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Fear Slows Aid Efforts in Haiti

Letter From Port au Prince

by SASHA KRAMER

Port au Prince.

To our dear friends and supporters who have been so present through this difficult time. I feel like I have a wall of love and protection around me knowing that you are all holding Haiti in your thoughts and prayers. I apologize for not having written for the past few days, it is partly that life here is so hectic and fast paced and partly because I find that writing about the situation brings all my emotions to the surface and brings me to a vulnerable space that can be rather overwhelming. That said, I so want to be able to share with all of you what we are experiencing and the important difference we have been able to make as a result of your generosity.

When I first arrived in Port au Prince I spent a day at the UN compound by the airport where NGO’s, doctors and soldiers swarm around talking on satellite phones and running from meeting to meeting. I learned about the massive amounts of food aid that arrived in the first week and was stockpiled at the airport. I learned of the aid trucks filled to the brim with supplies blocked at the border and sitting idle at the ports. Since that day I have not returned to the aid compound and chosen instead to go into the streets, into the camps where people hide from the sun, huddled together under tattered tarps waiting for the food that has yet to come, into the alleyways littered with the rubble of fallen dreams and the spirits of those we have lost.

I know that some of these stories of aid not reaching the victims are beginning to filter into the international media but I wanted to see if I can shed some light about why this is without casting blame. Everyone who has come here is devastated by this disaster, everyone wants to help but the slowness in distribution is not a question of intentions, it is a question of long standing fears and the security structures put in place in response to these fears.

A few days ago I got an email from Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times asking me to comment on the supposition made by many (not Nicolas himself) that Haitians have received large amounts of aid money over the years and have somehow squandered it. I responded to him by talking about fear, this same fear that is slowing the distribution of aid during this crisis. For centuries Haiti has been portrayed as a dangerous country filled with volatile and threatening people, unsafe for foreigners. This supposition, this fear and misunderstanding, has very deep implications for foreign aid and cross cultural understanding.

I have been amazed to visit friends working with large NGO’s in Port au Prince only to learn that they are forced to operate under security restrictions that prevent any kind of real connections to Haitian communities. One friend showed me the map, used by all of the larger NGOs where Port au Prince is divided into security zones, yellow, orange, red. Red zones are restricted, in the orange zones all of the car windows must be rolled up and they cannot be visited past certain times of day, even in the yellow zones aid workers are often not permitted to walk through the streets and spend much of their time in Haiti riding through the city from one office to another in organizational vehicles.

The creation of these security zones has been like the building of a wall, a wall reinforced by language barriers and fear rather than iron rods, a wall that, unlike many of the buildings in Port au Prince, did not crumble during the earthquake. Fear, much like violence, is self perpetuating. When aid workers enter communities radiating fear it is offensive, the perceived disinterest in communicating with the poor majority is offensive, driving through impoverished communities with windows rolled up and armed security guards is offensive and, ironically, all of these extra security measures actually increase the level of risk for aid workers.

As I said, this wall of fear is not a new phenomenon and it has had very serious implications for the distribution of the millions of dollars of aid that have been flowing into the country for the past 10 days. Despite the good intentions of the many aid workers swarming around the UN base, much of the aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required UN and US military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution, meanwhile people in the camps are suffering and their tolerance is waning.

Over the past 5 days I have been grateful to work with a small organization unhindered by bureaucracy and security restrictions. I am so thankful to work with a courageous team of Haitian community leaders and a respectful and fearless group of Americans. Thanks to the generous donations of our supporters SOIL has raised approximately $30,000 for immediate relief efforts and we are committed to providing that relief as quickly as we can get the money into the country. The most striking thing I have noticed while visiting the many camps throughout the city is the level of organization and ingenuity among the displaced communities. Community members stand ready to distribute food and water to their neighbors, they are prepared to provide first aid and assist with clean up efforts, all that they are lacking is the financial means to do so. When the quake struck people’s savings were buried under the rubble of their former homes, banks are closed and no one has been able to access their accounts. Food and water are available for sale in the streets but no one is able to purchase them.

Our hope is that SOIL, AIDG and other small organizations will be able to help provide communities with the means to meet their needs in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, bridging the gap during the time it takes for the larger organizations to mobilize. I am honored to know a network of brave community leaders throughout Port au Prince whom I met during my human rights work from 2004-2006 and our team has spent the past several days visiting the camps with them and helping to distribute the resources that we have at our disposal. Each day we have been purchasing water trucks to deliver to camps that have yet to receive water, giving money to community organizers who are then able to purchase food from local businesses and distribute it to the areas most in need, bringing doctors and medical supplies into zones of the city that have none, providing our generator to community cyber cafes so that people are able to contact their families, driving patients from the camps to medical clinics that can receive them.

The magnitude of this tragedy is unimaginable and we are aware of our limitations and our inability to help touch more than a small percentage of those affected. While it breaks my heart to think about those we cannot help, it also fills me with hope to see the impact that we have been able to make. Each day I am awed and humbled by the dedication and compassion of my colleagues, both Haitian and international and touched by the outpouring of love and support that we have received from around the world. Please keep your love and donations flowing and we will do everything in our power to funnel that love and aid to the communities that need it the most.

With love from Port au Prince,
Sasha

SASHA KRAMER, Ph.D. is an ecologist and human rights advocate and co-founder of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). She is an Adjunct Professor of International Studies at the University of Miami. She can be reached at: sashakramer@gmail.com.