Haiti aidworkers... This Is Your Life

Many people have asked what life is like for aidworkers in Haiti, knowing many of the offices were destroyed, and people lost their houses or apartments.

Here is a snapshot:

This is your office complex- LogBase:

Haiti LogBase

This is your neighbourhood- Camp Charly:

Haiti Camp Charly

Your wash room at Camp Charly:

Haiti Camp Charly washroom

And this is your home- about 8x8 feet:

Haiti Camp Charly bed

Pictures via Shot from the Hip

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Haiti: how we make poor countries poorer

haitian rice farmer

President Clinton apologized on March 10 for the role that his government played in destroying a big part of Haitian agriculture: "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. ... I have to live every day with the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti, to feed those people, because of what I did."

Beginning in the 1980s, subsidized U.S. rice wiped out thousands of Haitian rice farmers and made the country dependent on imported food. (Full)
Need I to say more?

Picture courtesy Standeyo

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Aidworkers are like driftwood


Last night I arrived back in my apartment near Rome. As I opened the door with a key I had not used for almost three months, the familiar smells and sights engulfed me. It felt as if I had just walked out of the door for a few minutes, to buy a pack of cigarettes in the shop downstairs.

A pair of shoes stood under the small table in the hallway, with next to it some spots of volcanic sand from the previous stroll on the beach now ten weeks ago. I walked into the kitchen to unlock the backdoor, switched on the boiler, picked up a glass on the way back, hooked up my iPod to the sound system, selected Italian opera, checked messages on the answering machine, drew the curtains aside and opened the living room windows.

The smell of distant sea-silt, the fresh breeze, the trees waking up from a winter sleep, the laughter of the kids playing below in the street, the dog from the house across the street barking, and the meshed conversations from the people coming out of the ristorante on one corner, with the those sitting on the terrace of the coffee shop on the other corner.

All of it made it feel as if I only left for a few minutes. But it did not feel this was the place I missed during my travels to the Dominican and Haiti. It did not feel this was the place I dreamt of. It felt as if I wasn't really gone. A piece of me stayed here. A big piece of my heart never left. Coming back felt like two pieces of my heart were joined again, making it skip a beat for a second. I smiled when I realized my heart pounded faster. I felt happy. "Honey, I am home"..!

But what is "home" for a wandering aidworker? I will be here for four days, then off to the North for a few days, followed by another plane ride to Belgium, my other home, for a week. Then I will drive off for a week of skiing, and back. Plane back to Rome for a day, and then to my other home, in the Dominican, for a few months.

What is home really? What defines home? The pillow I lay my head on? The hands I held in thoughts? The smile of my girls?

In thoughts, I pushed my travel bags in a corner, sat down, and opened a bottle of Prosecco, realizing this life I lead is a weird life. But it is the life I conscientiously had chosen since I left for a war-torn Angola back in 1994. Sixteen years I have been on the road, and made my home in dozens of places. What? Hundreds of places! From the hotel room in Georgia where the wind would swing the electrical wires on the street until they shortened with a bang, waking me up every night. To the apartment in Tajikistan where the tap water was as black as ink. To the bed and breakfast place on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam where I had to pick the leeches off my legs each time I walked in the garden. To the underground bunker in Kabul. The humid guesthouse in Islamabad shared with cockroaches. The Out-of-Africa villa in Lilongwe and the house on the hill in Kampala, known as "the house next to the big mango tree", until the transformer next to it went up in flames, burning down the tree while it was at it, then to be known as "the house next to the big charred mango tree"...

This morning, before even taking a shower, I wanted one of the things I missed about this place: A Cafe Latte with a cornetto. As I got out of bed, I put on some clothes - realizing I forgot my jeans in my Domingo home, and went down. Laura, behind the counter as usual, said 'Ciao, Peter!", as if I'd never left. I sat on the terrace tasting the coffee as if it was my first. Looking at the blue sky lined with palm trees as if it was the first time I saw it.

