Answers from aid workers about Haiti

Today is the two-year anniversary of the massive earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, leaving the nation in ruins and triggering an international relief response. In the time since, aid workers and relief organizations have experienced an unprecedented level of scrutiny surrounding the response: What is really happening there? Are donations going to good use? Is there hope?

To gain some insight into these matters, we hosted an open mic for questions about Haiti this past week. Your submissions have been collected for responses from World Vision aid workers who have been focused on the relief efforts in Haiti -- Jeff Wright and Liz Ranade-Janis. Jeff and Liz were deployed to Haiti following the 2010 quake to coordinate and oversee World Vision relief programs there. Their extensive experience and expertise makes them a valuable resource in our understanding of humanitarian and emergency affairs.

Read Thursday's opening post: Ask an aid worker about Haiti

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FROM ALICE GORDON (blog reader): My main concern for Haiti is the state of Haitian leadership, motivation, and enterprise. Are there concerned and able leaders among the people themselves, or are almost all recovery efforts and support coming from the outside? I have always felt that Haiti's main problem is a vacuum in leadership with integrity. Is this true?

It turns out there are politicians in every country who struggle with integrity issues! But yes, lack of political leadership has proven a huge detriment to Haiti’s progress for some time, pre-earthquake as well. In his inaugural address, Haitian President Michel Martelly committed to free education for all in Haiti. Although this is enshrined in the Haitian Constitution, delivering on the promise with a pace that satisfies the public will be one of his greatest challenges. President Martelly has also committed to begin relocating Haitians from six camps back to 16 existing communities; he promised to begin this process within his first 100 days in office.

World Vision supports the new administration's commitment to address the underlying causes of long-term underdevelopment in Haiti, while ensuring attention is also focused on developing a humane strategy for relocating Haitian families from camps to communities.

FROM SHERI HAGGERTY-SMITH (Facebook supporter): How many people are still without reliable shelter? What can I do from home that could help?

At this point, about 500,000 people remain in camps, meaning they continue to live primarily in tents or tarp-covered structures. In general, organizations that were in Haiti prior to the earthquake, such as World Vision, are transitioning from camp-focused work to community-based work, with the goal of successfully transitioning people out of the camps. Finding a reputable organization through resources such as Charity Navigator and making a donation is one of the best ways to help.

FROM ANTJE SPADE (Facebook supporter): There were many concerns in U.S. donors' minds about aid not getting to where it's needed, due to corrupt government. Have these fears proved right or wrong?

The most truthful answer to this is probably that sometimes, cooperation is great, and other times, it's less great. Regardless, World Vision works with local government officials to ensure buy-in of our programming. For example, in communities where we built shelters, we would meet with community members and local mayors to consult on and receive approval for our shelter plans -- everything from design to location to determining who receives them.

I heard a professor give a statistic the other day that only 1 percent of all aid to the earthquake relief actually went directly to the government of Haiti; the rest went through humanitarian agencies operating in Haiti. This is good in one sense -- but the government of Haiti must be an empowered, accountable entity if the country is ever going to “get better.”

FROM KIMBERLY (blog reader): I went to Haiti this past summer, and I am wondering what other organizations are good ones to go over with?

FROM AUSTIN KAMINAH (Facebook supporter): Is there enough manpower to rebuild, or are you facing challenges? How can I volunteer for international humanitarian missions like that one in Haiti?

Kimberly and Austin, we commend the desire to help! In a disaster, the best people to help on the ground are those with appropriate skills and training for disaster response, those who understand the language and the context of the particular disaster, and those who have the professional training and experience to work in a disaster setting. However, if you have relevant skills and experience, there are a number of organizations who take short-term employees for a variety of positions. We might recommend checking out the short-term postings on a site such as Devex or Idealist.

FROM TERESA MORRISON RABY (Facebook supporter): I heard early on that a lot of the aid was held up in "customs," etc., and wasn't actually getting to the people. Is this still the case? Is the aid getting to the people?

Two years later, customs is no longer such a dominant issue hindering the timely delivery of aid, because the urgency and volume are not at the same levels as the early days after the earthquake. Aid is getting to people. But you are correct: Early on, the customs/port issues were significant and impacted the delivery of aid from many organizations, including World Vision. The presence of the U.S. military made an incredibly positive difference in the flow of needed aid materials to Port-au-Prince, but after the military pulled out in March 2010, the delays were significant for some time.

FROM MACON (blog reader): What are ways you have made your immediate relief aid projects sustainable so that they will continue to help Haiti in the future?

Sustainability is, of course, an essential component of effective aid. It’s a little complicated in the case of emergency disaster relief, because, a lot of the time, the programs that are urgently needed are not intended to be, nor should be, “sustainable” over the long haul.

