August 29 2012

When aid does not help

23/08/2012 - Villas for company managers, tents for the victims of earthquakes: support often misses the mark because those affected by disasters are not consulted. This comment, made by Dr. Wilfried Vyslozil, managing director of the German Association of SOS Children's Villages (SOS-Kinderdörfer weltweit), appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in the "Outside view" column on page 2 in the 22 August 2012 edition.

Wilfried Vyslozil, managing director of the German SOS Children's Villages assocation  © SOS Archives
Disasters are almost never unexpected but they still catch us by surprise every time they happen. After the earthquake struck Haiti two and a half years ago it was obvious to anyone who knew the country a little that this was bound to happen. The capital Port-au-Prince was already in such a deplorable condition that any extreme natural phenomenon – whether an earthquake, a hurricane or days of heavy rain – would inevitably cause destruction and huge numbers of deaths. Things could have been even worse. A little over a year later an earthquake shook Japan, triggering a tsunami and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The earthquake was four times more powerful than the one in Haiti.

Providing aid is a complex business

Fortunately there is an enormous aid industry which is always ready and waiting and can reach any disaster area within a very short time. First to rescue survivors, then for emergency relief and finally for reconstruction. They are professionals who know what needs to be done. They can get hold of the necessary money from fund-raising campaigns and from the public purse and then ensure that this money – as you might say – is spent again. At times, however, some money also ends up in misguided projects. Aid organisations argue about the most publicly effective project or they all look after one model village while in the neighbouring village the people go hungry. Developments like these have often been the cause of complaint. And something is then done about it. In the case of all major disasters the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) attempts to coordinate the work of the different organisations at the scene – however, not always with the desired success.

Photo: Christian Martinelli
Destroyed houses in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake © Christian Martinelli 
After the disaster in Haiti SOS Children's Villages provided emergency relief. Disaster aid is not actually part of the core business of a children's welfare organisation, but we are increasingly forced to provide such aid. Most of our over 500 SOS Children's Villages are located in poor countries which are prone to disasters. The victims then simply appear on our doorstep. We have now become practised at responding rapidly in emergency situations. But we are not sure whether we always do everything right. Providing aid is a complex business which, though always well intentioned, far too often also causes harm.

Important staple food: the USA sent Haiti support in the form of rice. Our SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince survived the earthquake undamaged. In the community centres around our village which we operate along with the residents there, we opened ten new ones and provided 23,000 people with food. The rice – the most important national staple food – came from the USA. By doing this, did we end up taking away the local rice farmers' most important market and doing the country's economy more harm than good? In the north, where the country's most fertile soils are, the earthquake was barely felt and did not cause any damage.

Photo: Mirco Lomoth
Is the way we help the right one? Do we reach those in most dire need? Is well intentioned always good? Also an NGO like SOS Children's Villages has to ask itself these questions  © Mirco Lomoth
A villa costs more than twenty simple family homes

On these particular fertile soils, we are now looking at an example of what aid should never be. In the municipality of Caracol in north-east Haiti the largest industrial park in the country is currently taking shape. It is being financed with part of the ten billion US dollars which were promised to Haiti by the international community for emergency aid and reconstruction. The fields have long since made way for factory buildings where up to 20,000 men and women will in future sew clothes for a wage of barely three euros per day.

The South Korean company Sea-A is the only beneficiary of the "reconstruction" in a region where nothing at all was destroyed. The USA and the Inter-American Development Bank are paying for the whole infrastructure of the park including a power plant and factory buildings. Sea-A is even getting favourable credit terms for purchasing the necessary machines and relief from customs duties for exporting the products to the USA.

The top employees of the factory complex, who were flown in from South Korea, are keen to have their own enclosed living quarters, what is known as a gated community. It need scarcely be mentioned that a villa there costs more than twenty simple family houses for the victims of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Even now, two and a half years after the disaster, there are still 400,000 homeless people living in tent cities in the capital.

Sea-A in particular is known for its ruthless action against the unions in Guatemala and Nicaragua, and for immediately packing up its machines and leaving if it can pay even lower wages in another country. The group has already closed its factory in Guatemala. The local newspapers ran the headline: "Sea-A goes to Haiti". Guatemala is also repeatedly struck by severe earthquakes. Would it be cynical to venture to predict that the jobs now lost there will return after the next disaster because so-called investment obstacles such as workers' rights and environmental standards will no longer be an issue?

Photo: Christian Martinelli
Emergency often means a lack of food - sometimes a profitable business  © Christian Martinelli
The USA wanted quick results

How can something like this happen? Quite simply: the USA wanted to demonstrate quick results in Haiti. The plans for the industrial park were already prepared prior to the earthquake but no investor had turned up. The South Korean group only went for it because the reconstruction support had made the investment conditions considerably more attractive. A bargain for them, and the sponsors are happy that the money already contributed is spent. But no one had asked the people in Haiti for their views: not the mayor of Caracol and certainly not the inhabitants of the little town.

This example might be an extreme one but certainly not an exception. Aid is always provided if someone believes they have found a lack in the recipients of the aid. This is often a lack of food. In the example described here it is a lack of jobs and economic performance which Haiti has been suffering for a long time and which has now come to the attention of the world at large after the earthquake.

Our welfare and development organisations do not lack experts who can draw up and implement programmes to remedy such deficits. But the people in need are not taken seriously in this process. We should concentrate less on what is lacking and pay more attention to what is already there. Those things which can grow and develop if we only give them a little support. This kind of aid may require an indirect approach, needs patience and does not necessarily show quick results. But it is promising and sustainable because it provides encouragement where commitment and determination already exist. And it is humanitarian because it takes the people in need seriously.