to be honest did they really loose much? Their buildings are not immaculate buildings as the ones destroyed in 911, their meals are not as appetizing as the ones that were destroyed in Katrina and their economy is not hurting as ours due to the “depression” the US are experiencing.

    My honest opinion is yes it is out of courtesy to run to their rescue and I am sure all who don’t have a family member who is told they have less then 24 hours to hug their family and get their seabag ready to go for disaster relief and hasn’t been told when their return date will be will agree that the help should be there sooner. Here in america… we have families loosing their homes to foreclosures because they lost their jobs, we have teen prositution, we have plants and businesses being closed down left and right, we have our own natural disasters, and we have built our own defense. I am sorry they may be a less fortunate country then us.

    I am one who refuses to donate money, food, supplies or my time because I have donated my husband.

    Have a WONDERFUL day all and stay blessed…please not only keep the haitians in prayers but the wonderful military men and women who were called to duty for this horrible disaster…

    • Hi Candace. Thanks so much for your honest and personal response. I respond as somebody who knows exactly what it’s like to have to deploy at short notice and say goodbye to loved ones (my most recent deployment, to the Philippines in October last year, came at 36 hours’ notice)- so you have both my sympathy, my empathy, and my appreciation for letting your husband travel to these places to help those who need assistance.

      I’d like to respond to a couple of your comments and questions if I may, because you raise very valid concerns.

      Yes, you’re right, sometimes the US is quicker responding to external needs than internal ones. I’m not particularly interested in defending the domestic response to Katrina- enough people have demonstrated convincingly that it was not well run. However vis-a-vis a military response like what we’re seeing to Haiti, the military is geared, is built around, rapid deployment. It’s what they do best, because ultimately they have to be ready to defend the nation at the drop of a hat. However, for very good reasons which relate to the protection of the sovereignty and rights of the American people (I write this as a non-American living a long way from the States) the government is not allowed to deploy the military domestically unless certain very strict criteria have been met and agreed to- hence long delays and many issues around how the response was managed. It’s a difficult balance- where the measures designed to protect the country on the one hand can also end up damaging it in some ways in the other.

      Have the Haitians really lost much? The answer is, they’ve lost everything. A home is a home. A family living in a trailer park in Arkansas which gets ripped away by a tornado experience every bit as much grief as a family living in hills behind Malibu whose mansion burns down in a wildfire- they lose memories, investment, photographs, posessions- the relative physical worth of the property matters far less than the emotional attachment and the uncertainty for the future that the loss of a home signifies. Likewise, the greatest loss of all is that of loved ones- parents, children, siblings, friends. That grief is shared the world over. The people of Haiti have suffered a terrible loss- as many as 200,000 may lie dead according to the latest estimates, and another 1.5 million homeless. Vast numbers which mean little to us a long way away. But in perspective, this earthquake is being considered as one of the top ten most destructive earthquakes in human history. The loss is immense.

      I appreciate the frustration you experience when you see suffering in your own community why investment should be poured into others. Ultimately your response to that question has to be based on your own perceptions of what is the extent of our responsibility to help the people we have access to is. For many, the answer to that question will be to help the people in their own neighbourhoods rather than those on the other side of the world, and I believe that’s a perfectly legitimate response- though I do believe that as people we do have an obligation to support other humans around us, whether near or far, when they are brought into our path. You are certainly doing that by letting your husband go.

      Like you, I generally do not donate financially to disasters (though I do occasionally) because as you’ve given your husband up for a time, so I give up my time. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable response, and in many ways a far more costly contribution on your part than giving up money. I hope you find grace and blessing in that giving process, and some peace in knowing that it’s certainly for a worthy cause. Thanks.

  30. I think that you have dealt with the subject of emergency relief provision to any place in general, and to Haiti in particular, in a very rational way. Thanks a lot for sharing such good views.
    I hope Haiti is able to overcome this heart rending catastrophe as soon as possible and with minimal further damage.

