Help still slow to reach some victims

Monday, February 1, 2010 – Globe and Mail

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Marnity Buisson stands, arms akimbo, on pebbled dirt between stacks of bedsheets and a ravine that’s become an open sewer and fly-infested garbage pit.

This is her turf. The house she grew up in is reduced to bits of stone and concrete; her neighbourhood is in smithereens.

In an attempt to take control of the area where she has spent all her life, the 22-year-old joined a seven-member committee struck to oversee the welfare of 75 families living under tarps and sleeping on the ground in this Martissant alley.

In tent cities, refugee camps, mattress-filled streets and courtyards-turned-living rooms across Port-au-Prince, survivors are forming their own organizing committees to provide advocacy, security and co-ordination. Some of them have issued sporadic press releases, following their federal government’s lead in holding news conferences.

Ms. Buisson’s committee has a roll call of each household and its members. Those on the committee meet three times weekly and have taken it upon themselves, as residents of their self-declared “zone,” to decide how to distribute aid among some 375 people.

Except there hasn’t been any. Aid, that is.

“We’ve seen nothing, no one. They don’t come here,” said Ms. Buisson. She counts on once-manicured nails the items on her community’s wish list: food, tents, water, medicine, insect repellent.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme dramatically revamped its aid distribution on the weekend, after weeks of chaos in which food and water were doled out to crowds that often turned into shoving, shouting mobs. The scale of urban devastation after the 7.0 earthquake that shattered Haiti on Jan. 12 has been an unprecedented challenge for the international agency at the forefront of aid co-ordination.

“It’s the most complex situation we’ve ever faced,” said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the World Food Programme. “[At first] we had to do everything we could, to put as much food out to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. … But instead of using mobile, quick-and-dirty methods, we need a more organized response.”

The new system replaces those quick-and-dirty convoys with 16 fixed sites across Port-au-Prince, each meant to provide rice for 10,000 people a day. With more than a million people fed each week, the UN would come much closer to a target it has yet to reach. Although Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had pledged to provide food for one million people by last Friday, only 600,000 had been fed by then.

The food agency reported it served more than 100,000 people yesterday, with nine of the 16 new sites in operation.

The international community’s monetary response to the emergency recovery has been significant: As of Friday, the UN and its affiliated organizations had received more than $470 million, with U.S. government contributions leading at more than $114-million, and the Canadian government second at more than $57-million.

But delivering the aid has been another story altogether: The devastation of Port-au-Prince’s dense urban landscape has presented problems that aid agencies aren’t used to dealing with. Humanitarian workers are accustomed to providing aid in more sparsely populated, rural spaces.

“We need to have more stable and robust distribution methods in place,” Mr. Prior said.

And the World Food Programme is using people like Ms. Buisson to achieve this goal. These self-appointed community leaders have established ties to the people that aid agencies are trying so desperately to reach, and they tend to know which needs are greatest, say aid workers.

UN convoys rolled out at dawn yesterday, flanked by black-and-white trucks carrying armed, blue-helmeted troops. The usual stampede immediately followed the rice-filled trucks. But by 7 a.m., there was an orderly line snaking down the hill from one site near Place Jérémie. The hundreds of people were all female, all brandishing the plain paper coupons that had been handed out the day before.

The hulking white trucks at yesterday’s pilot sites were emptied of their cargo by mid-morning as lines wound around streets and public squares. Women left bent under the weight of 25-kilogram sacks of food.

Ms. Buisson’s neighbourhood was not one of the lucky ones, though. And by last night, she had still heard nothing about forthcoming aid.

“But I’m meeting with my committee,” she said. “We’ll work something out.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s