More Gauze, Less Guns

January 26, 2010

Kim Ives of Haiti Analysis has been in the town of Leogane, near the epicentre of Haiti’s earthquake and delivers a powerful indictment of the aid effort.

After describing how a helicopter landed at Leogane before immediately taking off and dropping a single bag of brown bread rolls, Ives allows local people to speak for themselves:

“This is a complete outrage,” said Alex Estimé, a young man who had spent the last week organizing his neighborhood to dig out bodies from the rubble of the town where an estimated 80% of the buildings have been destroyed. “This is pure humiliation. An earthquake is a misfortune which could befall any country. Would they treat other people like this? No. It is like they are throwing bones to dogs. We don’t want their stinking bread.”

…”This type of aid distribution is totally unacceptable,” said Max Mathurin, the former head of the Provisional Electoral Council that carried out the 2006 elections. Born and raised in Léogane, he was one of those meeting with the mayor.

“Over the past week, I petitioned repeatedly for a backhoe that could have helped excavate people from under rubble and saved lives,” he lamented. “I couldn’t even get something as simple as that from our government or the UN. That was the injury. Now this helicopter is the insult.”

Local people say that aid has been denied them based on vague security concerns. Presumably that accounts for the failure of the helicopter (which has been related to a Mormon charity) to stay. But these concerns are mythical:

“I don’t know what security they need to establish,” responded Roland St. Fort, 32, another one of the town’s neighborhood leaders. “There have been no riots here. The people have been very disciplined. They set up their own security around their outdoor camps.”

Ives suggests that Cuban medical teams offer a counterpoint to the UN and U.S. that could be learned from:

…many of the 500 Cuban doctors working in Haiti have fanned out throughout Port-au-Prince, particularly in the massive refugee camp that now covers the Champ de Mars, the downtown square. There they have set up small clinics, identified by a Cuban flag, to tend to the earthquake’s many victims. According to Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health, who is presently administering the HUEH, some 40,000 to 50,000 people living in the square benefit greatly from this aid. The Cuban doctors carry out their work, without having to be guarded by helmeted men with guns. “The Cuban doctors are an intense resource,” he said.

Clearly, the U.S. response to the  earthquake has been hopelessly militaristic. The Obama administration has focused far too much on security concerns and far too little on the three major issues for Haitians: food, medicine and housing.

The thinking has been that these concerns are best dealt with after security has been established. But the problem with that is that a) security by and large did not need establishing and b) adding more guns into the mix raises the potential for resistance and violence.

Hilary Clinton does not seem to agree with me, or the many voices who have criticized the U.S. strategy. Indeed, instead of responding rationally to such critics, she “resents” their carping about U.S. aid saying “We’re scrambling as quick as we could to do everything we needed in the past two weeks.”

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