Tuesday 21 January 2020

Children need the most help in Haiti

Lessons must be learned from mistakes made in the wake of the tsunami, writes David Dalton, CEO of Plan Ireland

Six years on from the Asian tsunami, Mother Nature has shown once again just how devastatingly powerful she is. On January 12, in less time than it takes to boil a kettle, Port-au-Prince and a wide surrounding area were reduced to rubble.

When the dust settled, Haiti's young population -- half of them are aged 18 or younger, and 300,000 of them were already orphans -- began to take stock of their situation and it was just about as bad as it could get.

As survivors dug with bare hands to recover others, humanitarian organisations around the world swung into action, just as they did in 2004.

The response to the tsunami was huge, but fragmented. Hundreds of charities and NGOs rushed to do what they could but, because they lacked any real co-ordination, sometimes their work was duplicated and possibly even counter-productive.

What was lacking was long-term thinking. For example, many houses built hurriedly as emergency shelters had to be torn down and rebuilt some months later because they were not suitable for permanent homes or they had been built on private property.

Of course, most of the assistance was professionally delivered and hundreds of thousands of people received the humanitarian assistance they needed, but it is essential to learn from mistakes that were made and not to replicate them in Haiti or elsewhere.

To this end, the United Nations devised a programme called the Cluster System to co-ordinate relief efforts, to eliminate confusion and prevent duplication of efforts among the various agencies and NGOs. This system worked quite well when it was used in Pakistan, Gaza and in the Philippines' flooding last year, but Haiti is its biggest test to date.

If the cluster system is successful and relief groups work well together in Haiti, it will make the response to the Haitian earthquake more efficient and result in a more sustainable outcome for local people, giving them something on which to build their future.

Plan is part of a child protection cluster in Haiti where it is working with the UN, like- minded agencies and the government to protect children. All unaccompanied, separated and orphaned children are registered and every effort is being made to provide them with their essential needs. Agencies will then strive to trace a child's family so they can be reunited.

Experts say that physical recovery in Haiti is likely to take a minimum of three to five years. There's no knowing how long it will take for survivors, especially children, to recover from the psychological and emotional wounds they have received.

It must never be forgotten that most of the life-saving and recovery work done in the wake of disasters is done by local people themselves. The most important people in this situation are the Haitian people. They must be consulted on what way they see their future.

A return to normality is probably not what they want, because normality for the vast majority of them consisted of hard, poverty-stricken lives lived out in squalid conditions and with little realistic hope of ever seeing any improvement.

If the massive aid programme is managed correctly it could mean for the survivors that the terrible quake, although dreadfully painful and traumatic, could in the long run prove to be the nadir from which their country gradually climbed. This could, in fact, be an opportunity.

At the moment, though, people are hurting and in need of assistance. As is always the case, children are particularly vulnerable. Many thousands of them were left homeless and alone or seeking siblings, parents and other family members.

The recent incident in which a group of seemingly well-meaning but badly misguided people were arrested as they tried to move 30 or so children across the border into the Dominican Republic, en route to adoptive homes in the US, just goes to show how vulnerable children on the streets can be.

Luckily they were intercepted but how many others have gone unnoticed in the chaos? Many child-trafficking gangs, who operate wherever extreme poverty reduces the price of a child's life enough for them to make a profit, would not have such benign intentions.

It is hugely important that any response by the international community to disasters must have child protection as one of its most important elements. Staff at Plan's programmes in Haiti realised this and quickly established child-safe zones amid the rubble.

In these zones, children can get together, play games or just hang out. This not only gives them a break from the misery all around them but also gives them something else to focus on.

Far from removing children to unfamiliar surroundings to live among people they don't know, it is vital, both for their own personal development and for that of the community of which they are members, that they be cared for within and alongside other members of that community.

Another aspect of this is that children and young people need to feel that they belong and that they have a role to play. Many local teenagers and students have volunteered to help Plan with its relief work in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. Giving them a role not only gets them off the streets but also gives them a sense of pride.

Plan has worked in Haiti for 37 years and has 46,900 children sponsored there -- more than 200 of them sponsored by people living in Ireland. Sponsorship allows Plan and its local partners, communities and beneficiaries to work together to rebuild homes, villages and lives.

Plan is distributing 18,000 meals a day, has distributed over 4,000 tents and 6,000 family survival kits and created safe spaces for children where, through organised games, it can interact and offer counselling where it is needed. There is so much more to do and your help is needed now.

For more information on Plan Ireland see plan.ie or call freephone 1800 829 829.

Sunday Independent

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