Opinion

Hurricane Matthew Deals Haiti Its Worst Blow

Time for Canada to come up with new, better ways to help devastated country.

By Crawford Kilian 19 Oct 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

On Oct. 4, Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, especially its long southwestern peninsula where about 1.5 million people live. Many non-governmental organizations immediately sent in emergency response teams to provide supplies and determine the extent of the damage.

As they shared their findings via WhatsApp, their terse texts came together in a grim narrative.

absolutely horrific and much worse than we had thought

179 reported deaths and at least 700 injured, some seriously

only 82 standing homes out of 4,000. People are sleeping outside.

The hospital has had significant destruction many patients with significant wounds

shelves of medications are virtually bare with not even gauze for bandages left

25 cases of cholera and 5 deaths since Tuesday

They are completely cut off from any road access by 4 collapsed bridges.

We’re performing field surgeries and we’re not doctors. We have supplies for 2 days. All crops are gone. Houses gone. Complete displacement. We need help!

Six years after earthquake, growing misery

It has been a grim six years for Haiti.

The January 2010 earthquake killed about 200,000 people, but the damage was confined to the capital, Port-au-Prince.

That was followed — almost six years ago — by cholera, imported by UN peacekeepers from Nepal, which spread across the whole country and is now endemic.

Now Matthew has damaged the whole country, with the southwestern peninsula suffering the most. Over time, Matthew is likely to be seen as the worst of the three disasters, compounding Haiti’s misery.

As they’ve done before, Haiti’s rescuers are rushing in: faith-based organizations, NGOs, the Pan American Health Organization, United Nations agencies, the U.S. military. They’re all good at what they do, but this time they’re up against a disturbing array of problems.

First, the country has no fully functional government. Presidential elections are months overdue, and were postponed again because of Matthew. The interim president lacks both authority and resources.

The Ministry of Public Health and Population seems already overwhelmed by ongoing cholera, HIV, chikungunya, dengue and Zika epidemics. The ministry is usually weeks or months behind on reporting cholera cases, and doesn’t seem to bother tracking mosquito-borne diseases.

Much of the population will be too sick (or too busy caring for the sick) to work on any given day. A growing number of recovered Zika cases will develop Guillain-Barré syndrome, a polio-like paralysis. Pregnant women with Zika may give birth to babies with microcephaly or other neurological disorders. In a country that spends $131 per capita on health care, there will be little care for such cases.

Second, NGOs can do good work, but they don’t always co-ordinate with the health ministry, Pan American Health Organization, or one another — let alone the government. Each NGO will doubtless use Matthew for fundraising appeals, but they’ll be competing with one another as well as with disasters elsewhere.

Third, health agencies are constrained by their own tight budgets, with fundraising methods that boil down to passing the hat. For example, PAHO last week issued an appeal for $9 million in donations. “Acute diarrheal diseases including cholera threaten parts of the population, and 75 per cent of the cholera treatment facilities in Sud and Grand'Anse departments have been destroyed, while water distribution systems in the main cities of Jérémie and Les Cayes have almost entirely collapsed,” the health organization told donors. This was on top of an earlier UN appeal for $119 million.

But such appeals usually fall far short of their goals. Donors, whether governments or philanthropical groups, tend to pledge more than they deliver.

So some Haitians are still living in tents almost seven years after the earthquake, while others die of cholera. The World Bank says only 24 per cent of Haitians have access to a toilet and less than half of those in rural areas have access to water. Most existing water and sanitation systems are funded by international organizations, whose support could end anytime.

The prospect of famine

Finally, the destruction of the crops of southwestern Haiti has created instant food insecurity in the region. By the end of the year we may see widespread malnutrition or outright famine. After a previous crop-wrecking hurricane, the U.S. response was to flood the country with cheap American rice, thereby ruining Haiti’s own strong rice-growing sector. We may see something similar this time.

Under these conditions, “building back better” will be a bad joke; it will be an achievement to build anything at all. Hundreds of thousands have to be fed and housed while the whole infrastructure of southwestern Haiti is replaced with... something.

That means new roads, however slapdash; new schools, however inadequately built and staffed; new clinics and hospitals to deal not only with cholera but with a host of other diseases. Many of the most enterprising of the hurricane’s survivors will head for Port-au-Prince or other cities or the U.S., looking for work that isn’t there.

Funding for recovery will last as long as the world’s attention span — that is, until the next disaster somewhere else. Efforts on the ground will be left to the Haitians and a handful of dedicated outsiders like the emergency responders now texting via WhatsApp in the ruins (they are now texting debates on the hazards of cargo drop — one drop included frozen, rotten fish).

Time to rethink our programs

This would be a good time for Canada to overhaul its aid programs for Haiti. Our record is patchy at best. We were involved in a couple of peacekeeping missions (one of which might have been complicity in the ouster of democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide). We’ve supported electoral reform and trained police. Much of our aid money actually goes to Canadian NGOs.

We might do better to help build Haiti’s government infrastructure — not just training cops, but working directly with ministry staff to improve working conditions, procedures and communications. Encouraging local businesses would be another opportunity. And if we allowed the 100,000 Haitians living in Canada to deduct the money they send back to families from their income taxes, the country would get an injection of cash spent mostly on Haitian goods and services.

We could also send agricultural experts to the southwestern communities worst hit by Matthew, to help them rebuild their local farms and orchards. Canadian engineers could guide and train local Haitians in building proper roads and sanitation systems. And we could welcome more Haitians into our universities for advanced training they can take home.

Instead of feel-good, self-serving programs, we might offer Haiti the proverbial hand up instead of a handout, practical help in self-sufficiency and self-government. Haitians’ experience with disasters has made them tough and creative. An experience with success might reduce the number and damage of those disasters.  [Tyee]

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