I thought a shower might be a good idea, but, as I went through the last piece of the croissant, I realized I took my electric shaver with me, but forgot my charger in Santo Domingo. Strange how you realize things clearly sometimes, but at the moment where you should have remembered, you forget. I dug out the keys to my car, brushed the pine tree needles off the wind shield, and went to buy a razor. Got distracted by the early spring flowers on the way back. Conscientiously took a different turn, and drove off to the sea. Locked the car, and walked up the beach.

It was then I saw a large piece of driftwood. It was then I realized my life was as if it were driftwood. Floating from one place to the other. Each place left marks on me, in me. And as time went by, each place sculptured me bit by bit, making me who and what I am.

It was then I realized this is the life I like. Drifting from place to place. Not rooting in any, but loving all. And particularly loving this beach where I was pulled ashore, right here in Italy.

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Taking a day off

Since two weeks, we decided to close the office on Sundays. Time for people to take at least one day off, since the two months we have been running the emergency operation out of the Dominican Republic.

When Mike told us he found a pilot who needed the flight hours, and a helicopter for which we were only to share the cost of fuel, and discover the Dominican, I did not have to think twice. Little did I know it would be one of the nicest days I had here.

This was going to be our heli and pilot for the day.

We flew to the north coast of the island, and to our surprise, the pilot landed on a deserted beach.

A deserted beach in the Caribbean, what more would you want for a day off....

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Humanitarian news flying high

Humanitarian News new layout

While still on mission here in the Dominican Republic, shuttling between Santo Domingo and Haiti, I had to put blogging a bit more on the background.

The good news is that my automatic aggregation website Humanitarian News, continues to fly high. We're now at almost 20,000 visitors a month. Last month, we retrieved 19,000 articles from 790 different sources. Humanitarian News now stores about 115,000 articles since I started it in six months ago.

The main Twitter accounts linked to this site, @aidnews and @humanitynews grew to 4,600 and 1,900 followers respectively.

It seems more and more people also use customized RSS feeds, allowing you to get the latest updates on the topics you are interested in, via RSS or automatics email updates.

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Staff security - about being a pain in the ass

Have been involved in most humanitarian emergencies since I started this job, back in 1994, with a break of the last four years when I took a sabbatical, and worked for three years in our headquarters.

For eight years, I lead an intervention team, which went into any humanitarian emergency operation way before anyone else was allowed in, as we had to install the technical infrastructure ensuring the safety of the other staff.

As a manager, I have always taken the responsibility for the safety and well-being of my staff seriously. No matter what the rules, procedures and regulations were, I have always put the mark higher for my own staff. I have publicly questioned existing rules where I found them lacking. I have opened many a can of worms where I felt "the system" was inadequate to deal with safety. I have taken difficult decisions which did not always make me popular. Sometimes amongst the staff involved, sometimes amongst management. Over the years, I earned the reputation of being a pain in the ass.

Let me get the record straight: I *am* a pain in the ass. I would not like to be my own supervisor, as I am very difficult to be managed. But I have always found pride in the fact that - taking away my un-orthodox ways of working - people deep down inside realize at one point or the other, that I was right.

Now that, once more, I am leading a team in an emergency operation, many past experiences come back to me. Including the feeling of "these people must think I am a pain in the ass". Particularly concerning staff safety.

All too many times, as managers, people think of staff safety in the context of the political situations. In context of cost to implement the security measure. In context of the operational impact, when implementing strict security rules. But in all of this complexity, some questions continuously come back to me:
Would Pero still be alive if I had spoken up more openly about the obvious insecurity in West-Timor? Would Magda still be alive if I had spoken up more openly about the obvious decreased security in Baghdad?

Since those days, I leave no stone unturned unless if I can say to myself "I did all I could".

That does not make me very popular. But I don't care. I have to live with my conscience. Staff safety and security is not a responsibility of "a system", but also for each individual manager. And they should take that responsibility personal.

