The Spirit that will heal Haiti

As I write this article $2 million dollars worth of medical supplies is on its way to help the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti. Our partners on the ground are running a drop-in clinic, they are looking after the homeless, distributing food and safe water and helping in any other way possible.

The earthquake in Haiti is one of the most severe that World Emergency Relief has ever dealt with. The death toll is now estimated to be over 200,000 and everybody in the earthquake zone has been traumatically affected.

Not being one of the giant charities WER is forced to make what at times are difficult choices. In a crisis on the scale of the earthquake in Haiti what is the best way to make use of limited resources? If we were to purchase one meal for everyone affected that would use our entire relief fund. The victims would go to bed tonight on a full stomach, but what would happen to them tomorrow, or next week?

Of course there are a multitude of agencies at work in Haiti so the choice is not quiet this stark but it is not that far removed either. Huge pledges have been made by governments and aid agencies alike but how this aid is deployed has the potential to decide the destiny of Haiti for a generation.

The sad truth is that living conditions in Port au Prince and the surrounding slums, Cite Soleil, were desperate even before the earthquake.

I first visited Haiti in 1981 and back then I was shocked by what I encountered. The slums of Cite Soleil were truly amongst the worst I have ever seen. The streets were filled with rubbish and sewage; filthy stinking water flowed freely everywhere. Housing for most people was little more than a shack. Many people could barely scrape together enough money for food and in some cases they were even resorting to eating mud cakes to stave off hunger pains.

I have been back twice since and the conditions for most have not improved at all. The one positive has been to see the growth of community and church groups that have sought to address the problems caused by abject poverty. Feeding programmes, homes for the disabled, education for slum children, each time I went back I could see how local people, giving up on their government, were taking action for themselves.

The physical spaces that these groups occupied have now been destroyed and many lives lost in the communities they support but the spirit of mutual support lives on.

The rebuilding in Haiti will be a long process but the objective should not simply be to return places such as Cite Soleil to their former state. Instead we must work to renew Cite Soleil and Port au Prince and encourage the development of a place and spirit that offers a better future for its inhabitants.

The key to achieving this will be to support projects that will bring long-term sustainable benefit to local people. Medical centres will obviously be a first priority but in quick succession aid agencies must also look at securing safe water supplies to the slums, improving housing and at long-term support for schools that are accessible to even the poorest students.

In addition to choosing the right projects it is also vitally important that beneficiary organisations are locally staffed and run. Through funding the same kind of community led initiatives that have been the sole source of progress in the past, aid agencies have a unique opportunity to encourage the growth and strengthening of these initiatives through making them the principle means for rebuilding the devastated region.

It is not the job of aid agencies to run countries and this is true in Haiti as much as it is anywhere. However aid agencies can, should and do influence the future of the regions that they work in. They do this best by providing ordinary people with the resources both real and mental that will allow them to build a better future.

This is why WER is not just shipping aid in the form of medicines and food, we are also allocating funds to rebuild local community facilities such as schools, farming projects and income generating programmes. If you are considering donating to a Haiti Appeal I urge you to make sure that the charity you support, and I hope that it is WER, is doing the same.

Harry Covert is Chair of World Emergency Relief and also founder of US NGO Ripples of Hope.