Category Archives: Non-governmental organisation

Haiti is a major centre for activities by NGOs – non-governmental organisations – also known in the US as non-profits, and sometimes as charities

Camp life at UN base

As we all work overtime to help Haitians recover, I wanted to touch on the crazy world we all inhabit here in UN camp.

There is a large logistics base by the airport, called UN log base, which is overrun by hundreds of aid workers, all crammed into tents and containers, trying to run an enormous logistical operation under quite tough conditions. The heat in the day is stifling; there are clouds of mosquitos, open sewers and very few showers and toilets. Overall, pretty disgusting.

IOM has had to build, then dismantle, then rebuild its offices twice already, and will have to do so again in the next few days. It’s a little like one of those games where you move tiles around slots, with only one free space, trying to make a coherent picture. Only the free space is a toxic sewer. I made a fun video of our most recent relocation.

On the flip side, it is actually really fun interacting from people and organisations from all over the world. A small bar is crammed with aid workers and soldiers of every cast and colour; quaffing a few overpriced beers after a tough day. A PX sells various drinks and nibbles, as well as giant TV sets (who would buy one, I don’t know) and rows of hair conditioner, but no shampoo. The single street of the central compound was for days littered with people hanging out by the curb, chitchatting, ocasionally pulling out a guitar and strumming. A camp dog appeared, which nibbles people with sharp teeth, is widely loved, and is creatively known as “camp dog”. Tonight we heard a Middle Eastern call to prayer at sunset, possibly from the Jordanian battalion.

Over the past few days we have slowly been moving into tents at a new Swedish camp, 15 mins from log base, staffed by Vikings who are militant about handwashing. The sleeping tents are giant white rubberised affairs separated into 16 little cubicles each – with a cot and mattress, and European plug sockets (very useful for a system that uses American plugs).

But it has hot showers! Ah, a hot shower after two weeks of a rancid cold dribble. People pay between 20 and 40 bucks a night for this privilege, but also get a slow wifi and two meals a day – one decent dinner (no pudding) and a rather meagre breakfast (to my British palate anyway) of cheese and porridge. In the evening aid workers gather around two long ranks of tables, and tap late night emails into laptops, chat about the day, sip a whisky and wind down a bit before getting up again at the crack of dawn.

People are getting very tired, and its beginning to show – especially in those who lived through the quake. People are also rotating in and out quite often – which can also be hard to manage, as every two weeks you have a whole bunch of new faces to get to know.

Tough it is. But it also very special; we are all very aware we are part of something rather remarkable, and it keeps everyone going.


Nuns on a hill; outreach; a tale of two cities

It’s been an exhausting few days, doing many jobs at the same time. Emergencies are both horrifying and exhilarating – so much to do, structures in flux, time-frames so tight, that you can often determine what you want to be involved in, and get stuck in. No waiting on ceremony here.


I am doing three main jobs right now: liaising with the international press, taking photos and making videos (in itself actually a 3-person job), and helping design a comprehensive strategy to reach local populations with crucial information – using all sorts of tools, from radio, to sms, posters, mobile cinema units. So much going on, so much going on. Information structures are in crisis here, and we need to help support the reconstruction of the entire media world.


I made a quick film of a distribution we did by helicopter in the far hills beyond Port-au-Prince. Tough conditions, but a real community there. In the capital things can get chaotic fast, many people trying to get political and financial advantage from the situation, but here it was a delight to work with people who knew each other. We were working closely with a religious order, doing great work. I am not religious myself, but these sisters and brothers are really on the front line, in tough, tough conditions.

Meanwhile Port-au-Prince is reverting to its former two worlds status. Petionville, the more wealthy area, is returning to form. Most buildings there are fine, the restaurants are up and running, shops open, systems are back in place. The main noticeable difference is a vast number of displaced camping out in the town squares, but you can feel some kind of normality creeping back.

