By Jocelyn McCalla
I have been in communications with many friends and colleagues who naturally wanted to spring into action at the news that Haiti had indeed weathered great damage following the battering by tropical storms Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. As in 2004, Gonaives became a muddy lake that trapped more than 250,000 people in a deathly grip. Other areas to the south and north of the historic anchor – Gonaives is the city where Haiti was formally born as an independent nation – suffered greatly as well. Reading the news accounts communicated by major international dailies and the wire services, one could almost smell the stench, feel the horror and the despair, and the weight of a country that is certain to wither away without a herculean effort by its citizens and international allies.
But old habits die hard. So I have patiently explained to them the following which I will put to you, the reader, as succinctly as possible:
What not to do:
1. Use the occasion to get rid of used clothing
2. Purchase canned food and bottled water to deliver to some agency that foolishly accepts these donations
Why are these wrong-headed?
1. They will probably never get shipped to their destination
2. They will stress the resources of the agency that is handling these donations
3. Even if they get to their destination, they will not reach the people in distress in time to make a huge difference
What is the alternative?
1. Give cash to a professional relief organization that is involved in the relief efforts
2. Raise the profile of the emergency with:
a. Friends and relatives
b. Public and private sector leaders
3. Plan for the next stage when the spotlight is off of Haiti
Why is this alternative the best course of action?
Disaster relief is first and foremost a professional business. There is a whole industry devoted to disaster relief. They provide tents, bottled water, protein-packed food, blankets, cots, etc… They can get planes, trains and helicopters moving very quickly. They have a good line of credit or the capital to use in an emergency. The International Red Cross’ estimate of $4 million needed to provide assistance to 10,000 Haitian families is based on a professional survey and knowledge of the needs in such emergencies. Since it already has the capital to fund the emergency operation or can quickly borrow that sum of money through a standing line of credit, it can deploy its people quickly and deliver the assistance almost immediately. But if it keeps spending without bringing in revenues, it will go bankrupt. This is where the individual giving comes in.
This said, when you are directly affected (either via family or friends or simply love of country) you want to do something directly instead of through proxies. You may fear that these agencies will not care as much as you do, and that they will not intervene in the areas where you believe they should. For instance, since much press attention is focused on Gonaives, the Southeast is not getting the attention that it deserves. Same thing with the Central Plateau whose capital Hinche bore witness to the amount of water that the rains dropped on Haiti since, to anyone’s recollection, it seems that this was the very first time one could see houses completely submerged by water.
You need to take a deep breath and hunker down for the long run: after the immediate emergency is past and Haiti returns to its chronic emergency state, that is when sustained engagement from you will really matter, along the lines of the Cuny principles (see www.jmcstrategies.com).
Ideally, a permanent relief fund should be set up by Haitians in the Diaspora, with the goal that it is as well managed as the Red Cross or OXFAM. Specializing in disaster relief, it could be set up to be the communication lifeline between Haiti and Diasporas abroad, the coordinator of volunteer citizen relief assistance, if folks wish to volunteer 2-3 months or more helping in the rebuilding phase, the repository of the skills base that is available in times of emergency, etc…
I am pleased to report that the following campaign has been launched in NY. It is self-explanatory so I won’t bother with the details. I do hope that it will be emulated across the board by Haitians who are sick and tired of being sick and tired of doing business as usual.