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Guest Thinkers

Haiti: The United Nations Picks Up The Pieces

How quickly the media caravan moves on. How painful it must be for those left behind, who for but a short while captured global attention, but who must continue to return to the hell of ruined shacks and hovels that is Port au Prince, Haiti, now that the spotlight has shifted elsewhere.

The unimaginable suffering caused by the devastating earthquake that last month hit the most populous parts of the island of Hispaniola hasn’t miraculously ceased. It continues. Just because the camera crews and reporters have left, doesn’t mean that somehow Haiti should stop being newsworthy. Just because the politicians have stopped talking about the disaster, and stopped visiting, doesn’t somehow mean the problem is solved.

Far from it. A snap shot of the most recent report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, gives some idea of a disaster that is continuing to unfold.

The estimates for the number of dead have actually increased by 5000 to a total of 222,517, which is the total population for instance of the coastal resort of Brighton on England’s South coast. The most urgent need is still desperately needed assistance for shelter and sanitation. Over half a million people have left Port au Prince altogether, some 160,000 massing on the border of the Dominican Republic. There are some 1.2 million people still in need of basic shelter. And here is OCHA delicately spelling out the dire problems associated with the oncoming rainy season; “addressing drainage and solid waste management is an urgent priority”. Having reported from Haiti prior to a natural disaster and witnessed the collapsed sewers and rubbish filled public spaces, it is difficult even to imagine what the place looks like or smells like today.

But even if the media caravan has moved on, the United Nations has not. While President Obama and the United States have rightly received a great deal of positive publicity for some of the relief operations in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the United Nations in the shape of numerous UN agencies such as OCHA and MINUSTAH, the military and police peacekeepers, deserves much of the credit. For the UN was there in Haiti before the earthquake and will be there for the foreseeable future. What it does and what it continues to do though, does not gain the credit, support or publicity it deserves.

So far some 333000 people have received emergency shelter material, such as plastic sheeting, with over 230000 tarpaulins and 22000 tents being distributed. Remarkably there have been no outbreaks of serious disease, and up until February 20 over 12500 thousand tons of rice had been distributed to over 2.9 million people. And here is a snapshot of the activities of MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeepers, who have succeeded in doing what many of the gainsayers said, could not be possible – keep the peace in truly extraordinary circumstances. Over one day, February 21-22, some 1,778 multinational troops conducted 288 vehicle and foot security patrols in Port au Prince, with seventy troops providing escorts for five major humanitarian food distributions. And elsewhere on that same day, the UN Police, working with the shattered remnants of the Haitian police conducted 150 joint patrols in Port au Prince, with 44 police checkpoints being established.

Most remarkably of all perhaps, is the announcement by Haiti’s Ministry for Education that children from the earthquake affected areas should be back at school by April.

So progress is slowly and surely being made, and for this the United Nations and its agencies deserves not just praise but the active support, practically and financially, of the international community.

That easy recourse of all too many politicians and journalists that the United Nations is a toothless body, a talking shop that never reaches decisions needs to be tested in the full glare of what it is actually doing on the ground in Haiti. Talk is cheap. Deeds are expensive. The best we can do is persuade friends and family to continue to give support to the aid agencies and charities who ask for it. The worst we can do it to lose interest along, it would seem, with much of the rest of the media.


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