But other parts of the city, and in the regions, remain utterly brutalised. Great deprivation. Everyone wants to know why we haven’t fixed it yet. But please realise – this is the country’s major city, and it has fallen to pieces. Not only buildings, but community structures, society’s glue. And us also. Many of us died too. It is amazing that Haitians continue to bear their load with such patience. This is a long long job.

So, a return to what we already knew in Haiti: the wealthy and the deprived, side by side, but magnified, exacerbated, many times.

Every so often, driving around, I get hit with an overwhelming sense of the momentous times I am living through. This is unprecedented stuff, it will be in the history books. I hope we get it right.

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.




Haiti, the video game

After highlighting a webcomic a few posts back, I wanted to mention a relatively recent ‘serious video game’, called “Ayiti, the Cost of Life.”

You can find it here or here, and it doesn’t take too long to download if your internet connection is feeling generous.

An organisation called Global Kids produced the game a couple of years back with the help of Gamelab and the support of Microsoft; and teamed up with Unicef to host it and promote it.

Truth be told, it’s a fairly miserable experience, as you attempt to nurse mum, dad and three kids from poverty to prosperity. My family started off well enough, sending kids to school and getting a job in a distillery, but within a couple of seasons everyone was ill, depressed, flat broke, in debt and… well, I kind of quit at that point.

Here is a distressing message I received early on in the game:

After the first year, your family is in terrible shape. The Guinard family’s wealth suffered greatly this year. Take care to ensure the family gets its basic needs. The family’s overall health diminished significantly this year. Jean, Marie, Patrick, Jacquline and Yves had a particularly hard year, greatly deteriorating in health. The family had an opportunity to study and increase its education.

The game implies that with the right strategy you can pull yourself out of your predicament, perhaps one day buy yourself a computer and other first world appliances – so the tantalising prospect of a better life is dangled before you. But the grim toll of poverty is made abundantly clear.

Perhaps too clear, in fact. This is a difficult game, and the message it sends is so bleak one wonders what room it leaves for human dignity: surely a crucial component in any socially conscious game.

My other, lesser, gripe was that it managed to sneak in a few blatant promotions for Oxfam and Unicef, sending an unfortunate message about reliance on aid agencies. Then again, it is what it is.

Still, I do think this was an important attempt to use the awesome communicative power of games to educate the rich on the grinding challenge of being poor.

I’m going to have another shot at it. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought that radio.

Aid, priests and sexual misconduct

International assistance and sexual exploitation have, sadly, often gone hand in hand; during the middle part of this decade, I was one of the reporters who covered the story of misconduct by UN peacekeepers in Congo and beyond, while Anna worked on a seminal report on the issue with the charismatic Jordanian UN ambassador Prince Zeid.

At the time, the scandal was used as a stick with which to beat the UN by its detractors in the United States – although that same country subsequently led opposition to UN efforts to create a more effective disciplinary system. The UN has nonetheless, within its limited powers to control the troops of member states, implemented an official ‘no tolerance’ policy, and the rules in Haiti appear quite strict – we quickly learn a long list of no go zones, such as certain bars, where officials may not tread.

But the UN has no monopoly on such practices. Abuses occur wherever powerful people from rich countries find themselves in proximity with the poor, and it comes as no surprise to discover this piece in the  Windsor Star (thanks to Povertynewsblog for finding it).

Youth who claims he was abused by a Canadian aid worker - according to the Windsor Star

“He was 16, and like most Haitian teens, surviving on street smarts. One day, he accepted a job helping a humanitarian aid worker carry supplies to his home.

‘After I finished he asked me to come back for a talk,’ recalled the man, now 23, speaking Creole through an interpreter. The aid worker offered him money for sex, the man alleges, and a relationship began.

‘It was to pay for school for me. That was the main reason. If you do it for me I pay for school.’

Mission sex — it’s Haiti’s dirty little secret.

The western world’s poorest country is, according to one aid worker, a ‘perfect storm’ of socio-economic conditions for abuse by visiting humanitarians. Its tropical temperatures and breathtaking natural beauty are easily, and cheaply, accessible from North America. Heavily dependent on foreign aid and with virtually no regulation of its schools and orphanages, Haiti’s justice system is ill-equipped to deal with a rising tide of sex tourism.”

