01 Jan 2010

Haiti: A War Against Chaos


Huffington Post

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Port-au-Prince – Haiti’s main airport looks like a war zone, but the troops encamped beside the runway in Port-au-Prince are there to save lives, not to take them. They are part of a global coalition of mercy that includes a host of UN agencies, private charities and religious organizations. All are working together to rescue Haiti. The enemy is chaos – a total political and social breakdown.

It is easy to criticize the pace of relief, and sadly some may have done so just for the media attention. During a brief visit to oversee the delivery of nearly 100 tons of food, medical supplies, tents and other aid last week, I saw some of the chaos that critics have cited. A quiet runway in an economically deprived Caribbean nation has suddenly become one of the busiest runways in the world, and the strain shows. The surrounding roads are choked with military vehicles, UN cars and local traffic.

But I saw something else in Haiti that the critics often overlook: Hope. For the most politically unstable and impoverished country in the western hemisphere, that is saying something.

It seems the entire world is coming to Haiti’s aid. The January 12 earthquake was a tragedy, but what has happened since then is a lesson for humanity of what we can accomplish when we work together.

The fact is, we are waging a war in Haiti -- a war for survival. The challenge is staggering. Haitian society has long been fragile and in desperate need of outside help even before the earthquake. Most Haitians live on $2 or less per day, and 80 percent live in poverty. 90 percent of children suffer from waterborne diseases and intestinal parasites. Half of the population is illiterate. 80 percent of Haitians who earn a college degree leave, taking their knowledge and expertise to another country.

Those underlying problems were compounded by the earthquake, which destroyed vital infrastructure, including hospitals and other facilities that are typically on the frontline of emergency relief. Aid workers and their families were among those killed and injured.

The UN headquarters in Haiti collapsed, killing 61 UN staff – the most lost in the history of the organization. More than 100 remain unaccounted for. Despite those daunting challenges, aid started to flow almost as soon as the initial tremors stopped. Two institutions — both often maligned — have played a critical role in sustaining hope for Haiti. The United Nations and the U.S. military are taking the lead in pulling Haiti back from the brink of chaos and utter despair.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) began distributing high-energy biscuits to hungry Haitians within the first 24 hours after the earthquake and has not let up. The makeshift WFP compound in Port-au-Prince is littered with pup tents — the closest thing to housing that most aid workers have had since the earthquake.

The U.S. military moved swiftly to maintain order, organize relief flights and distribute ready-to-eat meals. The UN reports that the military has distributed 40 percent of all the relief to date in Haiti.

The Americans troops are not alone. More than three dozen nations have contributed troops or police to the UN Stabilization Force in Haiti and they have joined in. When I visited the headquarters of the 1,200 Jordanian contingent in Port-au-Prince, their commander, Col. Issam Swailmeen, hadn’t slept in three days. Three Jordanian peacekeepers died in the earthquake. Despite their fatigue, their dedication to the task was inspiring.

Countries around the world are offering help in other ways. The relief flight I arrived on, organized by the International Humanitarian City, a global relief depot in Dubai, included about 40 tons of supplies from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Humanitarian Charity Establishment, an initiative started by my husband, Sheikh Mohammed.

Beyond the traditional donors in North America and Europe, so many other countries are also offering aid. Poor as they are, Liberia, Senegal and Rwanda have all made financial commitments. Jamaica, Israel, Brazil and Russia have supplied field hospitals. China was the first to land a relief shipment in Port au Prince. The list of donor nations is long and growing daily.

I’m not naïve. Bleak doesn’t begin to describe the outlook in Haiti. My biggest fear is that the security situation will deteriorate and all the funds for aid will be wasted. Desperation has already led to crime and looting.

My other fear is that world attention will shift to other problems as Haiti stabilizes. Haiti’s recovery requires an intense and a long-term commitment, especially to its weakened government, which is now operating out of a police barracks. We are barely into the first phase of Haiti’s rescue. The rebuilding phase will be just as challenging and even more expensive.

Mistakes will be made, no doubt. But we cannot let Haiti slip into chaos. It is time we made a commitment to the people of Haiti that lasts.