To the World Humanitarian Summit: “Disaster Relief Must Respect Dignity and Have Long-Term Vision”

As the first World Humanitarian Summit convenes on 23-24 May in Istanbul, Jacqueline Plaisir, Deputy Director of ATD Fourth World, summarizes what is at stake and speaks about her experiences with people living in extreme poverty who faced the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, civil war in the Central African Republic, and other emergencies. [In July 2015, ATD Fourth World submitted a contribution to the summit: How humanitarian aid can reinforce communities by seeking out the most disadvantaged.]

ATD Fourth World is not a humanitarian relief provider. Why be heard on this subject?

Jacqueline Plaisir

In any humanitarian crisis, people and communities in extreme poverty are heavily impacted. They generally live in the least accessible and most dangerous places — in lowlands that flood easily, on steep hillsides, on precipices that are eroding. Our commitment to reaching the most marginalized people has shaped our understanding of their lives.

For 60 years now, ATD has been on the front-lines of the emergency of extreme poverty. It was founded in an emergency housing camp for a thousand homeless people who had only four sources of water. In recent years, our teams have stood by families living in extreme poverty during disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, armed conflict in Central Africa, and the relocation, eviction, or displacement of communities in the Philippines, Madagascar, and Mauritius. These people have spoken about their experiences and worked together to develop a broader understanding about humanitarian emergencies in two of ATD’s participatory action research projects: in 2009-2012 “Extreme poverty is violence – Breaking the silence – Searching for peace,” and in 2012-2015, Challenge 2015: Towards Sustainable Development that Leaves No One Behind (our evaluation of the impact of the Millennium Development Goals). Their voices should be heard by anyone seeking to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian intervention, which is the goal of the summit.

What do you see as the weaknesses of the current system of humanitarian aid?

For years now, policies have targeted only the most easily accessible areas. In Port-au-Prince, certain areas had been deemed “no-go” zones by the United Nations because of past gang conflicts. This meant that all relief organizations avoided these zones entirely. When the earthquake took place, the no-go zone where we were living received zero distributions of aid. We were close enough to see airplanes flying in with clean water and food — but the 25,000 people in this zone went hungry.

Intervention that does not build long-term answers jeopardizes the future. In Haiti, the decision to make all health care free for six months was made in a vacuum. Because international Non-Governmental Organizations did not consult the country’s health care system, their temporary service ended up harming health clinics that provided services at affordable prices. The same NGOs tend to hire staff for contracts of only three-to-six months. Such rapid turnover creates an impossible learning curve. Newly arrived staff often assess situations incorrectly and thus commit errors that have serious consequences for the local population. For example, one NGO set up a public works program on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, without consulting the local government. The program’s implementation was then marred by acts of racketeering. Anyone who wanted to be hired for the two-week contracts being offered ended up having to pay a kickback.

Even when NGOs do plan to conduct more local consultation — which is rare — the conditions for a meaningful partnership are not there.

How can aid draw on the knowledge of local communities to be more effective?

When a group is dispensing aid, there needs to be someone on staff who knows how people in extreme poverty actually live and what efforts they make to survive. In that public works program, the racketeering occurred because the NGO in charge was relying on self-declared “leaders.” But in every community, there are usually people who are less visible but who are truly respected and trusted by their neighbors because they advocate for the common good. It was by involving some of these more reliable community members that ATD was able to step in so that people would be able to get the two-week contracts without paying any kickbacks.

Also in Haiti, because no food was brought to our “no-go” zone, ATD teamed up with Action Against Hunger to organize a distribution of nutritional support for children under 5. In order to ensure that we would reach every single child in the 25,000-person district, we began by going door-to-door. Climbing through the rubble, high up on the hillsides, local young people carried out a census to find out how everyone was and to note down every child’s name. After this census-taking, the distribution took place. It took many days, but occurred in a completely calm atmosphere. The young people were there to reassure each parent that there would be enough to go around for all young children, with no one left out. Everyone was proud that there was no violence and no need for peacekeepers, who are sometimes used when a group carrying out a distribution is afraid they will not have enough to go around.

That procedure of the census-taking was the only way to ensure that no one would be left out — however foreign donors considered it too slow, and refused to fund a second distribution. That was heartrending! The way that aid is usually distributed is completely indiscriminate, with no consideration for the number of people present. This creates tension, pushing the strongest people to fight to get more, and leaving the most vulnerable people empty-handed.

Local leaders must take responsibility to ensure that every single person is helped. The way to do this is by creating a dialogue in the community where everyone knows that we are counting on their sense of responsibility for one another. This creates security for everyone and strengthens solidarity.

In Central Africa, when armed conflict broke out in 2012, thousands of families left home to live in emergency camps. The young people who are part of ATD and had already been running Street Libraries for children in poverty were determined that despite the war the children should still be able to sing, paint, and learn together. They moved the Street Libraries to camps where their own families sought shelter, and visited other homes as well. They said, “What’s truly important is wiping the spirit of destruction from the souls” of children.1 Their commitment to the children made it possible for people who had lost members of their families or whose homes were burned down to overcome their urge for vengeance.

In one emergency camp in Bangui (the capital of the Central African Republic), there were 100,000 people at the height of the conflict. NGOs there noticed the strong relationships that ATD’s members had with some of the poorest families. They paid attention to the way the young people respected parents and were attentive to the children. These NGOs could then draw on the knowledge and experience of these young people in order to begin reaching the children of the most vulnerable families.