  31. I just want to know what someone like me can do. I have very little cash, but I could send some, I could give up smoking for a day and send that! I could skip a meal, and send that! My goodness, there IS something we can all do! My concern is where to send money. I am not ignorant of the fact that many charities and businesses profit from natural disasters. I don’t want to lend any resource to these organizations. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


    • Hi Syl and thanks for your comment. You’re right to want to give your money where it will make a difference and not get wasted. Try this post by a fellow aid-worker blogger J. who has written a little about this. Hope it’s helpful.

  32. There have been huge, metric ton containers in the ports of Haiti for years, filled with food to be distributed to a country that has lacked and needed aid for a long time…and the food sits there and rots because the government is rather corrupt and is very distracted from the needs of the citizens by its own needs.

    I think this is a time when certain organizations can help more than others. I am putting money and items towards the Red Cross, US military assistance programs (I’m in the US…makes sense 🙂 ) and specific Haitian organizations that my college has connections to. P: There are a lot of other aid attempts going on, by many many many organizations, and I do believe that a majority of them are going to be in vain. You can’t shove all this care in the world onto a teensy tiny country that had a slew of problems before this happened and expect it to work out well.

    • Thanks for your comment. You’re right, there have been lots of challenges delivering support to Haiti over the years- corruption and wastage have played a part, as have the very complex nature and roots of poverty in that country. Aid work has, of course, continued in various forms, and as aid work is wont, some of it has worked well, and some of it has not.

      The issue that is very apparent here is that the response in Haiti needs to be a long-term one. The capital- indeed the country- needs rebuilding. Fellow aid-worker blogger J. has put up some good posts on this topic and talks about the importance of donating to agencies which have a long-term commitment to the country. He also outlines some reputable agencies which have experience, capacity and commitment to get the job done and who are likely to have an impact.

      While you’re right that some agencies will probably not achieve that much, and while having too many little organizations running around can confuse things, by the same token the scope of the disaster is so huge that there’s no way just one or two major organizations will ever be able to respond to all of the needs. Even the UN operates by farming out project work to partner organizations, and in much smaller emergencies than this one.

      The key, as always, is going to be in good coordination. The UN in their consolidated Flash Appeal is requesting $575 million (this includes money for partner organizations like charities as well), which when compared with the rebuilding of an entire city, really isn’t very much money. There’s room for a lot more care to go into Haiti, and if it’s channelled well, it can acheive plenty. Don’t think for a moment that just because Haiti is in the news 24/7 this week, that it’s getting everything it needs. Two weeks from now, in the international media and in most people’s thoughts, Haiti will be an afterthought. Two weeks after that, almost forgotten. The needs however will last 5 years and longer.

      Of course that long-term response will require a focus on those longer-term problems. There is a principle that’s been touted for some time in international aid circles called ‘Build Back Better’- the notion that while helping a community recover from a disaster you try and improve on how things were before. It’s had mixed results, but if it can be succesfully applied here, then there’s hope that this slew of problems you refer to might be able to be mitigated in a positive way.

  33. thanks for your realistic analysis of the situation in Haiti. Wish you could get it out to more people!!! I just was informed that the reason aid is slow is because there is a corrupt government!-said he heard it on our news.! What malarky!

    • Isabel- yes, to say the government is corrupt is an unrealistic oversimplification. To be honest, right now, the government is barely there and has little or nothing to say in the matter. That will change as the country pulls itself back together again, and in future months corruption will possibly start being a problem, but right now the challenges are so massive I don’t think government corruption has any room to play a part at all.

  34. To overcome airport congestion and impassable roads, could helicopters land in clearings to distribute food, water, and medical supplies directly to the people?
    I understand there is at least one U.S. aircraft carrier offshore (which could assist these helicopters.)
    You mention helicopters operating out of the Dominican Republic limited by expense and availability. Would U.S. military helicopters be the solution, or are they already involved in these operations?