For example, cash for work (i.e., paying people to clear rubble) simply existed to help give direly-needed cash infusions to Haitians whose livelihoods were destroyed. People need money to meet basic survival needs. But over the long run, those interventions transition into long-term livelihood activities to help connect people to markets in a more sustainable way. Part of what makes any intervention sustainable is engaging the community you are working with to ensure they have ownership and buy-in.

FROM JONATHAN (blog reader): I'm a World Vision staff member, but haven't seen our work in the field. I'm wondering how different organizations work together in Haiti. How do we collaborate? Who decides who works where?

Excellent question! World Vision actively engages several coordinating bodies in our relief efforts. We also adhere to the coordinating mechanisms and professional standards set by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). World Vision is an active member of -- and, in some cases, leader in -- the inter-agency “cluster” system, a grouping of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other aid organizations that work to improve information management, coordination of activities, and response standards and practices. (This came into existence based on the lessons learned during the 2004 Asian tsunami response.) There are eleven clusters within the system: protection; camp coordination and management; water, sanitation, and hygiene; health; emergency shelter; nutrition; emergency telecommunications; logistics; education; agriculture; and early recovery.

Additionally, partnerships with local and international organizations have ensured the provision of locally appropriate services to target communities. World Vision partners with many local Haitian organizations, as well as the United Nations and international humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, the American Red Cross, Handicap International, and Samaritan’s Purse. Ongoing coordination with the government is also a priority.

FROM JIM HENDRICKSON (blog reader): Is there any effort to reuse the rubble? Test and use sturdy pieces as bricks, reuse iron rods as rebar?

That’s a great question, Jim. One would think that material could at least be used for various purposes of rebuilding. Most engineers we have worked with have determined that the quality of the building materials in the rubble -- the concrete in particular -- was of such poor quality that reuse was, by and large, not an option. However, many organizations have been working with donors (such as the U.S. government) specifically to try to salvage certain types of rubble where possible.

FROM TR SHIVELY (blog reader): Could there be an impact benefit to this with a small/portable water purification unit? Also, do you know anything about when the country will be looking at the new adoption laws?

Absolutely. The use of small water purification units is a part of our broader water, sanitation, and hygiene strategy in Haiti. In the first year of the response, we primarily used water trucking in the camps, but a broad range of strategies is now used.

Child protection and well-being continues to be a major issue of concern to World Vision. Many children were separated from their families during the earthquake and its immediate aftermath, leaving them especially vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation. World Vision has actively promoted reunification of families through our family tracing and reunification program. When it’s impossible to reunite families, we seek carefully selected foster families for displaced children. International adoption is a complex issue that may or may not be in the best interests of the child.

FROM MERCEDES MARCANO (blog reader): What are the conditions there? Have they improved or gotten worse? What steps are being taken to help the country get back on its feet?

FROM CINDY (blog reader): I was wondering how the rubble removal efforts are coming?

Mercedes and Cindy, we’ll answer your questions together because they are similar, and you’re both, more or less, asking the multibillion-dollar question!

Haiti is an incredibly complex environment. Certainly, some things have gotten better. Of the 1.5 million displaced persons, two-thirds of them are no longer living in camps and have found permanent shelter. But, of course, that leaves a little more than 500,000 people who still live in camps, two years later. This is not sustainable. Cholera created an extra-complicated situation that set back progress a little further.

On the flip side, there is much less rubble than there used to be (approximately 50 percent less -- an estimated 5 million cubic meters of rubble has been removed). We are actively advocating for a nationwide shelter and long-term housing plan, and for a reconstruction strategy that prioritizes the needs and participation of children in the planning process. For more information, please see World Vision’s full two-year report (pdf).

FROM SAMANTHA (blog reader): I was wondering what are some of the biggest problems that Haiti faces today, and what can be done to address them?

In many ways, the needs are vast, but some of the biggest issues are long-term housing and infrastructure planning, jobs, governance, and land/property rights. All of these issues are very inter-related, which makes it all the more complex.

For example, you can’t resettle people into permanent homes without determining who owns the land and how to sell that land legally to people. And you can’t settle property rights without having a functional justice system in place. I don’t personally envy the monumental job in front of President Martelly, but sincerely hope his administration is able to work through these issues for the well-being of his impoverished citizens.

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Help us keep the conversation alive. We believe one of the best things we can do to better understand humanitarian aid is ask questions, converse back and forth with aid professionals, and educate one another. If you have more questions for Liz and Jeff, please submit them in the comments section below. Thanks for participating!

Read related posts about the two-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake: Haiti will never be a lost cause, Do you let the media influence you?, and From heartbreak to hope in Haiti: Two years in photos.


    My first sponsored child was from Haiti and ever since I have prayed that he survived this tragic earthquake. I was never able to find out because the death toll was so high. Is there any way to find out such information today?

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