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Haiti: International clashes over humanitarian assistance

Five days after the terrible earthquake which has partly destroyed the capital city, Port-au-Prince and others like Leogane and Jacmel, it has been very difficult for rescuers, medical teams and humanitarian services to reach the population and help the survivors.

However, these difficulties are not generated by a lack of commitment and will from the International Community, which has shown almost immediate reactivity to assist and help, as explained by AlterPresseHaiti [Fr]:

[…] La visite de Ban Ki Moon suivra celle de la secrétaire d’État des États-Unis, Hillary Clinton, qui a passé quelques heures à Port-au-Prince ce 16 janvier afin d’exprimer au président René Préval et au peuple haïtien la solidarité et l’engagement de Washington.
[…]
Pour sa part, le président français Nicolas Sarkozy avait dépêché le 14 janvier à Port-au-Prince le secrétaire d’Etat à la coopération, Alain Joyandet, pour exprimer « la solidarité de la France à ce peuple meurtri ».
Le président dominicain, Leonel Fernandez, avait effectué le 13 janvier une visite surprise à la capitale pour présenter ses sympathies au président Préval et au peuple haïtien.

[…] Ban Ki Moon's visit will follow U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's, who spent a few hours in Port-au-Prince on January 16th, to express Washington's solidarity and commitment to President René Préval and the Haitian people.
[…]
As for the French Governement, President Nicolas Sarkozy assigned Alain Joyandet, Cooperation Secretary of State to Port-au-Prince, on January 14th, to express ‘France's solidarity to the suffering Haitian people.’
The Dominican President, Leonel Fernandez had paid an unexpected visit on January 13th to the capital, in order to show sympathy to President Préval and the Haitian people.

All these visits paid by foreign authorities can't hide the difficulties that their respective teams of rescuers are facing. Martinican blogger Bel Balawou adds a post about the whole management of Port-au-Prince airport [Fr]:

Haïti: des avions remplis d'aide refoulés, des dizaines de personnes obligées de dormir sur le tarmac faute de pouvoir s'envoler, des tonnes d'aide attentant d'être distribués du fait d'une mauvaise coordination: la colère grondait samedi à l'aéroport de Port-au-Prince.

Haiti: planes full of humanitarian assistance are diverted away, dozens of people are forced to sleep on the airport runway since planes can't take off, tons of supplies awaiting distribution because of failing coordination: people were in thundering rage at Port-au-Prince airport.

Here is an excerpt of the NGO Doctors Without Borders's press release (01.17.10) doubling Bel Balawou's post:

Port-au-Prince/Paris /New York, 17 January 2009—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urges that its cargo planes carrying essential medical and surgical material be allowed to land in Port-au-Prince in order to treat thousands of wounded waiting for vital surgical operations. Priority must be given immediately to planes carrying lifesaving equipment and medical personnel.

The explanation comes from another post from blogger Potoprincipe [Fr]:

La gestion de l'aéroport de Port-au-Prince, capitale haïtienne largement détruite par un puissant tremblement de terre mardi, a été confiée vendredi aux Américains par le gouvernement haïtien.
Mais plusieurs avions transportant de l'aide n'ont pas pu atterrir.

The management of Port-au-Prince airport, situated in the capital city of Haiti, significantly destroyed by a huge earthquake on Tuesday [Jan. 12th], was assigned to the American authorities by the Haitian government.
However, many planes carrying humanitarian assistance couldn't land.

BelBalawou gets more precise on the situation [Fr]:

Cette gestion de l'aéroport par les Américains a même créé des tensions diplomatiques après le refoulement vendredi d'un avion français qui avait à son bord un hôpital de campagne, alors que les moyens pour traiter les blessés manquent cruellement.

The way the Americans deal with the airport management has even triggered diplomatic tensions after the re-routing on Friday [Jan. 15th] of a French plane, which was carrying a field hospital, despite the fact that there is a cruel lack of logistical means to take care of the wounded.

On the same line, Potoprincipe explains that other countries have met with the same experience [Fr]:

Des sources officielles ont par ailleurs indiqué à l'AFP qu'un avion cargo de l'armée argentine, transportant notamment du matériel médical et une unité de purification d'eau, était toujours bloqué samedi dans un aéroport situé à 120 km de Saint-Domingue, que deux avions mexicains avaient dû attendre “deux jours et demi en République dominicaine” avant d'être autorisés à atterrir et que 40 tonnes d'aide en provenance du Pérou avaient été finalement acheminées par voie terrestre samedi depuis Saint-Domingue.

Official sources also informed AFP that a cargo plane of the Argentinian army, carrying medical supplies and a portable water purification system, was still held on Saturday [Jan. 16th] on an airport located 120 kms away from Saint-Domingue, that two Mexican planes had had to wait “2 days and a half in the Dominican Republic” before being allowed to land in Haiti and that 40 tons of humanitarian supplies from Peru had eventually been carried on the road from Saint-Domingue, on Saturday.

Facing criticism and protest from other countries bringing assistance to Haitian people, the American authorities had to defend their position. Bel Balawou quotes an American official here [Fr]:

‘On décide en coordination avec l'ONU et les Haïtiens’, a expliqué M. Merten, en rappelant la nécessité de hiérarchiser les priorités: ‘il est clair qu'il y a un problème’, a-t-il reconnu. Il met néanmoins en avant le fait que les Américains ont été capables de rendre, en 24 heures, utilisable l'aéroport dont la tour de contrôle a été touchée par le séisme.

‘Decisions are made in coordination with the UN and the Haitians,’ told Mr Merten, who recalls the necessity to prioritize: ‘obviously, there is an issue’, he admitted. However he focused on the fact that the Americans were able to bring the airport back into service, in 1 day, despite the fact that the control tower had been damaged by the earthquake.

These recent diplomatic clashes raises questions among bloggers, Bel Balawou shares some thoughts on the way international humanitarian assistance should be managed [Fr]:

L'administration de l'aide internationale est généralement confiée à du personnel issu du pays bailleur de fonds. Pour réaliser la promesse du développement, il faut changer cette pratique et embaucher du personnel local, estime un auteur américain qui connaît bien Haïti.

The management of the international humanitarian assistance is generally entrusted to a staff coming from the donor country. For the promise of development to be fulfilled, this method needs to be changed and local staff should be recruited, according to an American author who knows Haiti well.

This fear for the future of Haiti, concerning the International Community and humanitarian assistance is shared by Radio Kiskeya, who publishes a post entitled “Are we straight on the way to be placed under foreign supervision?” [Fr]:

Une bonne partie de l’intelligentsia est soit en deuil ou prise sous les débris. L’aide internationale ne s’embarrasse même plus de consulter les forces vives du pays pour coordonner la distribution de vivres. Haïti est édentée.

A significant part of our intelligentsia is either mourning or stuck under the rubble. Foreign countries bringing help don't not even bother consulting the country's last leaders to coordinate the distribution of food supplies. Haiti is diminished.

In this same post, the author Harold Isaac makes a point which sounds like an invitation to the Diaspora:

Et c’est là qu’un rendez-vous historique est en train de se révéler : Une opportunité exceptionnelle de mobilisation de toutes les forces vives et compétences d’origines ou d’affinités haïtiennes, de l’intérieur et de l’extérieur, pour constituer une alternative fiable de gouvernance.

And here is an historical appointment: an exceptional opportunity to mobilize all the vital ressources and skills from Haiti or attached to Haiti, whether inside or outside the country, in order to set up a trustworthy governance alternative.

Please visit the Global Voices Haiti Earthquake page for more coverage of the event.

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