    • John- US helicopters are already doing drops (see footage on CNN of choppers getting swarmed)- but remember the volumes of aid we’re talking about. A deck-based chopper can only carry a few thousand pounds of cargo at a time at most, and one carrier only has a small fleet of choppers. We still come back to insufficient numbers and a really high cost to run aerial operations. It’s great that they’re being used as a stop-gap measure in the interim, but while highly visual and good for news footage, these airlifts won’t actually solve the problem, just act as a bandaid for a few thousand people. It would take a fleet of hundreds of helicopters to actually make a significant dent in a disaster on the scale of Haiti right now. But while other solutions are still being developed (opening access roads to the port and airport, and repairing port machinery), any assistance that these choppers can bring in is generally going to be a good thing.

  35. Pingback: Haitians … victims or survivors? What matters is how we are presented with facts | The Fountaineer

  36. I too admit to being troubled by the heading of the article. I’m glad you have balanced speed of aid and common sense. We all wish the aid could get there faster-donors don’t like to see their donated money sitting in a charity’s bank account gathering interest either, no matter how beneficial the charity.

  37. The Lord works in mysterious ways, we all see it differently, but God knows it all. There is no place to go from here but to hope and pray for the best, and for those that are there in Haiti to help.

    Haiti you are not forgotten. I pray for your rebirth, and better tomorrows.

  38. Its sad that the roadways are blocked like they are, and of the lack of equipment as well- But lucky that the runway was not damaged in the Earthquake- Shipping aid from the Dominican Republic would have been very problematic.

    What really makes me wonder about donations is the winter coats that are being donated. For now, id agree that funding the existing charities and newer relief operations would work best to actually aid the people.

    • Yes the fact that the runway can still receive aircraft is very important and will make a big difference. Aid will still come in from the Dominican Republic- the Logistics Cluster (interagency coordination group headed by the World Food Program) has identified both Santo Domingo and Barahona in southern DR as logistics hubs for air and sea, through which they will bring a variety of items and staff and transport overland into Haiti. It’s going to remain a complex operation.

      Regarding donations, I fully agree with you- funding organizations with experience and with staff on the ground is going to be a lot more beneficial for people in Haiti than sending ‘stuff’- much as the generosity and desire to help is a good thing. Providing ‘stuff’- like clothes, food and other life basics- is difficult to manage, expensive and bulky to transport, and is often inappropriate for the people on the ground. It’s an internationally accepted norm among relief agencies that second-hand clothing is not given to survivors of disasters. It is an affront to their dignity, and as a general rule, they don’t want it. This may sound counter-intuitive, but actually our image of a disaster survivor as being a desperate creature barely clinging to life and willing to accept the most fragile lifeline thrown to it is a fallacy.

      People have pride and dignity, and they have their own coping mechanisms. Friends of mine in Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake reported mountains of second-hand clothing discarded at roadsides of devastated villages after distributions because locals were offended by it. Likewise, Alex de Waal in his accounts of 1980s famines in the Horn of Africa reports on cases of people who actually died of starvation rather than sell their basic farming tools for food, because if they sold their tools, they would become ‘destitute’ with no way of recovering following the famine, and death was preferable. It’s an extreme example, but it’s essential to understand the importance that human pride and dignity plays in how people survive following a disaster.

  39. Interesting article. I’m trying to donate by asking people to leave messages of support on my blog, then £1 will be donated for each comment, but it all seems kind of useless. I keep saying it’s better than nothing because I strongly believe money shouldn’t be used as a band aid and is not the go to cure for situations such as these but what else can we do? It’s just such an awful situation that I wouldn’t wish on anyone

    • Thanks for your comment and your generosity. I hope you don’t see giving as useless- it makes a difference to people in those circumstances- and you’d be amazed too to know how touched people are in those situations when they learn that people around the world care about them and are giving to their situation- that spiritual/emotional boost is often of more value than the physical assistance itself.

      Giving aid in this situation is not so much a band-aid as a torniquet. Sure, it is a short-term emergency measure (to begin with- although agencies in Haiti need to be prepared and planning already for a multi-year response to help people rebuild their lives)- but you’re investing in saving people’s lives and bringing them comfort in the wake of tragedy. Those things will have impressions on a person’s soul that will last a life-time.

      Thanks again.

