Haiti earthquake

Helping Haiti

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation will require years of reconstruction work, say experts leading relief efforts

Even before the tragic earthquake of Jan. 13, Haitians lived in difficult conditions. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, ranking 149th out of 182 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index and 168th on Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index. About 10 percent of Haiti’s population, or 1 million people, count on the UN World Food Program for all their meals. An estimated 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and fewer than 30 percent of children reach the sixth grade. An estimated 225,000 children work as unpaid laborers in de facto slavery.

In any given year, foreign aid makes up between 30 percent and 40 percent of the national budget. The literacy rate is 65 percent, the lowest in the Americas. Only 40 percent of Haitians had access to basic health before the earthquake, and 90 percent of children suffer from waterborne diseases or intestinal parasites. According to the World Health Organization, about 50 percent of deaths in Haiti consistently come from HIV/AIDS, meningitis or diarrhea caused by diseases like cholera and typhoid. More than 98 percent of the country is deforested as the population cuts down trees to make charcoal, the main fuel for heating and cooking.

Several people involved in earthquake relief efforts on the ground contributed insights on Haiti and advice on how to help.

Logistical troubles

Haiti is one of these countries that just seems to have bad luck. It often gets hammered by the hurricanes that make their way up to the United States. For example, it was hit by four hurricanes in 2008.

In Port-au-Prince, we do a lot of works in slum areas. There have been major problems with gang violence – so much so that we have brought in people who were involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Right now, we are making assessments in the places with which we are most familiar. There is a huge level of trauma. People have lost family members; they are understandably in a state of shock. We have a small team of six international staff and about 100 Haitian staff. Nineteen of our Haitian staff are still unaccounted for, and we are fearing the worst. One Haitian who worked in our programs there before moving on to the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently returned to Haiti; we have received confirmation that he and his family have died.

At the airport, the control tower was destroyed, making it difficult to fly in supplies. The U.S. military has since taken control of the airport, and we are dependent on them to allow us to land. We had a group that was trying to get in, but they were turned back as they were unable to land at the airport, which was operating far above capacity.

The port was also severely damaged. There are three cranes for offloading ships; these were destroyed. The pier has fallen into the sea. We believe the U.S. military is coming up with ways of landing supplies on shore to get things in. Another possible solution is to go in through the Dominican Republic and bring things in by road, and we hope that the border stays open to allow us to do that.

Haiti is extremely poor to begin with. Part of the problem was the poor quality of buildings; many crumbled like decks of cards. We have seen level 7 earthquakes before, but it would not have had the same effect in a place like Japan. There are a lot of governance issues when it comes to building quality. Many people who may have just begun to rise above the poverty level have now lost everything and are back in dire poverty. This poverty will not go away on its own. It is going to take years for Haiti to recover, and significant contributions from the international community.

The Haitians will have to come together and contribute a lot of the work themselves, and I hope you will see the Haitian people come out stronger. People can visit our web site, www.concern.net, to donate.

– Paul O’Brien is the overseas director for the Irish NGO Concern, which has worked in Haiti since 1994.


Haiti faces a natural disaster of unprecedented proportion, an earthquake unlike anything the country has ever experienced. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake – and several very strong aftershocks – struck only 10 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince.

I cannot stress enough what a human disaster this is, and idle hands will only make this tragedy worse. More than 2 million people in Port-au-Prince are facing this catastrophe alone. We must act now.

U.S. President Barack Obama has already said the United States stands “ready to assist” the Haitian people. The U.S. military is the only group trained and prepared to offer that assistance immediately. They must do so. The international community must also rise to the occasion and help the Haitian people in every way possible.

Many people have already reached out to see what they can do right now. We are asking those interested to please do one of two things: Either use your cell phone to text “Yele” to 501501, which will automatically donate $5 to the Yéle Haiti Earthquake Fund, or visit our Web site to donate.

– Wyclef Jean is a Haitian-born platinum-selling musician and record producer. He founded the New York City-based NGO Yéle Haiti and is now in Haiti contributing to relief efforts.

Thinking long-term

Haiti will not avoid natural disasters in the future, so the international community needs to do its best to leave the country better prepared to cope with such events. Now, even several days after the massive earthquake, the scale of the catastrophe remains unclear. Money collected by People in Need’ is already at use in relief efforts and, thanks to the generosity of the Czech public, will continue to help finance rebuilding infrastructure that has been destroyed on the island.

We have been involved in Haiti for a number of years through a partnership. For any humanitarian organization – and People in Need is no exception – it is always very tempting to set up one’s own mission in a troubled area. We have partnered with the Irish NGO Concern – a group that, like us, is a member of the international humanitarian association Alliance 2015. This partnership allowed us to get involved immediately in a country known for political instability and crime. By cooperating with an organization that has worked in Haiti since 1994, we are able to utilize their know-how and access the relationships with local communities in particular through more than 100 native staff members. We believe this experience makes our aid more effective and the coordination gives help to the people most in need.

A natural disaster like the one in Haiti is a tragedy, but it is also an opportunity. The scale of events and the related media attention create public awareness and form the backbone of a successful fundraising campaign. Money can be turned into help for actual people in need. We launched our campaign SOS Haiti within moments of hearing about the earthquake, when early and still unclear information of the scale of the catastrophe was reaching the Czech Republic. The campaign has been met with a quick and strong response by the public. As they have many times before, people are showing an outpouring of concern and a willingness to help.

People in Need managed to collect more than 7 million Kč ($869,565/267,380 euros) during the first days after the quake. Already, we have dispatched 100,000 euros for aid most needed in the initial phase of humanitarian operation – especially for the distribution of drinkable water, food and the building of temporary shelters. People in Need’s coordinator left for Haiti on the morning of Jan. 16. She is joining the team from Concern already on the ground supervising the distribution of aid.

Meanwhile, in Haiti, the destruction of vital infrastructure, telecommunications, roads, electricity and especially the sea port is hampering relief efforts. Damage to the airport and roads has impacted the speed with which aid can be brought in and distributed. The slow arrival of aid on the streets is inevitably raising the frustrations of survivors, who desperately need immediate help, and such tensions may lead to a worsening security situation on the island. It is vitally important that supplies do not fall short and that people continue to donate beyond this initial surge.

The biggest challenge for Haiti is still to come, when the first phase of immediate help ends and the international TV crews return home. People in Need will allocate some of the donations we collect from the SOS Haiti fund and dedicate it to rebuilding basic infrastructure, the health and education systems and other longer-term development projects. With a record of natural disasters in its history, it is essential for Haiti and its inhabitants to be better prepared. They will be hit again. Donations can be made by bank transfer to SOS Haiti account 40954095/0300 or by sending a text message with “DMS SOSHAITI” to 87777.

– David Grossmann is media coordinator for People in Need (Člověk v tísni), a Czech NGO that has worked in 37 countries providing humanitarian assistance and development programs.

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