On being berated for not doing enough

A letter by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator John Holmes was leaked to the Washington Post.

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations’ top humanitarian relief coordinator has scolded his lieutenants for failing to adequately manage the relief effort in Haiti, saying that an uneven response in the month after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake has undercut confidence in the world body’s ability to deliver vital assistance, according to a confidential e-mail.

Well, so be it.

No doubt many things could have been done better. For example, it would be better if so many emergency workers didn’t only come for two weeks. I understand everyone has lives, family, friends etc, but this constant throughflow of people really does make it difficult to get things going.

But I wanted to comment on what was not in the article. (And this is no reflection on Colum, who wrote an entirely fair story based on the Holmes letter. And this is in a purely personal capacity, no reflection of my organisation).

A lot of UN people died here. We were decimated.

This is not even mentioned any more.

For the first week, everyone was running around shellshocked, with no working communications.

We lost friends, partners and children. Families were ripped apart.

We were victims. Yet we have not been allowed any time to grieve, to cope with our loss. We are not considered victims, despite our lives being traumatically disrupted. Would have been worth a mention, I would have thought.

And people gloss over “logistical difficulties” as though it is a mealy mouthed excuse.

It is not. Haiti is a very poor country with very limited infrastructure that has just suffered a catastrophic earthquake, disrupting social systems, disrupting all governance, leaving roads clogged with traffic, rubble everywhere; with a road from the DR that floods, a small airport and a half-broken port. This isn’t just a logistical difficulty – this is a herculean challenge. Why is it so hard to get this message across?

It is as though one month after the world’s largest natural disaster we are expected to have reversed two hundred years of stunted development.

Have you ever tried adding a garage to the side of your house? How long did that take? Getting the planning permission, desgning the garage, contracting the builders etc etc. In the richest countries of the world, with working government and infrastucture, from start to finish how long would that take? A couple of months?

In Haiti, an entire capital city has to be rebuilt, with no infrastructure. With the rains now falling. With a hurricane on the way. With regular aftershocks and a new earthquake expected. While we all live in tents ourselves, moving around constantly, operating on very little sleep.

I am not saying don’t criticise where criticism is due. We must always search for better systems. It is important to recognise shortfalls.

But a little empathy would also be a nice thing.


16 responses to “On being berated for not doing enough

  1. Amen.
    excellent post.

  2. Mark – your posts are invaluable in providing a window on the reality in Haiti. You’re all doing an amazing job. Keep up the good work.

  3. good job mark, I particularly like your garage reference. my view is that the press is often lazy and irresponsible on these matters. they stick to an easy and superficial analysis of what has happened, and blame the UN without looking at WHY the UN (and other organizations) are not getting the job done. be it politics, logistics, money (which is often pledged but not delivered, certainly not in a timely fashion). will share your post

  4. I like your garage reference too. It’s always easy to judge from a distance. You guys and everyone there are working really hard and making a difference…

  5. I don’t think the criticism was of the UN people who were actually working in Haiti at the time of the EQ but rather at those who came in to help. It is as if neither the Red Cross, Hdqtrs of UN, WHO, etc had no plan in place for a major disaster. It is time that they all learned from the past. I realize that the magnitude of this earthquake is greater than anything in the past, but some logistics at the ready by these large organizations would have meant that more could have been helped within first week. After 5 weeks, they have finally come up with a plan for shelter–this could have and should have been done 3 weeks ago.

    If what I have witnessed in getting aid to the victims of this disaster is the best that the large groups can do maybe it is time for grassroots organizations to take over disaster relief.

  6. Empathy, sympathy and immense admiration … you have all.

    Another good analogy it would seem as I learn more and more about the history of Haiti and its people and what is now needed to be done, would be one of trying to climb a large mountain of gravel ~ that continues to just fall apart as you try to go up because there is no solid foundation.

    I hope for you, for all trying to help, and most of all for the people of Haiti … that somehow a foundation for the country – based in the empowerment of the Haitian people themselves achieved through a fair and just democratic process – can somehow emerge from this tragedy … yet another in a long line for this poor country.

    Do not be discouraged by the words of those who cannot see from the gut-wrenching reality that you do and have. The fact that through YOUR words here, we are given the perspective we are, is an important gift you offer. Thank you.

  7. Has John Holmes as yet visited Haiti as part of his role as Emergency Relief Coordinator?

    Appreciation and empathy would certainly help. A great deal has been accomplished in a country that even in the best of times clings to life.

  8. Mark,

    You and your colleagues do have my support, appreciation and admiration. And that of lots of us out here.

    You also have my empathy. It seems to be in the nature of things that the humanitarians are not “permitted” to be real people and in this day and age of YOYO not believed to have genuine intentions.

    Thank You Thank You

  9. You and all those working so hard in Haiti definitely have my empathy and support. It is a daunting task as you so clearly laid out and I for one am amazed at the hard work and effort going into it. You also have my condolences for all those that you or other workers have lost in the tragic event and I know that you all will continue to do your best and I am grateful for that.

  10. madame bavardages

    The first visit of a french President since the independence in 1804. Yesterday , Sarkozy went to Haïti for 4 hours…4 hours! I guess after this visit will leave the island and we (the french audience) won’t hear about anything unless another catastrophe happens. That’s a shame.
    You are totally right about the lack of empathy after such a traumatic experience.
    Anyway I’m glad I’ve found this blog, keep us informed and “bon courage”

  11. madame bavardages

    The first visit of a french President since the independence in 1804. Yesterday , Sarkozy went to Haïti for 4 hours…4 hours! I guess after this visit major french media will leave the island and we (the french audience) won’t hear about anything unless another catastrophe happens. That’s a shame.
    You are totally right about the lack of empathy after such a traumatic experience.
    Anyway I’m glad I’ve found this blog, keep us informed and “bon courage”

  12. An interesting post, Mark, followed by interesting and very valid comments especially from Susan. Is it possible that for some the loss of lives among UN personnel was somehow seen as less visceral than that of the desperately poor living around them in P.-au -P.? Or that we tend to see the UN as this big, powerful and monied institution that somehow can’t end global poverty and injustice the way we all want it to?

    I admit, this is hugely unfair to those who simply work for the UN. You’ve brought them, their stories and their losses to us through your various photos and videos. Thanks.

  13. Pingback: Two views of the Haitian relief effort « Travels with Shiloh

  14. Be enouraged. God sees you. He will not forget your labor of love. Linda

  15. I don’t understand why, although I have made myself available to come to Haiti and stay as long as needed, no one is picking me up. I am immunized, have a passport, am a Registered Nurse, have registered with CIDI database, yet no organization has responded to say they can use me.
    Can anyone help get me down there? I can pay my own expenses. Contact me at lynshanahan@yahoo.com

    • I would imagine because for many organisations to accept a new staff is a significant undertaking, in terms of responsibility and resources. Many organisations are already at the edge of their capacity. It can be difficult to understand, because people want to help and help now, but operating here is difficult in many ways, and organisations tend to rely on people they know with a long track record of operating in such environments. That said, everyone has to start somewhere, and where there is a will there is way. Registering with a database is often not enough, you need to identify people you would like to work with and reach out to them.

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