[UPDATE – The Montreal Gazette has also written on the matter in this piece ‘When evil is cloaked as good

His 12 years of good deeds with impoverished kids prompted Association Grandir, the humanitarian group to which he was aligned, to dub him “a true Father Teresa.”

“You have to see him among the people, eating and sleeping as they do, to understand that a commitment like his is a rare thing,” Grandir said on its website.

Five years later, Father Teresa is a Quebec prison inmate.

Huard, 65, was sentenced to three years for sexually assaulting young Haitian boys while a second Quebecer, Denis Rochefort, 59, received two years.]

Sex tourism appears to have been fairly prevalent in Haiti during the Duvalier era, but took a dip after the Aids epidemic – and subsequent (misguided) claims that Haiti had exported Aids to the US. Most likely, it was the other way round.

These cases remind us it remains a serious issue, and might become more so as Haiti grows a little more stable. Most disturbingly, two priests are separately facing sexual abuse charges:

John Duarte, 43, former leader of the Windsor-based Hearts Together For Haiti, was recently arrested by Dominican authorities on a warrant issued in Canada, on charges of sexually abusing teenage Haitian boys – according to the  Windsor Star. Douglas Perlitz, 39, was indicted in September by a grand jury in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and faces 10 counts related to the sexual abuse of nine boys for about a decade, CNN reported.

Joao Jose Correira Duarte, a former Windsor priest, is now facing extradition to Canada, where he's expected to face 12 charges in the sexual abuse of Haitian youths, age 12 to 17, the Immigration Office and National Drug Control Directorate said in a statement sent to Canwest News Service. Photograph by: Handout, CNS Source Windsor Star

One is left wondering about the religious sector in general.

Despite the Catholic priest scandals of the past decade, I am not aware of any major focus upon missionary work. Haiti is awash with religious groups, largely unregulated and unsupervised.

One suspects the vast majority of such endeavours – as those of UN officials and NGO staff – is extremely well-intentioned. But wherever power is wielded without scrutiny, abuses occur.

With so many missions in Haiti, it might be a valuable endeavour to take a closer look at the spiritual, as well as the profane.

Webcomics for good – Starthrower

I have always been a huge fan of comics, from my childhood days – when I used to treasure the occasional delivery of 2000AD, that great British institution, to my home in Argentina.

Seeing as my two countries were at war, those comics used to arrive with nasty scrawls on them, denigrating me as an Argie-Bargie and worse. A curious sensation being Anglo-Argentine back then. My teachers in Argentina decried me as a British imperialist. The British postal service attacked me for being Argentine. I suppose it informed my world view.

Anyhow, I stumbled across this nice webcomic about Haiti, which hopes to raise money for an education NGO.

A page from Starthrower in Haiti

On the site – Starthrower in Haiti – Daniel Lafrance says he hopes the webcomic will raise funds to sponsor young Haitians adults for high school education. “$600 gives one Haitian the chance to go to high school for a year. This sponsorship is provided by the Starthrower Foundation and includes school fees, school supplies, uniforms including shoes, socks, underwear, transportation if necessary,tutoring, drop in centre, hygiene products, medical and dental support, potable water and when available food sacks,” he writes.

I cannot say much about the NGO itself yet: I have not visited it. But I love the use of the webcomic, and commend people to have a peek.

I always knew this day would come; when my two great lifelong loves – comics and video games – would lose their “for children only” tag and be recognised as the extraordinary communications tools they are. If only I could draw! (Or make video games for that matter).

Disabilities and horses

Photo-based post today. We visited an event where Haitian kids with disabilities were given the chance to ride and interact with horses. A small oasis; at first I was embarrassed to take photos, but the children were delighted, crowding round and giggling at the results.

I have often been slightly taken aback by kids with disabilities: they are so quick to run up and hug you, hold your hand, playful before the camera. Why should it be any other way? But nonetheless, it is challenging for the first moments. It soon becomes an enormous pleasure.