  40. Pingback: A little bit on Haiti « The Air Is Full of Spices

  41. Excellent well writen post.

    I agree with much of its thrust. However I keep getting the impression that the world is far more efficient at destrying nations through war than they are in responding to a disaster. Everything seems so slow and sluggish almost as if there is no such thing as a disaster plan.

  42. Gosh…with all the latest new technology these days, you would think that they could expect a more efficient rescue mission than this. Just goes to show, the world particularly the US are not as advanced as they claim to be.
    I dearly hope that Australia never experiences such horror….because if we do..we’re stuffed!

    • Hi Lynda & thanks for your comments. Indeed both helicopter and air-drops have now been used to deliver aid. Yesterday the US military suspended helicopter food deliveries because the drops triggered riots. You may have seen footage of people mobbing aircraft. A very upsetting sight. 15,000 rations were airdropped earlier today. The outcome of the drops has not yet been determined.

      Dropping relief supplies into an affected area without proper ground coordination is always problematic. It means that there is lack of information and people tend to panic. It means that the strongest fight to the front of the crowd and the weak don’t get fed. Without site security, violence often ensues. There are no guarantees that the people who most need food and water- children, the injured and the elderly- get anything at all. In short, the systems to safely and fairly distribute aid have to be in place before airdrops can be correctly and safely done. Humanitarian agencies follow a set of internationally agreed standards for the distribution of food aid, which are put in place for the protection of the people receiving the assistance.

      A note on water. Water is very heavy, and therefore very difficult to transport by air. International standards indicate that people receiving aid should get about 15 litres of clean water per person per day in ideal situations. In a life-threatening emergency, 2-3 litres is acceptable as a life-preserving minimum (more in warm climates). However water containers are not easily airdroppable, and at least require parachutes, or they burst on impact.

      There are 1.5 million people estimated to be affected by the earthquake. If we wanted to deliver their water needs, that’s about 3 million litres. Water weighs a kilo a litre. That’s about 3,000 metric tonnes. A C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft capable of airdrops carries about 18 metric tonnes. That’s around 170 flights. The US military has a total of 2,000 C-130s in their entire fleet, so in perspective 170 flights is a huge investment. If you translate that into helicopter flights which can take just a few hundred kilos of cargo each, the number increases massively. So as you can see, the sheer capacity of available aircraft to meet all the needs of the population is simply not there.

      Scaled back, of course, some small amounts of aid can be airdropped by helicopter, but this creates inequality in distribution, which leads to tension. There is still not enough information and coordination on the ground- due to chaotic people movements and blocked roads- to identify those people groups who are most at need, so compromises are made in airdrops and aid is delivered but not that well targeted. None of this is a great way to go about business.

      • Thank you for so clearly explaining all the giant bits and pieces involved in getting aid to the people.

        It is heartbreaking to see the slow trickle of aid to devastated people, when we can quickly deploy troops to fight wars.

        The news media would do us all a service if they reported news, instead of telling stories that either wrench our hearts or inflame our fears and biases.

  43. Thanks a lot for your article and detailed explaining.
    I believe and agree with the idea that no matter what attitude may be taken by the people in Haiti, aid should be delivered in our best efforts.
    Thanks again for your time.

  44. Thanks for putting into words the full story and for giving everyone an insight into not only the issue and the devestation, but the issue of the solution and how hard it is to implement it.

    I think personally it’s tragic that we have areas only 30km of Port-au-prince that are basicially starving and have no aid at all, they are waiting for someone to save them or worse case scenario, waiting for death to come.

    I have given support to this, but I agree that we can only hope that aid will with more staff coming into the area and more aid workers get out of the airport and to the people, and then hopefully to the outskirts before it’s too late.

    Really though, this is just a tragic case of events, and for us who live in our houses, with our internet and everyday luxuries, we should be extremely grateful for what we have and never complain as we are lucky, life could be so much worse.

  45. Last night, watching the BBC News I was absolutely horrified to see a soldier using a baton on one Haitian, felling him to the ground and then turning to stamp on the face of another Haitian already on the ground.

