Interview with Patrick Senia, development operations director of Handicap International in Haïti.
You’re here to boost the development component of our operations in Haiti - does that mean the emergency is over?
"I wish that were true, but unfortunately it’s not. Haiti is unique because it’s very vulnerable to chronic disasters. The worst of the earthquake is definitely behind us, although Haiti still bears the scars (more than 500,000 people are still living in displaced people’s camps). But there’s always a new disaster just around the corner: the cholera epidemic has not been contained, the island is frequently threatened by cyclones, and various parts of the country are affected by large-scale flooding and landslides. Plus there’s a real risk of another earthquake; one occurred just a few kilometres from Port-au-Prince last week. So we’re continuing with our emergency operations, even though the overall intervention strategy is now more focused on preparing the population to minimise the human impact of future crises than on aiding the injured. "
"On the positive side, we have reached a point where we can see further into the future, which means we can now focus on development issues. We’re extending the work performed over the last two years to ensure the sustainability of the relief effort, with close support from Haitian public and civil society organisations. For example, the functional rehabilitation centre (FRC) opened by the organisation in aid of the earthquake’s victims (and particularly amputees) was transferred in November to our development teams, who are now preparing to transfer these services to local organisations. There’s a lot at stake and we hope to ensure these services continue to benefit the population as a whole (such as children with cerebral palsy) and not just earthquake victims. "
What are the population’s needs at present?
"Their needs vary enormously from area to area and person to person. The capital Porte-au-Prince has acute needs, made worse by high unemployment, particularly among young people, the rising price of basic foodstuffs, and insecurity; the termination of water distributions has made access to water more difficult, and there was limited access to education at the start of the new school term, despite the government’s efforts. Set against this background of widespread poverty, the situation facing people with disabilities is even more alarming and their basic needs - food and water, accommodation, care, access to orthopaedic-fitting services, and a safe environment - are often not met. Many are dependent on help from their communities and we quite often meet people with disabilities who barely get one meal a day. What makes the situation more worrying still is the fact that many NGOs who arrived after the earthquake are now leaving the country. The Haitians who work for these organisations are facing a loss of income and the population has access to fewer services. We’re at a difficult stage."
How long will the international aid effort be necessary?
"That depends on each operator and the goals they have set for themselves. Some organisations have already left. Handicap International was closely involved in the emergency operation from the start, which was vital, but it would be irresponsible to leave it there. Our goal is to ensure people with disabilities and vulnerable individuals - whether they are earthquake victims or not - are taken into consideration and case-managed during natural disasters, but also in general. That’s why we intend to build the capacities of local organisations to offer services people need, while ensuring that the cost of care or the absence of services in certain regions does not lead to discrimination."
"This requires training, the closer involvement of our partners (to ensure the long-term results of our projects), and support for public policy development. It’s difficult to say at the moment how long that will take. It will depend on the capacity of the authorities and local organisations to gradually take responsibility for the services offered by NGOs and to pay for these services out of the public purse. However, Haiti has few resources and if international aid, as is often the case, dries up too soon, we risk seeing the situation go from bad to worse, or even getting out of hand (demonstrations, street fighting, etc.). Until people with disabilities are able to exercise their rights, Handicap International plans to continue its work in Haiti. This will take as long as it takes, but we are determined not to leave before this goal has been achieved. "