Is Haiti going to be the next humanitarian circus?

I am scared.

And horrified.

When I see the images on TV, I am horrified. Human tragedy is unbearable. I have never liked the way journalists dramatize a situation, yet this is a truly dramatic situation and we can only let them get on with it and try to ignore their banal comments and cheap attempts at dramatizing. Like everybody else who is watching TV these days, I wish I could be there to help. Don't we all?

But most of all, I am scared. Yes, I am afraid that much of the help that is going out to Haiti is arriving either too late or is doing little good as aid convoys clog up the few incoming routes. It's like having a lot of people rushing together to get through a narrow door with the result that they all jam up and no one gets through, or few do, and those who do get there late, when most of the tragedy has been consumed...

The images speak for themselves.

What on earth is going to happen next in Haiti? This is a fundamental question and it was drawn to my attention by a follower of this blog. He evoked Haiti as a new Alcatraz - a striking image if there ever was one, of a whole island emprisoned in its own tragedy. And he mentioned some of the calamities that has befallen Haiti in the past two hundred years since it became independant, from Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Cedras, Aristide, Voodoo to floods and now this earthquake.

Yes, it is the first country in Latin America to have proudly achieved independance from its colonial masters, but at what price! And unfortunately what has shaped its past is bound to determine its future. Of all the calamities that have befallen Haiti, surely one of the worst is the phenomenon known as the "Tonton Macoutes" - the local mafia -. And the Tonton Macoutes are bound to influence what is going to happen next. Over the medium-long run, i.e. one or two years from now, we may very well find Haiti has turned into another Somalia, a "non-state" lost in a turmoil of violence with no end in sight - instead of an integralist islamic nightmare like in Somalia, we will have a Voodoo hypnotized population in the hands of the Tonton Macoutes .

But in the immediate, there is something else that worries me. I'm convinced we are going to be treated to an absolute circus of human error as every humanitarian agency runs to the spot, in a perverse race to outdo the others in trying to be the first and best in offering aid.

And human error can be tragic.

We had an inkling of what's coming on CNN a couple of days ago. Something astonishing happened to one of their journalists, the famous field doctor Gupta. Remember him? He was offered the job of "Surgeon General" in the Obama government and turned it down, preferring no doubt his life as a reporter. He suddenly found himself in an impossible situation, alone with his crew in a field hospital in Port au Prince as the UN withdrew its doctor and nurses for "security reasons". Yet ambulances kept coming in, bringing the wounded to the deserted hospital! Gupta asked CNN for permission to stop transmitting and to be allowed to help as best he could with rapidly dwindling supplies of medecine left behind. I don't know what happened next to Gupta and I shall try to follow up on him today. But it does show the incredible stupidity of a bureaucratic set-up such as that of the UN.

So is the UN to blame? Unfortunately, Non-Governmental Organizations are hardly any better: they always try to attract media attention (a must for them if they are to survive because that is the only way they can obtain funding) - and attracting media attention is not really the objective of humanitarian aid, is it?

Some UN high official on TV (I don't remember who)ponderously announced that this would be the hardest humanitarian emergency to deal with - the hardest ever in UN history because all government structures had collapsed and entry routes were either blocked or hopelessly inadequate. That is surely a correct description of the situation but just about EVERY humanitarian emergency is like that! Local government structures collapse and help corridors are notoriously fragile and narrow...So why should Haiti be any different or harder to help than, say, the island of Aceh after the Tsunami? Was Aceh helped by the fact that it belonged to Indonesia? Hardly. It was politically a rebel, runaway area...Yet help did come, thanks in large part to international efforts, and today things in Aceh are looking up.

Why can't the same thing happen in Haiti?

There are basically two rather unrelated reasons why I fear things may turn out very different in Haiti and much more tragic.

First, the issue of AID COORDINATION. The image that comes to mind is the one I mentioned above: a narrow door jammed with people of good will, with the result that few get through. We all know Hell is paved with good intentions... Everyone is running to Haiti, Official Agencies and Non Governmentals of all sorts, and from all countries, primarily America and France, presumably for geo-political and historical reasons (Haiti was a French colony two hundred years ago).

WHY? WHY WASN'T THERE ANY INTERNATIONAL EFFORT AT COODINATING AID? Ok, the UN can lament the fact that this is a particularly difficult, confused situation but instead of lamentations, we would prefer to hear from the UN that it is ready to coordinate aid. What is needed desperately now is leadership to coordinate aid and avoid delays, overlaps and inefficient delivery of aid - not to mention the risk of running into ethical problems of giving too much to some while ignoring others.

I recall all the recent hype within the international community about "ONE United Nations", a series of ambitious overarching programmes and protocols to deliver support as one agency, in coordination with all UN agencies and their partners in civil society etc etc Fine, rousing words but where is the reality?

The reality is that when big countries like the USA or France loudly proclaim they are running to provide aid, the UN suddenly becomes MUTE!


When are we ever going to work together?

And now I'm coming to the second reason. In this mess, it is clear that Haiti has nowhere to go but collapse into violence. The Tonton Macoutes that had been (maybe) slowly coming under government control in recent years, are now ready to act again. The political void created by the earthquake is a golden opportunity for them.

So, as I said in opening this post, what we are going to witness next in Haiti is bound to be a most painful humanitarian circus...unless...

Unless the international community can PULL ITS ACT TOGETHER and provide well-coordinated aid in a stabilized environment. That ought to be the UN's job, but will America and France let it?