    The fact that he felt free to treat a fellow being with such hostility in front of the world’s media says much about (a) his attitude towards Haitians and (b) the likelihood that this treatment will be ignored by his senior officers.

    As a matter of interest, all these people being flown into Haiti – soldiers, ngo staff, visiting bigwigs et al: how are they being fed, watered, sheltered, provided with proper sanitation?
    Are we witnessing that well-known re-run of UN staff et al driving around in 4 x 4s, staying at top hotels while conducting tours of
    desperately poor countries?

    • Hi Claire,

      You raise a valid concern around both how security forces behave (which I shan’t comment on here) and how NGO workers behave (which I shall, just briefly).

      Big disaster inevitably breed aid cities. Nyala, Sudan. Vavuniya, Sri Lanka. Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Goma, DRC. Like it or loathe it (and let’s face it, most of us loathe it), it’s the way things are done right now. I’m all up for changing it if you can think of how.

      Our staff in Haiti are currently sleeping in tents on a border town with the Dominican Republic; I know because I’m watching the Facebook updates of my friends out there, and because I just sent another friend off with my sleeping-bag and mosquito net (together with a face-mask should she need to be in Port-au-Prince around the stench of dead bodies). When buildings are secured and safe sites found for a team-house, doubtless they will move into accomodation, which will eventually have running water, sanitation and staff to cook meals.

      I doubt they will be staying in any top hotels, as most of them were flattened. Indeed, most relief towns are fairly devoid of top hotels. Yangon in 2008 may have been an exception.

      I agree that it looks ugly, recognizing that a single expatriate aid worker uses several times the resources of an already resource-starved local person. White land cruisers are the most apparent manifestation- although as in many of these places, the reason 4x4s are used are because regular 2WD vehicles simply cannot access the needy populations. Currently true in many parts of quake-affected Haiti.

      I’d be interested to know what your alternatives are. No foreign aid workers? Let the Haitians take care of their own needs? Having been on coordination calls with other aid agencies in Haiti, I know that all organizations (like ours) that had a presence on the ground prior to the quake have had their local staff rendered largely incapacitated for the time being- most have lost homes and loved ones, and some have even been killed. Few are in a position to launch a response in such a complex context.

      Would you rather see foreign aid workers go out without good food, clean water, sanitation or shelter? What use are tired, hungry and sick aid workers? You might as well send them home. Send them out without four-wheel-drives so that they can’t access needy populations? Send them out without salaries, despite the fact that most have done four or more years of university study to be where they are, and trained for much of their lives. We could of course send volunteers. But how do volunteers develop the skill-sets necessary to manage such complex operations in such a context? Where do they learn about the professional standards (Sphere, Red Cross Code of Conduct, Do No Harm…), operational principles, coordination mechanisms, without investment in their professional development? Who pays for their time so that they can still keep a family?

      I’m not meaning to be harsh or sarcastic here. You raise a valid point, and I hope I raise a valid counter-point. Aid workers are costly, yes. But they give up a lot to be where they are. They leave behind lives, families, loved ones. They come to emotionally traumatic situations and witness the worst the world has to offer. They often risk their lives. And they put up with serious deprivations- physical, social, emotional, mental, spiritual. Is the worker worth their wage?

      That then is the real question. Without aid workers, does the aid get through? Not really. So, each aid worker is then in part responsible for bringing a certain value of aid with them to the population- ideally many times more than the resource cost of having them there.

      To be economical about it, what is the return on investment for these international aid workers, and at what point does their marginal utility begin to diminish (at which point we have enough).

      I would also like to point out that the idea of aid workers living it up in fancy hotels while people around them suffer is a bit of a myth. Sure, it happens. But it’s not the norm. My own experience: In Chad I spent several weeks sleeping on a camp-bed under a tree, overlooked by the local minaret which went off at 4.30 each morning to wake us up; in Niger I lived out of the Hotel Jangorzo in Maradi- a wretched block-concrete hovel close to the Nigerian border which I would inflict on nobody, before transfering to two different team-houses, the first of which was infested with insects, stricken by power-cuts and which flooded when it rained; In Darfur we were set up in a walled compound in airless concrete rooms, sharing tiled shower-blocks and washing from sinks in the open courtyard; in Sri Lanka our team-house was so overcrowded that men were sleeping in the corridors while in Southern Sudan we moved between fenced compounds set up with tents. Even when we do stay in hotels, it can be a lonely, dull existence. Most of the time, you’re working 12+ hours a day so you don’t use it as much more than a dormitory.

