Sunday, March 28, 2010
Right, so what do I do, then? I talk to people a lot, both inside the organisation and outside. Inside means not only the tribe in Haiti, but also Head Quarters, Regional Office, and representatives from many of the Save the Children organisations around the world, the so-called Members. All these members have their own agenda, there own slightly different focus, and thus want to see their own pet projects represented in the Haiti post-emergency program. Mmmmm. Luckily, I have a good buffer-department in HQ that filters many of the demands before they reach us in Haiti (I have to say this, because my buffer has discovered this blog, and I know she is reading it.... but really, it works very well).
I also spend a lot of time outside, in meetings within the UN cluster framework, and meetings of the Humanitarian Country Team, the heads of the seven biggest NGOs and the seven most important UN agencies. In doing so we all hope to be able to influence some of the inititives that are being taken, for instance with respect to relocation of people from the camps, or the strategy for food distribution I talked about earlier. Many of these meetings take place in what is called Logbase, the logistics hub of the UN near the Port-au-Prince airport. Quite a place! Some buildings already existed, set up by the MINUSTHA forces before the earthquake, but it has grown dramatically since, and is now stacked with porto-cabins, large meeting tents, hangers and warehouses, and make-shift offices for probably well over 2000 people. And apparently there is also a small liquor store, which I - I know it sounds incredulous - have not yet discovered.
And then there is the representation, of course - the description of which I will take off-line, for the time being.
In between all these internal, external and representational meetings I read my e-mails, and I spend time on the telephone. Given the quality of the local network, I have two telephones, hoping that at least one of them is working at any one time, and since a few weeks I have an American telephone number Blackberry - the most reliable connection, I must say. If my right leg vibrates, I have a local call, if my left leg vibrates I have received another email. To complete my communications set, I also walk around with a VHF handheld radio hanging from my belt. This is really only for internal use, calling cars and the like when we need to be picked up, and for security, but some of our staff have taken to this with gusto, and run around as full-time crisis managers, talking in their radios all the time. Toys for the boys, and for some of the girls, to be sure.
What else do I do? I keep other people from fighting (although, to be honest, I also initiate the occasional fight), I try to make our operations more efficient, more cost-effective, by trying to retain the oversight of what is a really complex set of activities, I try to make sure we have the right people in the right places, without too many gaps. And I try to make a start with this integration process that I talked about before. The earlier we prepare this organisation for the long haul that the rebuilding of Haiti is undoubtedly going to be, the better. Once that integration process is well under way, it will be time for me to leave again, I think, then I have done my job. And hopefully contributed somewhat.
Friday, March 26, 2010
(1, 2) a cash-for-work crew on the road to my office shifting rubble from one side of the road to the other; well protected against the self-generated dust, too!
(3, 4) this is more professional, building being demolished, and rubble being taken away by large trucks.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
What is important now is that it has started to rain, harder and more frequently. Cash-for-work crews are busy clearing drains, which in the best of times were already clogged up, and are now even fuller, with rubble and lots of other post-emergency traces - Styrofoam boxes and plastic bottles, I have pointed that out before. Whether this is going to sort any effect? We'll see. Most Haitians do not seem to be bothered too much by the prospect of rain, and have not shown yet any initiative to move out of the many unsustainable camps that exist right now, whether on the slopes of the Petionville Club or in muddy football pitches and parks. The biggest concern when it rains is still the hair. The hair? Right, in one way or another Haitian women find the time - and the money - to do something with their hair every few days, obviously very important. Molly, our cook, will have a different hair style every other day, almost. And thus are the streets, when it rains, full of women with shower caps on their heads, or just plastic bags, anything to keep the hair dry. It would be really terrible if they would have to get back to the hair dresser once again, now, wouldn't it? And I agree!
(1, 2) photos, once again, not very good, partly because of the rain, of course, but it illustrates what I just said above: protect the hair!
Monday, March 22, 2010
Not everybody is wildly enthusiastic about this approach. An often-heard criticism is that agencies forfeit their responsibility to design and implement recovery and rehabilitation projects, leaving it to the local population instead. I am not sure about that argument, I have often argued for making people decide themselves what they want to spent their money on, although admittedly there are limits here, too: individual decisions may not always be in the best interest of an entire society, or even a family. A bigger risk, especially because there appears to be little coordination among agencies other than agreeing on the payment levels, is that such cash-for-work approach fuels inflation by pumping enormous amounts of new money into the society. Haiti is a dual-currency economy, using both local Gourdes as well as US dollars, so even without printing money, considerable damage can be done. I am not an economist, but it would be good to create some sort of oversight for this type of programs, and some form of analysis into its impact. Surely, there must be some level of cash input that would start to do harm to the still fragile markets not yet sufficiently supplied.
photo: a particularly bad picture, taken through the car window, but it shows a typical cash-for-work crew, with distributed equipment including very uncomfortable boots and hardhats for no clear purpose - except for the T-shirts, most crews have conspicuous T-shirts telling the world who is paying these people. I will get some better photos, plenty of opportunities around.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
(1) long cues are lined up outside the distribution compound, and not necessarily everybody has a coupon that lets them in, but they will wait anyhow, for hours, just on the off-chance that something will be left over at the end - even though we have explained the system to them over and over again.
(4) after having received the food, people make their exit from the compound, helped by porters, to the street,
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
(1) second and third fairway, dominated by tent hazards (special rules apply), (2) close-up of the second hole, even without tents a challenge, (3) snacks being sold on the path to the tee off for hole four, and (4) the lady looking for her ball....?
(5) water hazards: I don't know how many tankers a day are being trucked to the camp to provide drinking water.