Picture courtesy AnneMarie VanDenBerg

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Haiti, where Mañana is not an option...

Log Base in Haiti

"Mañana, por favor!", I answer when housekeeping knocks on my door. Mañana, please, I am working...

I sit, computer on my lap, on my bed reading through a backlog of emails, catching up on work done, being done, and work to do.

I just got back from two days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It has been almost two months since I landed in Santo Domingo to coordinate the support functions for the Haiti crisis, out of the Dominican Republic. My days are full. My attention is switching from a meeting with one of the ministers, staff recruitment, debugging a cash advance problem, a meeting on limiting the overtime the drivers can do, a shipment which seems to be lost but really is not, stamping the numbering on the food coupons, staffing contracts and a security incident.

It is not the amount of work that tires me, it is the intensity in which issues come, and need to be dealt with. Not that I don't like it, but in the evening, I pass out on my bed...

After two days in Haiti, I wonder how my colleagues can deal with their work, which is a ten fold more complex than mine. They don't have a comfortable hotel room, five floors up and 1 minute away from the office. They either live in Camp Charly, the tent camp for the humanitarians, or have to shuttle to the boat anchored off shore, to spend the night. Given, the boat is more comfortable, but it takes anything between one to two hours to get there. Some of the staff pitched their tent in the back of the container park, in "Log Base", right next to the airport, where most UN agencies set up tents, tarps and office containers, making it the "humanitarian nerve center" of the operation.

The humanitarian part of Log Base is nothing but one narrow road, lined with parked vehicles, crowded with people moving around between the offices, and filled on either side with "offices".

The fortunate have a 20 foot office container, some with airconditioning, with tarps over them to avoid water sipping through the joints. The less fortunate have massive tents to work in. Meetings are held in open spaces covered with tarps, or half open shelters. Lack of working space is common with most containers cramped with four people, hardly fitting the make shift desks, filled with files and folders hardly leaving space to fit their legs inbetween.

The noise is constant, mostly from planes and helicopters taking off or landing on the airstrip a few hundred feet away. During the meetings, when the screaming noise of yet another Ilutsin taking off builds up, people just stop their sentence for thirty seconds, and then continue as if nothing happened. Like pushing the 'pause' button on a video.

Most of the containers are now properly wired up onto the generators, and have network connections to the servers and satellite links. Nothing much we can do these days anymore without connectivity, be it for emails, telephone calls, or registering all procurement or logistics transactions onto the central servers in HQ.

Luckily, during my two days, it was neither hot, nor raining, and many staff commented "this weather is as good as it gets". I can imagine the dust, humidity or mud on other days.

There is a constant flow of visitors. Army personnel, staff from the other agencies and NGOs, civilians, people from the government and local communities, people coming back from assessment missions or distribution points. It makes it hard to keep concentrated to the task at hand, as people get interrupted every other minute.

And although the spotlight of the world's cameras is no longer focused on Haiti, the humanitarian operation is still to peak. While during the first six weeks, the utmost urgent needs were being met with loads of cargo being flown in, the steady massive flow of the aid cargo coming in per ship has started. While one plane can bring in up to 100,000 kgs of aid supplies, a ship can bring in 400,000,000 kgs in one go. So the logistics and distribution challenges are only starting now.

On top of it all, the rainy season has begun, making the need of the bringing in supplies even more urgent. And we have the hurricane season just around the corner.

So, sitting back in my hotel room on this Sunday, I can not have but admiration for the staff working in Haiti. Many of them were present during the earthquake. They have lost their homes, suffered from loosing family or friends, scarred by seeing the human misery day by day.

I wish anyone criticizing the humanitarian agencies on the ground in Haiti, could spend a week there, working with them and feel what it is to be faced with the daunting tasks ahead, where "Mañana" might not be an option.

Pictures from my visit to Haiti, and random snapshot from day to day life here, can be found on Shot from the Hip.

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