ATD Fourth World’s contribution to the summit notes, “Non-traditional local actors have learned from their own experience of disenfranchisement how to build broad and inclusive solidarity. The intelligence and the capacity for peace-building of people in poverty are hidden resources.” How have you seen this on the ground in communities affected by disasters?

I have often seen people who were among the most affected become the first ones to react and help the most fragile people around them. Three days after the Haiti earthquake, we saw a mother whose house had collapsed start selling some food at a very low price. She had sifted through the rubble to salvage a few necessary ingredients, and while she needed to earn a few coins, she also wanted to feed her neighbors. A few months later, a cholera epidemic hit this same neighborhood. Immediate help came from several local women there who had been trained by a partner of ATD’s, the St. Michel Health Clinic. They knew how to prepare an essential serum that stops diarrhea. With this serum, and other advice about hygiene, they managed to slow down the outbreak long before international NGOs arrived with mobile clinics. But those NGOs never even noticed the important role these women had played.

It is high time that emergency aid be redesigned to take into account and build on the strengths of the country being helped. This should include giving direct financing to national NGOs, which are often named by international NGOs as having useful grassroots knowledge, but which lack support. A study by the French overseas development agency (AFD) and the Foundation de France examined the impact of the work of NGOs they funded in Haiti after the earthquake. Their findings were that national NGOs have very little leeway in an emergency response or in development activities. Underfunded to begin with, they are often exploited as subcontractors.

The logic that has prevailed so far is one of competition for both funding and trained local staff. Instead, we need to pool our knowledge and rethink humanitarian and development aid as parts of a whole.

What about the safety of humanitarian aid workers?

Especially during armed conflict, we are aware that humanitarian workers are often vulnerable or in danger. But in fact, the very presence of international NGOs sometimes increases the risk for local people, particularly when there is high staff turnover and the newly arrived staff do not know who to trust. This is another reason that knowledge must be pooled: about what is happening on the ground; background about relationships; updates on evolving situations for an open evaluation of risks so that the needed security measures can be taken. There must be a strong link between people who live in a community and international NGOs. The risks are greatest to people who live in a community—and their knowledge and the local context can be essential to increasing the safety of international humanitarian aid workers. Stronger links should be developed from the beginning when projects are planned, and should include pooling knowledge about communities, techniques and procedures.

Some say that because quick responses are needed in emergencies, time is lacking for local consultation. What do you think?

When you live in extreme poverty, life itself is made up of emergencies and crises with no end in sight. Under these conditions, all people can do is try to survive. And when people are reduced to just barely surviving over the long-term, it is an affront to their dignity. People are thrust into dependency, with no other support than a helping hand. This situation is magnified in disasters: because no one seeks the participation or advice of people in poverty, they continue to be humiliated by having to rely on others. People in poverty spend their lives resisting and trying to overcome their circumstances — but this is not recognized by others, and they are never included as equals in meetings about the fate of their own neighborhoods. This happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Families who were displaced and hoped to return to help rebuild their city with others were completely abandoned by a city that did not rebuild the low-income housing that was destroyed. It was the same in Haiti. People in poverty thought they would be able to join all their compatriots to rebuild together — but despite the many walls that collapsed, the wall left unmoved was the invisible one separating low-income communities from wealthy ones. People in poverty are often kept at bay like outsiders in the very places where they have grown up. This is the violence of poverty.

What do you think of the way this summit has been prepared?

I want to emphasize the importance of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report for this summit, “One Humanity, Shared Responsibility.” He invites us to “transform the lives of those most at risk of being left behind.” Where are those people? What do they need? Thinking about every single person as a full-fledged human being is an approach that can transform our entire society. It can bring us all together to think always about the person who is the weakest. This guarantees that no one will be left behind; it also binds society together and awakens our commitment to one another. These are the fundamental values of life and of building a sense of community.

Ban Ki-moon’s report also stresses conflict prevention as one of the foremost responsibilities to humanity. One way to do this is by training community members in ways that recognize grassroots commitments they may already have made to supporting others. People need to feel recognized for what they do. After three years of civil war in the Central African Republic, it was the young people there who pushed us to look for a long-term approach to healing their country. With these young people, ATD partnered with the National Agency for Vocational Training and Employment to develop a training program for social and cultural mediators. These young people want to continue strengthening their communities, building the foundations for a sustainable future, including the conditions for responding to emergencies and disasters without leaving anyone behind.

I also feel that our plea is beginning to getting through to the international community. The agreement last year to “leave no one behind” as part of the Sustainable Development Goals finally echoes what people in extreme poverty have always tried to do from day to day: taking into consideration the most vulnerable among them. In addition, Ban Ki-moon’s Agenda for Humanity recognizes that “local people and communities will always be the first and last responders in crises” and stresses the importance of reducing their vulnerability and increasing their resilience by strengthening local leadership and capacity. To make this happen, the international community must examine the conditions necessary so that participation is accessible to all, drawing on the knowledge of local people who are committed to the common good.

1From Volume 3 of Artisans of Peace Overcoming Poverty: Understanding the Violence of Poverty. (Publication pending in July 2016.)

Photo © ATD Fourth World, Jacqueline Plaisir in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake.

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