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Surviving the Blame Game in Haiti

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Traveling to Haiti last week, I was dismayed to discover an international blame game. Everyone seemed to blame someone else for slow progress in recovery from January's earthquake. Frustrations with the slow pace are understandable but the incessant finger pointing helps no one. Still, we found some bright spots among the ruins and rubble and cause for a small dose of hope .
How does the blame game work? The media and foreign governments blame the Haitian government for not moving fast enough to aid the more than one million displaced Haitian citizens. Many commentators fear aid will fuel corruption. Haitian leaders want foreign governments that pledged aid for Haiti to follow through on these commitments - including the US government. (While the US has done much, for weeks an aid package that forgives Haiti's debt and replenishes aid coffers has been stuck in Congress.) Haitian officials are concerned that they lack control over the many small groups -run by US churches or hospitals -that travel to Haiti for short tours. Haitian citizens are angry because they see little evidence of aid and wonder if those who raised money for Haiti after the earthquake will deliver on their promises. Reputable aid groups worry that they are burning through aid dollars renting vehicles when their cars and other materials are stuck in the port, awaiting release by Haitian Customs. Disputes over land ownership prevent breaking ground on new homes for the displaced and dispossessed. All of this leads to criticisms of the Haitian government for not cutting the red tape... and the blame game continues.

Before despairing, let's acknowledge some progress. Most of the displaced are getting food and drinking water. Aid workers have prevented a massive outbreak of disease. In fact, according to the State Department's Cheryl Mills, "the health metrics are actually better in Haiti than they were before the earthquake." Many schools have reopened and are holding summer classes (but, tragically, half the country's children do not attend school). Flights routinely arrive and depart at the airport. There has been minimal violence and minimal economic inflation.

The public in the US, Canada and Europe were generous in donating to earthquake relief. US-based not-for-profits raised nearly $1 billion for Haiti. The American Red Cross raised the most money ($480 million) despite its primary focus as a responder to disasters in the United States. They get high marks from many of those we met for distributing tarps and tents, helping hospitals, handing out meals, providing financial aid and undertaking an ambitious disaster preparedness program to help the earthquake's victims survive the hurricane season. They also are wisely seeking partners with experience in overseas work to help them deliver aid.

Second, I saw first-hand how organizations like mine are making a difference. I visited two camps for displaced Haitians with International Rescue Committee staff. The IRC is working hard to provide clean water, sanitation, education of children and support for women threatened by sexual violence. Small steps as basic as installing a hygienic latrine or the formation of a camp security team may not sound like much - unless you are the one living in a crowded camp with your family, worried for their health and safety. In addition, our tracing programs have united parents with missing children, thus helping to mend broken families.

In addition to outside groups that are helping Haiti, many Haitians have stepped forward to play constructive roles. During our trip I met senior government officials striving to get reconstruction started and educated Haitian-Americans who have returned to Haiti to share what they know. Even some of the earthquake's victims, are doing what they can to help despite having lost loved ones, homes and jobs.

Finally, I felt a bit of optimism after we met with Nigel Fisher, a senior United Nations representative appointed to lead on the humanitarian response and economic development in Haiti. While he did not underestimate the challenges, he appeared intent on getting on with the work, ticking off priorities (jobs, children in school, debris removal, housing), explaining the need for a five-year plan to improve education, and even prodding a colleague to move grant proposals along. He claims that a tremendous amount of activity is going on behind the scenes in areas such as geo-spatial mapping of the country to pinpoint usable land and repair of buildings that were minimally damaged. Fisher appears to be one cool Canadian in the face of international pressure and widespread, mounting frustration.

But then, Fisher has not been on the job very long. Perhaps he has yet to learn the rules of the international blame game. Here's hoping that he and many others persevere in rebuilding Haiti and helping its citizens heal and thrive.

To learn more about the International Rescue Committee's work in Haiti please click here.