(6) and another water hazard: latrines
(7, 8) Save the Children clinic, built on the tee of the fifth, with plenty of patients still waiting for services from the two doctors on call, and four nurses. The clinic includes a pharmacy, and there is also a baby tent, providing advise for pregnant women and allowing mothers privacy with breast feeding - no luxury in this overcrowded camp!
(9) and even the tennis courts are being used, in this case by the American army.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Right. Saturday morning is clearly grooming day for the Haitian elite. The place was packed, every chair was occupied. I indicated that I was, uhhm, somewhat in a hurry, but that was no problem. A folding chair was quickly arranged, and put right in the middle, and there we go. The lady hairdresser was from the Dominican Republic, so I switched to Spanish, in which I think I can better explain how I want my hair to be cut then in French. Some minutes later somebody had found a more comfortable chair, which was carried from the back, one of the customers was, with her chair and all, moved to the side, and an extra place was created in front of the mirror. And I moved, with partly cut hair, with towels and robe, from folding chair to comfi chair.
But it was not me that was of interest. Had I already told you that I was the only man? The rest of the place was packed with women, clearly the local upper class. No other foreigners. Many of these women must have been here for hours already; some had curls set, others were carefully having their hair touched up, and from quite a few others I have no idea what was being done to them. No less than seven women were sitting under huge hair dryers, and several had their nails manicured while waiting. And all of that whilst at least half of the clientele was happily chatting in their mobile phones. They all seem to know each other, they are pretty familiar with the hairdressers, too, probably come here every Saturday. It was quite a scene, one that at least kept me awake during the entire session - I normally fall asleep halfway.
Of course with all that entertainment I forgot to keep an eye on what was happening to my own head. Afterwards, I in fact thought it was quite OK, short, fast, and for European standards pretty cheap: what else do I need? But the comments I received after I got back to the office - especially Gina, our Haitian administration manager, cannot stop giggling every time I walk into her office -, are such that I have now decided not to post a new photo of myself for the foreseeable future....
Maybe I should try to explain in French next time.
Friday, March 12, 2010
No more. The kidnapping of two foreign aid workers last Friday has changed the scene, likely for a while. It was bound to happen. Haiti has a long history of kidnappings for ransom. When we were here before, it was the rich Haitian families that were targeted by the gangs. There were kidnappings every month or so. Later, after we left, it became worse, and at the height of the kidnapping wave, in 2007, it is said that there were as many as five abductions per day (really!!, Columbia is peanuts compared to the worst of Haitian talents). This was not just the rich families anymore, there are not that many rich families. But, through concerted effort of police and MINUSTHA - the UN troops here -, kidnapping gangs were identified and arrested, and life returned to slightly more normal again. Hardened criminals were put in jail.
The earthquake did two things. It made the prison collapse, allowing many of those criminals to escape. I have often said that there were more criminals outside than inside the prison, but apparently police had been successful, and the great escape is indeed a major setback. The quake also mobilised lots of money, which is going to be invested in this country through the aid agencies. The new targets.
The two women were abducted close to their office, in Petionville, early evening. It could have happened to anybody. The attack appears to have been professionally conducted, armed, masked men, quickly got to the car after briefly blocking the road. Professionals, clearly. The ordeal for the poor women, who like many of us came to help Haiti get back on its feet, lasted almost a week, they were released last night, unharmed. No news about ransom: hopefully nothing has been paid, not to encourage others. The good thing was that the story has been kept out of the news for almost a week, not to jeopardize the negotiations. (Now Reuters carries it, and AP, AFP and the Wall Street Journal.)
The response of almost all big aid agencies was swift: reduce the risk to staff, bring curfew forward etc. No more dining out. No more loud American accents. The boom that could have been has been smothered in the narrow interest of the criminal gangs. Haitian business suffers. And aid agencies might well start to think twice about their operating in Haiti, about their enthusiasm to rebuilt this country. What if nobody wants to come anymore?
What started as an upbeat story has, unfortunately, turned into identifying yet another challenge to the recovery of Haiti.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Yours truly had been appointed senior disaster tour guide, which meant putting a program together, getting support from various staff members to buy-in to this program (i.e. ensure that people are present at school sites, or camp clinics, or meetings, presentations, other activities that were going to be visited), then changing the program to incorporate last-minute wishes, re-align the support from others as above, then changing the program back again to accommodate more last-minute wishes, and subsequently running the program against a tight time schedule. Key predictable unpredictables ("things we know we don't know") are airline delays and travel times on the ground - Port-au-Prince traffic is frequently blocked for prolonged periods of time. Key unpredictable unpredictables ("things we don't know that we don't know" - free after a former US Defense Secretary, who I now understand a lot better!) are the group dynamics of CEOs, the entirely different group dynamics of Board members, capricious changes in individual expectations, and unexpected last-minute cancellations from US Ambassadors, just hours after last-minute arrangements to include a visit to the US Ambassador.
Some of the objectives of such visits are, for instance, creating media material - essentially a video and photos of dignitaries interacting with earthquake-affected Haitian children -, which can then be used in interviews, and/or posted on the website of individual countries (check out the relevant Save website in your country). Or understanding the emergency response issues, and understanding our problems and challenges better; adding to these problems and challenges through their physical presence in-country seems a small price to pay. Or, my favourites, pep talks to the staff to show them the support the have from high-up in the organisation - really, most staff would much rather get on with their work, they have plenty to do.
However, before you mis-interpret my slight cynicism above, it has in fact been a fun exercise for most of the time: CEOs, VPs and Board members are all in fact very nice people, and invariably they are sharp - you don't have to explain much, you don't have to repeat yourself, and you can talk about grand visions, ideas, which I like. And most of them have a good sense of humour, too. Besides, by doing this well we have created some of the most powerful advocates for our efforts, and some very committed fundraisers. And then it suddenly becomes time well spent.