On the Ground in Haiti
As the weeks since Jan. 12 have passed, the spotlight on the aftermath of the devastating Haiti earthquakes has begun to dim. Yet, the needs of the people affected by this tragedy are just as urgent as ever. Steve Haas is the vice president of World Vision, U.S., a branch of the relief and development organization that has been active in Haiti for over 30 years, and has much to say about the past, present and future of this people in peril.
Having worked in Haiti for so long, how would you describe the nation and the people who live there?
You’ve got a country whose average income is $520 a year. As you think about that, you say, “Wait a second, that’s less than $2 a day.” And that’s average. You’ve got a country that already is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere that sits in the shadow of the United States, and so the longings of a life that is not spent in abject poverty is certainly there. But then you’ve also got the largesse of kindness that is often distributed inappropriately. You’ve got a lot of dependency issues and people expecting to be rescued at some point from the situation they’re in. All of that [makes] working in Haiti very difficult.
But in some of my conversations before the earthquake took place, we were hearing of tremendous successes in the areas in which we were working; where people were really kind of reclaiming their area, where clean water was being instituted, where the education facilities and the way in which we were working with the local governments were getting kids a good education, where jobs were [becoming] sustainable. People were actually seeing their future brighten in a way that they had dreamed about. And I just have to tell you, as you see those positive trajectories beginning to happen, and then you see the devastation and human toll taken in this earthquake, it’s very unsettling.
What are the major needs of Haiti?
We tend to look at relief in terms of phases. What absolutely grabs your attention and hopefully motivates response is what we call our emergency phase. You’re going to see the distribution of food, non-food items, water, sanitation, hygiene, emergency health and nutritional issues, counseling, emergency shelter. The logistics and communication that are needed to begin to put these things into place and to build institutions around them are going to be supreme.
Then you’re going to see social community recovery. We realize kids have gotten the horrific brunt of this, in their separation from parents and the psychosocial trauma involved. So, you begin to see the need for child protection, social health protection, counseling and even trying to get them involved in some form of basic education so that things begin to be more normalized. And this can often go from six weeks to six months after a disaster.
And then, from about six months to 12 months after the disaster, we’re going to be actively working on small business recovery. You’ve got to get these people back to work. They can’t just be in this receiving fashion for too long because then you begin to create forms of dependency. Agricultural recovery is going to be needed, certainly within the urban area of business. All of that needs to be put back into right order. Alternative livelihoods need to be created for the population. These last two phases, as we think of them, are infrastructure rehabilitation. This is where you begin to get into things like permanent shelter, health infrastructure, telecommunications and transportation. These kinds of things can go on long after the disaster, but you still need funds for that.
What kind of cooperation have you seen between aid agencies there?
There’s been tremendous participation amongst different agencies. In fact, I don’t hear of any squabbling. The great difficulty right now is just the backlog of stuff, trying to get appropriate relief supplies into Haiti at this time. We’ve got to remember, there’s one runway into Port-au-Prince. And the backlog of relief supplies we need to get in is certainly extreme. And then you’ve got the roads as they are. They’re not made for a major distribution of resources. So you’ve got long hours, long wait times and still overwhelming numbers of people in trouble. Combine that and the concentration of complex structural change, loss of life and people who have been severely injured. This may be one of the more complex human disasters we’ve ever dealt with.
Where do we go from here?
When you have something that is overwhelming, I often relate it to bodysurfing. When you see a big wave coming, and you know you’re going to be obliterated by it, often you just duck. You dive into the wave, and the wave goes over you. There’s this sensation of having just let it pass. We don’t want to do that with this particular disaster. We want to be able to ride the information in such a way that we can actually do something appropriate at the appropriate time. If you don’t want to let this one go soft, and you want to make sure this is an issue that’s in front of you, then make a commitment right now that you’re going to go to these places where the information is being held, and that you’re going to make it a regular practice.
I know there are prayer gatherings all over the country, [people] coming together and just saying, “Hey, this is really important to me and I need to make this a center focus of what I’m about.” Well, God will honor that commitment as we continue to lay this before Him. We are often being told by those who are on the ground, “Will you pray for me?” The needs are great, and we know we have a Lord who takes care of us. And I think we can certainly do that, even if we’re not giving finances or resources. We can spiritually be in these peoples’ corner.
The original version of this article appears in the March/April 2010 issue of RELEVANT magazine, which can be viewed here. To learn more about World Vision’s work in Haiti, visit their website at WorldVision.org.