The situation in Haiti is grim. Most of the city of Port-au-Prince has turned to rubble; hundreds of thousands of people are in dire need of food, water and medical care; thousands are sleeping in the streets and untold numbers are traumatized by the loss of loved ones and quake aftershocks. Here are eight guidelines for helping Haiti:
1. An international response system exists. The Haiti response is not taking place in a vacuum. It is being coordinated by the United Nations, major international agencies are involved and the US government is playing a significant role. Other countries are also rushing to help, including those with special ties to Haiti like France and Brazil (the Brazilians lead the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti). The international humanitarian system has established procedures that, if respected and followed, will speed aid to those who need it -- but the job is big and will not be easy.
2. Everything that can be done must be done. A unique and unprecedented response is necessary because of the magnitude of the disaster. The usual response that might be mounted after, for example, a hurricane in the Caribbean is totally insufficient. This is why American armed forces are playing a large role - not because Americans want to (re-)occupy Haiti, but because our military is the world's most powerful first responder in terms of manpower, lift and cargo. Help is flowing in through neighboring Dominican Republic and the U.S. military was able to come in and get air traffic control restarted at the airport 24/7. But with only one runway and a destroyed port, more is needed.
3. Deploying the U.S. Military is a partial answer. Those who call for putting the U.S. military in charge should first consider its strengths versus those of other organizations. American troops can protect a neighborhood or building, but aid agencies do a better job designing ways to protect women and young girls from predatory men after a crisis. Soldiers can quickly establish links to other militaries and peacekeepers, but diplomats and international relief experts are also needed. Aid agencies can work with communities and stay for the longer term. The U.S. military can fly in, set up and staff a brand new clinic while aid agencies can reinforce networks of existing clinics and help local staff. All of this is needed.
4. Criticisms of US Government inattention or inaction are misplaced. Commentators who criticize the "slow" pace of aid delivery are being unrealistic. Clearly, everyone from the President on down to the most junior file clerk is paying attention and mobilized. Whether the U.S. government response will be up to the task remains to be seen, but it won't be for lack of trying. Although it is probably fair to decry the state Haiti was in before the earthquake and draw lessons from it, doing so now will not save any lives. The decision late Friday to give Haitians already in the United States temporary protective status so that the undocumented won't be sent home is a welcome step.
5. Security is an important consideration - but is only one part of emergency response. Journalists and editors should not just make gloomy predictions of lawlessness, looting, worsening and unstoppable chaos and instead provide additional context. Aid workers say they are able to move about unmolested in daylight hours; parts of the city with incidents of violence were already high risk areas before the earthquake. "There is no more and no less looting happening here than I've seen in other crises," reported the International Rescue Committee's Gillian Dunn from Port-au-Prince on Monday. Exaggerating the state of lawlessness in Haiti may foster the cruel stereotypes that Haitians are somehow fated to suffer or are incapable of using aid wisely. Both depictions are false. To see the big picture clearly, we need more stories and information about how typical Haitians are coping with the crisis.
6. Haiti's government is not up to the task. This is a unique crisis, in that the Haitian government was itself a victim of the earthquake. Weak before, it now has virtually disappeared. The United Nations and donors must therefore shoulder a greater share of operations and coordination than was the case after the Pakistan earthquake or the Asian tsunami, when Asian governments continued to function. In Haiti, the lack of a functioning government has vastly enlarged the magnitude of the crisis and there will be inevitable problems. There is no choice but to carry on and seek ways to involve Haitians in the response and in decisions about their future as much as possible.
7. This is only the first and most acute phase of the crisis. The crisis is shifting from search and rescue to burying the dead and tending the injured. It will rapidly evolve into a longer period of persistent crisis. Haitians will continue to need help - food, water, shelter, protection and other basics - for a long period of uncertain duration. International interest must not be allowed to flag over the course of a long rebuilding phase.
8. Give money. Americans are generous and want to take action. Most want to roll up their sleeves and do something. But for most of us, sending supplies or jumping on a plane to Haiti or offering to adopt an orphan are all bad ideas. Small shipments of mis-matched supplies that sit unclaimed at airports take up space and become a barrier to aid delivery. Untrained personnel occupy needed shelter and eat into supplies. Orphaned children belong with their relatives and efforts should be made to trace them. The best thing to do is to give money, which can be used to procure major relief deliveries of essential materials. It can also be used to buy food and pay staff locally -- helping to get Haitians back on their feet. If writing a check does not salve that urge to do more, then the best advice is to help organize fundraisers and to keep giving, long after Haiti has left the headlines.
Support the International Rescue Committee's work in Haiti.
You can also text HAITI to 25383 to give $5.