Category Archives: Infrastructure

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.


More names of the UN’s fallen are announced; Digicel

Another grim day, and the official list of fallen UN friends is growing.

A recent list posted on one of the many Facebook support groups included some of Anna’s closest colleagues.

Mr. Guido Galli, Political Affairs Officer, (Italy)
Mr. Karimou Ide, Security Officer, (Netherlands)
Ms. Andrea Loi Valenzuela, Human Rights Officer, (Chile)
Ms. Lisa Mblel-Mbong, Human Rights Officer, (United States of America)
Mr. Frederick Wooldridge, Political Affairs Officer (United Kingdom)
Mr. Guillaume Simieski, Political Affairs Officer, (Canada)


By now everyone is aware of the huge amount of work being put in by search and rescue teams, medical staff, other humanitarian workers. Our deep thanks go out to those who continued to dig for survivors – even today we had news of people being saved.

But I also wanted to give a brief mention to the cellphone network Digicel, which is unlikely to receive many public accolades. Over the past three years this mobile phone company has revolutionised communications in Haiti, making cheap telephony available and affordable to millions. The impact has been significant.

After the earthquake, communications were one of the greatest challenges. But Digicel – according to this announcement – now appears to have brought the situation under control. The importance of having working communications over the coming days and weeks cannot be overstated.

Good for Digicel.


The Digicel network is now functioning well in Port-au-Prince with more and more customers connecting to it and being able to make and receive calls, text messages, email and BlackBerry Messenger messages.

With coverage in the rest of the country good, Digicel is also ensuring that all of its two million plus customers in Haiti can stay in contact with friends and family by giving each and every Digicel customer US$5 of free call credit – totalling US$10 million.

Since deploying a team of technicians to Haiti following the earthquake on Tuesday, January 12th, Digicel has been working to restore its network in Haiti to full capacity.

A full assessment of the network has been carried out and the situation is as follows:

– All of Digicel’s three switch sites which serve the country are operational. One is damaged but an interim solution has been put in place until new equipment arrives
– 70% of the network’s cell sites are on air. We are working on restoring service to the remaining 30%
– Roaming is fully operational
– There is still some congestion on the network when making and receiving international calls
– An assessment of what network equipment is required has been completed and new equipment has been ordered and is en route to Haiti
– More teams of technicians have been assembled and are en route to support the existing teams on the ground

As well as the US$5 million which is being donated to NGOs by Digicel directly, Digicel has set up the Digicel Haiti Relief Fund. By Friday evening – just two days after it went live – a massive US$300,000 was donated by Digicel customers across our 32 markets worldwide.

In addition to previous aid drops over the last five days, Digicel has assembled a 110,000lb cargo of medical supplies, food and water ready to go to Haiti from Jamaica.

Digicel would like to thank people across the world for their contributions and to encourage them to keep giving to help the people of Haiti at this difficult time.

ADD Journalist Jason Maloney told me: “Not just the company but its employees: I met a Jamaican Digicel worker who had come up to Saint Marc to buy basic medical supplies after 36 hours of digging people out of the ground by hand, and all he wanted to do was get back to it.”

The rain in Haiti

We had a little storm last night; my first glimpse of rain in Haiti. It continued into the day.

Nothing to write home about per se; blustery winds, a bit of rain, but still – even this minor blow seems to have brought a good part of town to a relative standstill.

Haiti was lucky this year; after a dreadful hurricane season in 2008, which undid much of the grudging economic progress of the previous two years, in 2009 the weather was relatively benign.

But I got a small sense of why storms wreak such havoc here. One relatively unremarkable windy rainshower, and the roads turn into slippery deathtraps, covered in branches, rubbish, gushing drains. (Sadly, my camera – which I stuck out the window on occasions – was covered in rain, and most of my snaps were unusable.)


Finante, our nanny, was a no show, as were some of the people needed to put the finishing touches of our house (ie, water pump, which is still not working properly). I got the sense that much economic activity comes to a halt with the rain. I am not sure if it was related, but the internet was also down most of the day – apparently some issue with the cable to the Dominican Republic, Anna was told.

On the plus side (for me), the evil Route de Freres traffic jam was mercifully light, but the drive to our new house remained an exercise in caution – as the remaining vendors darted in and out of the road in all directions, skirting collapsed walls and rubble, skipping past torn overhead advertising banners (which hung perilously in the middle of the road, brushing passing cars).


Sadly, the colors on new orange and pink building I have watched painstakingly painted over the past couple of weeks were already sporting runny blotches. Some parts of the market, garbage-strewn at the best of times, appeared pestilent.


No wonder so much time is spent by aid workers here preparing for the next storm. But one hears worrying things – that despite Haiti’s increasing disaster preparedness, new developments are creating accidents waiting to happen: roads perched beneath piles of mud and rock, people living on deeply unsafe landfill and so forth. I dread what will happen when a real storm hits. That said, judging by one facebook update from a friend of mine in the UK, Haiti is not alone. “Snow, frost, rain, thunder and now a power cut…” it read. The veneer of civilisation is thin all over.




Moving house: a check-list

Looks like we will finally be moving into our new home over the next couple of days. Never the easiest of tasks, in Haiti it is quite the logistical challenge.

A quick clean, and this will be a delightful place to eat lunch

By way of illustration (not a moan – I realise these are the challenges of the privileged), this is the list of things we need to do:

– Check gas canisters for cooker. (No gas mains).
– Buy diesel cans, and fill with diesel for the generator. (No electricity. We need enough fuel to last us through potential shortages)
– Check that the generator has been fixed. (It would not start when previously checked)
– Ensure the batteries for the inverter have been replaced. (Haitian households mostly run off ‘inverters’. These are banks of twelve to twenty four batteries – a bit like car batteries – which store electricity from the generator, or from the one or two daily hours of Haitian mains electricity, and are then converted back to AC in order to run basic appliances.)
– Buy distilled water to keep inverter batteries topped up.
– Check water supply. (No running water. We will regularly have to pay for a big truck to fill up the cistern).
– Disinfect water supply.
– Check on installation of new security gate (following the UN security assessment).
– Hire day guard and two night guards.
– Check protective fence around the house.
– Check fridge works on inverter. (Only specific energy light fridges can run off the limited power supply).
– Check water pump works. (Water will not travel to taps unless this is in good order).
– Purchase and install satellite internet system. (No cable).
– Make arrangements for garbage removal (very limited municipal waste management)
– Stock up on Culligan drinking water. (Everyone uses these giant plastic bottles of Culligan. We need around 6 or 7.)

This aside from the obvious stuff like signing for the shipment, overseeing its delivery etc etc

Chances are at that at any one time, one if not more of these items will need fixing.

One notable exception: telephone. Thanks to the mighty Digicel, the cellphone operator which has taken over this country in the space of three years, we no longer have to worry about making a call. Hooray for technological leapfrogging.

Still, no wonder so many people choose to stay in hotel complexes. They include all amenities ready to go and are intrinsically safe. But these apartments also tend to be small and expensive, and if you can get a house up and running, it can be a much more memorable experience. Quite something after living in a New York box.

The house we have chosen has a fantastic view of Port-au-Prince below. Very much looking forward to moving in.