Initial Haiti response spotlights our attitude towards developing nations

Reluctance to distribute aid in the early period after the Haiti earthquake over security fears was great disservice to people of Haiti.

A few days after the Haiti earthquake, aid supplies began to arrive at the Port-au-Prince airport. Reports emerged that supplies were not being distributed amongst concerns over security, with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon calling for extra troops to be sent to the country. Reports also emerged of looting and lawlessness amongst the population and major concerns were raised about the ability to distribute food in those circumstances.

However, an alternative view was taken by Andy Kershaw, in The Independent, where he wrote an excellent article “Stop treating these people like savages”.

It soon became clear that priorities had become warped in the country, when a 15 year old girl was shot dead through the head for stealing pictures.

The BBC, whose Matt Frei had initially reported major security fears, drawing criticism, then published its own piece “Misguided fears test Haitians’ patience”. It was clear that the Haitian population were getting desperate, and a major misunderstanding was brewing, with potentially disastrous consequences.

I was particularly frustrated to read this quote from one charity worker, in another article on the BBC New website, “What is delaying Haiti’s aid?”

John O’Shea of Irish charity Goal told the Guardian newspaper he could not allow aid workers to move into Haiti from the Dominican Republican because he had “no guarantee that the people driving them are not going to be macheted to death on the way down”.

I found this comment extremely frustrating. On the one hand you have observers on the ground saying that the population was generally calm and dignified, but understandably getting impatient that aid wasn’t getting through. On the other you have an aid worker in another country worried that he was going to be “macheted to death”. The two positions seemed at fairly opposite extremes. I felt that John O’Shea’s attitude was grossly unfair and did a great disservice to the people of Haiti, and his choice of the words “macheted to death” hugely overplayed the likely risks aid workers faced.

From the same article on the BBC News website was the comment :

“If we distribute food all at once, some people will take more then they need and there is the risk of them selling food items, rather than it reaching the people that need it.”

So the response was to deny aid to all starving Haitians to prevent some people profiting from it. If food was being sold, at least it is getting through to hungry people. The concerns over looting got so heated that Haitian police employed a shoot-to-kill policy for a 15 year old girl stealing paintings. These people were desperate for food after 4 or 5 days with no relief. To me, it felt as if property rights were more important than feeding starving people.

I have seen no reports of security issues once aid was distributed, and just a day after John O’Shea’s “machete” quote, Haitians were happily receiving aid.

To me it demonstrates a long held concern I have about our attitudes towards developing nations. The term “Developing Nation” only refers to its economic status. Not the population’s morality, education, scientific understanding, culture or literature. There is no reason to suppose that in the event of such a disaster the population would descend into base violence, or that law and order would break down. And reports indicated quite the opposite. As Andy Kershaw said, we need to “Stop treating these people like savages”.