January 12th 2010 saw the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere devastated by natural disaster. In the two years that have passed since this horrific day, people from all corners of the world went to Haiti to aid in the disaster relief and recovery efforts. Each person has a story to tell and their own experience from their time there. This is the story of Kelly Smith, a young English woman.
If truth be told, before Haiti was struck by the devastating earthquake I had never heard of this beautiful Caribbean country. However with the ever-advancing technological world that we live in, when disaster strikes it is only a matter of minutes before the world can watch the terror unfold. We all remember watching these images, and I like many others felt a compelling need to help. But what is the best way to help?
‘Donors gave a huge £106m to help people recover from the disaster which affected three million people. About 1.5 million people lost their homes, 300 000 were injured and about 220 000 died.’
The weeks and months that followed saw Haiti become less of a fixture in our media, yet it was images like these that remained in my mind. In the summer of 2010 – six months after the quake - I was given the opportunity to go and work in one of the worst affected areas, Leogane, a seaside town that was at the epicentre of the earthquake.
As excited as I was for the challenge that lay ahead of me I was also extremely apprehensive. I couldn’t help but think what do I have to offer? I have no relevant skills, I cannot build, I am not particularly strong and I have no medical skills. All I did have was the determination and drive to help. But was this enough? Well, All Hands, the organisation I was going to work with certainly thought so.
I had been to developing countries before but never to a country that had so recently been crippled by disaster; my perception of what Haiti would be like was completely different to reality. I envisaged entire areas, villages and towns to have been flattened. It was very harrowing travelling through Port-au-Prince expecting to see the entire city wiped out when in fact many buildings survived with little or no damage then right next door would lie a pancaked building. I found this much more disturbing and upsetting than I could ever have imagined.
The primary focus of All Hands was the removal of rubble and debris which was commonly known amongst the volunteers as “rubbling”. Rubbling enabled families to use the cleared land to erect temporary shelter rather than living in “tent city” before rebuilding their home; these shelters are the overcrowded roadside communities we had all become accustomed to seeing on the 6 o’clock news. It was clear to me that rubbling was the number one priority in Leogane, especially with the impending hurricane season, but unfortunately it did not take priority among the 50+ NGO’s who were based in the seaside town. Instead, setting up orphanages and schools seemed to be the “help” of preference for many organisations. But is this what the Haitians wanted or needed to aid them in their recovery and did anybody even stop to ask?
My experience in Haiti was certainly an eye opener to the field of post disaster relief. I have always been aware of the lack of accountability for international NGO’s but in my naivety
I didn’t think this would be the case in disaster zones. This raises the question: is all aid good aid – and it’s one of the reasons I’ve become a supporter of the Global Poverty Project.
I saw some amazing aid in Haiti, but I also some bad aid. I saw NGO’s competing without listening to what locals wanted or needed, I saw groups giving out goods that had been donated that just didn’t seem like priorities.
Despite this, with the help of international aid Haiti is making some amazing progress. There are many projects that are really making a difference. Working with and not for local communities; helping them to rebuild their lives, become stronger and more resilient. With the upcoming anniversary of the quake all eyes will once again be on Haiti. I hope this landmark will be used in a positive light; an opportunity to move forward and reflect on the progress that has been made.