In his final blog about how we’ve responded to emergencies over the last 50 years, Mike Noyes, our Head of Humanitarian Programmes for Asia and Latin America, remembers the Haiti earthquake.
On 12 January 2010, just after 4pm in the afternoon, Haiti was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, centred not far from its crowded capital, Port-au-Prince. Almost a quarter of a million people were killed, including about a third of the country’s civil servants, most of the leadership of the UN programme in the country and the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince.
Around three million people were affected by the impact of the earthquake and at least one million people were made homeless. The massive destruction of buildings and roads was a major handicap to initial relief efforts, which saw not just the mobilisation of aid agencies from all around the world but the short term deployment of large numbers of US troops.
The Catholic community of England and Wales responded with massive generosity to our appeal, and we began working with both Haitian and international partners, including Catholic Relief Services. In the first six months, we deployed seven staff members on long or short term secondments to help the Caritas response and, amongst other things, we supported the provision of water and sanitation services for 40,000 displaced people.
In the two and a half years since the earthquake, we have continued to provide major support in the water and sanitation sector, building latrines to accompany new homes as people move out of camps, rebuilding cholera units in hospitals, and teaching children in schools about the importance of good sanitation.
The Haiti earthquake was the first major emergency I was involved with after joining CAFOD. I remember visiting Haiti shortly after the earthquake and being staggered by the extent of the devastation. When I’ve been back more recently, it’s been a joy to hear the sound of generators, angle grinders and hammers as the new earthquake-proof houses we’ve funded have been built by newly trained Haitian engineers.
Some aid agencies have been criticised for not including Haitians in their response – not listening to the views of the people they are trying to help. We’ve tried to avoid falling into this trap by working with our local partners, including Caritas Haiti. We’ve supported them by helping them replace offices and equipment that were destroyed in the earthquake, and by training their staff to lead the recovery process. As ever in an emergency, we believe it’s important not to impose our own solutions, but to work with people with local expertise.
This week, I’ve written about five high profile emergencies. But we also have a proud tradition of responding to disasters that don’t reach the public spotlight, because they’re small-scale, in isolated or inhospitable places, or simply because they don’t fit into a crowded news agenda. Right now, we’re responding to several disasters that haven’t hit the UK headlines, including a cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone, floods in Niger and Pakistan, refugee crises in Liberia and South Sudan, and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo – as well as to the ongoing crisis caused by conflict in Syria.
A great deal has changed since the Biafra Crisis of 1968. Sensational images of starving children on television have sadly become more commonplace – and it’s all too easy for people to conclude, wrongly, that fifty years of aid haven’t made a difference. But what hasn’t changed is our commitment to respond to emergencies in difficult-to-reach places, and our conviction that working with local partners is our greatest strength.