Looking to the future – rebuilding Haiti

By Barbara Stocking
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, January 20, 2010
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How do you put back together a place like Haiti? It was already a human disaster zone and has now been battered by the worst earthquake in 200 years – infrastructure and the state destroyed. Bizarrely, experience teaches me that the way to do this is by talking and listening.

Talking to all the agencies and governments that are trying their level best to help so that the aid effort is coordinated and reaches those places that can be so easily overlooked in the glare of the media.s spotlight.

And, more crucially, listening to those whose lives have been turned upside down by this catastrophe. They are best placed to know what they need. It is about doing aid with people rather than to people.

But talking and listening alone have never put a roof over people.s heads or food on the table. What has to go in tandem with this consultation is targeted swift action.

The first thing you need for good relief is to have a plan. That plan will be based around finding out how many people are in need and where they are. The next thing is what they are entitled to – not what charity can be bestowed upon them – but what rights they have to levels and quality of aid.

There are internationally-agreed relief standards, called SPHERE standards, which lay out the rules and regulations that all aid agencies should abide by – such as how much water people should get, what food and medical care they are entitled to.

For longer-term reconstruction, fundamental decisions need to be taken early on as to what life is going to be like for communities not just individuals. It is no good, as happened in Aceh after the 2005 tsunami, to say that everyone will have a house, if you don.t also think about building the roads and infrastructure that make a town.

Coordination of all these efforts is crucial and dependent upon strong leadership of the aid effort. An agency, preferably the national government, but if not then the UN, should be in charge of the plan and assign tasks. It should be strong enough to say "no" to efforts that are not in the best interest of the people affected.

During Southern Africa.s drought in the early 2000s governments did refuse GM maize seed as food aid. They insisted that the seeds must be milled into flour so as not to contaminate the nations maize crop.

These people are not beggars, they are choosers.

People are active citizens not passive victims. They want to take control of their lives and will not be sitting down twiddling their thumbs awaiting the aid effort to get into gear. There would be far fewer survivors if they were. It is striking to see that people in Port-au-Prince have already organized themselves in what may look like make-shift collection centers and temporary tarpaulian shelters.

At the moment, inevitably the focus is on the short-term relief effort but Haiti.s long-term future is at stake. Haiti is already mired with US$890m foreign debt and should not be further burdened. Aid should be given in grants not loans. Today.s aid life-line should not end up being tomorrow.s debt noose.

Barbara Stocking is Chief Executive of Oxfam.

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