      I don’t complain- they’ve all been great experiences one way or another. But the cliche of aid workers occupying posh hotels, while holding some truth to it, is an easy and simplified fall-back which doesn’t at all reflect the general reality for most of us.

  46. I just wanted to say that this was a well written post and that even your comments to people are well thought out and written. I read this post several days ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’ve even told people all about it. Thank you for this great post.

    • Thanks for your kind and encouraging words- I’m glad the post caught your interest. I appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment.

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  49. I read this post when you first put it up. Good stuff!

    Just now getting through some of the comments threads – thanks so much for the shout-outs!


    • Bagelhead:

      1. Because they’re mine- no copyright required.

      2. Because a big part of this website is about me sharing the world I see around me through my own eyes, and through my photography.

      3. Because these pictures are evocative for me of the people I spent time with when I was in Haiti.

      4. Because these are pictures of real people whose lives will have been impacted by the earthquake and it recalls them to mind.

      5. Because we see enough destruction and depressing images of death and pain on the news media. I would rather present a space where people can read and contemplate with being confronted by violent imagery.

      6. Because I want to present something positive and hopeful alongside the very real tragedy out in Haiti right now.

      Hope that makes sense mate.

  50. BTW, if we are pressed with worry over the International aid workers, why not mobilize the religious missionary workers who have no qualms about working in hazardous conditions? (Some have been doing it for years in other underdeveloped places). Sending a crew of nuns and lay people with supplies and an armed guard might be very helpful. Especially in areas where elderly and aged are literally dying in the heat for lack of water and food.

    • Thanks Liras for your two messages and for your compassion. You’ll find that there are plenty of aid workers on the ground who are religiously motivated- including plenty of church organizations, be they priests and nuns, missionaries, or simply members of church congregations. Likewise many of the largest NGOs are based on principles of faith and employ people motivated by faith (such as myself). In addition, you’ll find plenty of aid workers who are in their element working in dangerous environments- take the long-termers in places like Somalia, Darfur or Afghanistan, all of which are far more dangerous than Haiti.

      The notion of using armed guards is discussed very well by my friend J. over on his blog Tales from the Hood. As you can see it’s a very controversial issue, whether for missionaries or aid workers.

      Likewise aid workers are not universally afraid of entering insecure areas. However riots, the risk of getting shot, beaten or kidnapped, or simply aid supplies getting robbed, are not things to be taken lightly. It’s not just about bravery and personal safety, but about delivering a successful aid program and about ensuring that the people who need the aid most receive it. Aid agencies (including mission agencies) have very good reasons for not wanting to associate directly with the military, even for security reasons, unless absolutely necessary. Most will do so only as a last resort. However if they try and deliver aid in an insecure place and haven’t managed the security angle (and there are many more creative ways to manage security than just sending in armed escorts), then violent people with guns or strength will confiscate the aid, disrupt assistance programs, and the most vulnerable are the ones who will lose out.

      Security is manageable through a variety of forms- including many that require no displays of force or weapons/armour. However whatever the context, insecurity will always take time to manage, as it involves a complex set of issues closely interelated which, if misunderstood or poorly managed, can escalate rather than diffuse a situation.

      (By the way- I haven’t yet met an aid worker or missionary yet who has ‘no qualms’ about working in hazardous conditions. People become complacent or blase, and some will even risk their lives unto death, as happens with both missionaries and aid workers, but none of them do it without first counting the cost and with a degree of fear and trembling. Many brothers and sisters in the aid and mission communities- myself included- know what it is like to look down the barrel of a hostile loaded gun while trying to help people in need, and it’s not something to be scoffed at twice.)

      • Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response. I have taken some time to read your links and other things about logistics.

