Helping Haiti from the Inside Out
By Roxanne Wieman
July 28, 2010
Nearly seven months after the earthquake in Haiti, there is still much to be done. Here, we talk to Laura Blank of World Vision, who is working in the country, about barriers to rebuilding, how WV partners with the local church and how the Haitian people are receiving emotional care beyond the basics.
What is World Vision’s primary focus in Haiti right now, several months after the earthquake?
On one hand there’s still some of the relief work happening, and on the other hand there’s a lot of effort being focused, I’d say medium-term, maybe not necessarily long-term yet. But doing things like psychosocial support for families and children to help them recover kind of mentally and emotionally from what they’ve experienced, cash-for-work programs that will do things like building latrines and bathing facilities in the camps, which is a practical need but also does help if the rains come or hurricanes come. Port au Prince typically doesn’t get hit directly by the hurricanes, but often gets a lot of the rain from them, so having improved sanitary conditions in camps that could be prone to flooding could be really helpful, digging ditches in the camps, these are all cash-for-work programs that could help with some of the rain that could come in the coming months.
What are some struggles unique to rebuilding Haiti?
What’s unique to Haiti is the context of Haiti before was challenging from a development perspective. There were just a lot of issues with the way poverty had affected the country in so many ways for so long. But in addition to that, a lot of the disasters we’ve worked with in the past, you’re not talking about the capital city being virtually destroyed. So many of the senior level staff or mid to senior level staff were killed, or their families were hurt or injured. Buildings were lost, records were lost, and in Haiti, all things in Haiti really do revolve around Port-au-Prince, in the capital city. So to have that city destroyed, I think really created a challenge in terms of trying to help them rebuild.
What kind of psychosocial work efforts have you seen?
The whole idea there is that psychosocial work would be holistic, so that staff at World Vision would be able to identify the ABC’s of mental health. So staff at the food aid team, staff at the education sector, staff working with water and sanitation would be able to identify anyone who is really in need of talking with someone about what they’re going through, identifying some of the basic symptoms of depression or something they may be struggling with. So her goal is to do assessments of what people are struggling with and then work with the community we have already set up. So we have child-friendly spaces for children, and then we have mothers clubs for moms to come with their young babies. They get some education about prenatal or postnatal care, depending where they are in their pregnancy, and then they just have a chance to talk with each other. In essence, they can kind of be set up like group therapy sessions. If you are with a group of mothers who’ve all had a similar experience, you’re more likely to share about things you’re struggling with, or maybe your spouse or your children or a friend is struggling with. So Alice is really trying to use those already established networks. A lot of these clubs are set up at a camp. People who are coming to these camps may have come with families or neighbors, and they might know each other already, it’s kind of like a built-in social network. So the goal is to go with these people who might have training in basic counseling and mental health services and then help them, as part of the mothers clubs or child-friendly spaces, to talk through some of the things that they might be suffering with.
In your assessment of the relief efforts in Haiti, what are some efforts where you’ve seen the most improvement or maybe the most neglect or gaps?
One of the challenges we’re finding in Haiti is that families are still moving, so the target population is quite mobile. What we may think is, we have a population of this place of 1.3 million, then it grows to 1.5 or 1.7. The number keeps changing because families are looking for resources wherever they can get it. So they might be in Port-au-Prince, and then they might have family in a rural community so they go out there for a little bit, and then they try to come back. And the camps are constantly growing, expanding, changing the demographics of who is living there.
What happened after the earthquake is families left their homes because if they weren’t damaged, they were afraid to stay inside, and they’ve essentially lived outside for four months. And they settled where their neighbors were going, or where their family or friends were going, so there are a lot of camps in places that are prone to flooding or mudslides.
Really the role of the NGO is to rely on the government. It’s up to the government of Haiti to identify places where we could begin building or relocating. So I think one of the challenges has been for the government to identify those portions of land and then for us to be able to start building.
What are some keys to long-term rehabilitation?
What will go into that discussion are more long-term—how do we improve the community to make it more stable? So that is things like livelihood, and security, and education and health care, kind of those soft targets, not providing food and water and shelter, the basic needs, but what overall will make a community more stable? How do we bring in jobs, how do we make sure health care is affordable for people, how can children go to school, do they have a place to go to school? But I think one of the things that’s been part of the ongoing discussion right now is this idea of building up civil groups, advocating for Haitian leadership at the local level, at the national level, to really empower them to take the lead on creating that vision for what they want Haiti to look like long-term, and then for us to be able to walk alongside them with the resources and the expertise we have to say, “This is your vision, this is what we can do to help you, let’s work together.”
How does World Vision partner with local churches to empower them?
One of the things we’ve seen in the church community in Haiti, and elsewhere in other places where we work, is that the clergy there have such a network of people in their community, whether it’s 10 people or 100 people in that church, who are coming to them with their needs. And so they’re very much a sounding-board for us about what’s happening in the community, and how we can help. So a lot of that is a back-and-forth conversation about what are the needs of your church, and then how can we help you, provide things for you? Is it still just food? Is it a conversation about livelihoods, or safety, or education for your children? So that’s an ongoing conversation.