        I do not take the danger lightly of what any assistance helper faces in a tumultuous and desperate situation such as the one facing the Haitians.

        Since the religious groups are active in impoverished countries, do they have an advantage in getting past the crowds to the most fragile at this time?

        My point is that those who are coming from religious-based organizations ( I mean priests and nuns specifically)and have made missionary work their focus are not as hesitant of going into danger, because the needs of the people are paramount to them. I know a priest that was kidnappped;once he was released, he went right back to helping the needy. I know sisters that volunteer to go into situations that most would not. Of course, there are many workers with spouses and children that do the same.

        That is not to belittle the workers of NGO’s or the dedicated members of any congregation. But some of the 1st people to arrive anywhere tend to be priests, ministers and nuns. That said, I wonder if the people in need are less likely to molest/harm them, when they are trying to get aid to a specific place, such as the Port-Au-Prince Municipal nursing home.

        Has it been your experience that the religious and clergy have a better rapport with citizens in times of extreme stress, than a person from Oxfam, for instance?

        As an active aid worker, I am sure you know a lot more about the day-today workings of these things. All I do is give money. I have volunteered in non-crisis situations.

        And it twists my heart in a knot to read about all the suffering. Especially of the elderly.

        I am not passing judgment on those who are angry at the pace of aid distribution for I cannot say I could watch an elderly person get water and I have not had any for days in a row. But I hope I could.

        Ad for armed guards…we will have to deal with that, for there are people who are well enough to take advantage. But they seem to be in a minority.

        I admire and applaud everyone involved on the ground in Haiti.

        Again, thanks for your time in posting and responding.

  51. This is good information, some of which I have heard in news reports. As I heard the news reports over the weekend regarding the aid distribution difficulties, I kept wondering why the aid wasn’t being transported through the D.R., and why cargo helicopters weren’t being used to distribute the aid to the affected areas. Now I hear this is being done. While I realize that getting the shipping containers and pallets to their destinations is the most economical solution, it doesn’t make much sense to wait to get the equipment and infrastructure in working order under these dire conditions. Open the shipping containers, break up the pallets and pitch the sacks over the side. Carry the supplies by donkey if necessary, if that’s what it takes to start getting the supplies where they are needed. We are looking at this situation through first world eyes, but the solution may be as simple as utilizing the able-bodied locals to carry one sack at a time, or in the case of the destroyed buildings, removing one brick at a time. This will also have the added benefit of involving the very people who need the aid in their own recovery. This might calm the anger, desperation and frustration and dispel the impression that aid is taking too long to arrive.

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  53. the ninth paragraph in your ‘Soulutions’ contains the non word ‘irregardless’. the prefix ir and re are redundant. the word is ‘regardless’. just saying.

    • While some might consider this a rather off-topic comment reflective of highly-focused attention to detail, I have decided to post it irregardless, as I feel it is quite an accolade that you read through nearly 2,000 words of first-draft waffle and only managed to find a single note-worthy abuse of the English language. 😀

  54. They found some ins and took over the very fine golf course with helicopters
    and tents to set up aid. Ha Ha But that green will never be the same. Tooo Bad….not….The orphanage can get prioiity. A hospital is now offshore. At least it is coming together faster than Louisana did. And that was much smaller of a disaster. Except for the water.

  55. This is a wonderful blog and more informative than any article or news report I’ve read because it details what the logistical difficulties are in getting aid where it needs to go. Morealtitude, are you permitted to tell us which Agency you work for?

    • Dapper One,

      Thanks for your lovely comment. I prefer not to talk about agency names, since this blog is my own and that gives me the freedom to express my opinions without tainting any particular organization. I trust you understand!


  56. I am in Uk and have avidly watched news reports, and like many, feel the frustration when I hear that aid has been slow to reach where needed. Only this morning the news reported that a French Aid Organisation, with a plane load of much needed medical equipment, has failed to land three times at port au Prince, and have had to waste 48-hours landing and unloading in Dominican Republic, to then have to find trucks to go cross-country/ies. The representative clearly stated that he had no explanation for why their plane was not permitted to land. It must be incredibly frustrating for all concerned who are trying to assist, and more so for those on the ground who need the supllies and assistance.

    However, from reading this article, I at least have a greater understanding of what the problems may be that are obstructing and inhibiting the arrival of the much needed aid.

    My concern is that media reports which present facts such as those which I heard this morning will potentially discourage those of us who can do little more than donate to the agencies involved. Human nature quickly leads to “Why should we bother – their own don’t seem to want to help.”

    I confess, I somewhat support such a view. In the aftermath of the Tsunami, I raised funds to sponsor two children in Phuket who had lost their wage-earners – thus the family was left destitute. My UK bank, hearing of the purpose for the transfer of money, waived the transfer fee. However, I later learned that by the time the money arrived in the childrens’ accounts in Thailand, there was a significant shortfall. Further investigation revealed that the money had been handled by three Thai banks on its way to the individual’s, all of whom had taken a fee for handling it and passing it on. As you can imagine – and herein part of the problem – when the recipient country fails to demonstrate the same rapid goodwill shown by those who rush to support, there is little wonder that anger and frustration soon builds up by those who have immediately dug deep into their pockets to assist in the only way that they can.

    I sincerely hope that what I have donated to the Haiti fund – the little that I could afford – has, and will, make a difference somewhere for someone whose life has been devastated.

    Once again I thank the writer of this article who has helped to give a perspective. I think it would be helpful if he/she could get some air time to explain the issues more publicly in order to ensure that the generosity and goodwill doesn’t dry up. As the article and responses state already, media coverage is selective, and doesn’t always provide a detailed picture.

    • Thanks Tina for your detailed and thought-out reply, and for your genuine interest and desire to help people in Haiti.

      Aid operations are desperately dependent on media reports, it’s very true, and when news stories (built around 10-second sound-bites) wash over the complexity of a situation to make it ‘digestable’ for an ADD-stricken public and turn it into a catchy subtitle, we very often end up with that exact situation- where the pubic becomes jaded and pulls back from giving. A sad reality that in our media-driven (and dependent) paradigm we are kind of stuck with.

      I’m sorry to hear that when you gave funds in the tsunami they didn’t get handled well- and my respect and appreciation to you for being willing to give again. Likewise I hope your donation goes through people that can make a difference for those who need it most, and that you, the giver, are also touched by the process.

      For your information, odd as it may sound, most reputable aid agencies do not transfer cash directly to affected families in the manner you are describing (i.e. depositing it into bank accounts)- most times the money is used to run assistance programs and purchase supplies and materials. ‘Direct benefits’ to individuals such as bank transfers are easily abused and lack transparency, may not be used well by recipients (e.g. if children are not in charge of their own accounts but the accounts are run by parents or guardians who might exploit them), and also breed resentment in communities where one or two children may receive donations but others miss out. Aid agencies that run child sponsorship programs, for example, will not focus on direct benefits but target the children, their families and their communities with a range of different types of assistance, which generally brings with it broader impact.

      An exception to the above is a new trend in aid work called ‘cash transfer’ (I say new- it’s been discussed and trialed for the better part of a decade). It involves distributing cash as opposed to food or relief goods, in contexts where markets are functioning well. It is thought to be a good option because it reduces cash loss to administration and procurement/logistics costs, because it gives dignity to the recipients, and because it gives recipients the opportunity to choose their own form of assistance. The downsides relate to the fact that it is open to abuse (if people choose, they can still go out and buy alcohol with the cash, not food for the family) and because it is hard to measure its impact (how do you tell a donor what the community did with their money? It’s hard to tell). Overall I like the direction it’s heading in- but it’s a very different prospect to transferring funds straight into somebody’s bank account.

      Not sure if that’s of any interest to you. :o)

      Anyways, thanks again for your comment. And regarding ‘air time’ in the public domain, this post I was lucky enough to get published as an editorial in one of Australia’s leading national newspapers this week, and three or four more editorials similar in nature in other papers around the country, as well as a string of news television interviews on behalf of my organization- so I got a little. :o)



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