Friday, April 23, 2010
Scarce necessity, abundant waste
Timely and generous disaster relief provided by the global community to Haiti has given millions of Haitians hope and life. Reflecting on these past few months of the earthquake response, it is necessary for Haiti and for donor countries to examine and learn from their policies around receiving and providing disaster relief.
Despite the fact that so much time, money and resources have been donated to Haiti, some necessities of human life and dignity remain unexpectedly lacking. We participated in today's one-meal-a-day food distribution during lunch time at the Adventist Hospital. The kitchen staff here are not used to cooking more than 50 meals/day; there are approximately 1,500 patients, family members, volunteers and medical staff on campus during the day. CURE staff have done an excellent job of doubling the kitchen output to 100 meals/day, but this is still not even close to the amount of food required to feed patients and families who have been waiting in the hospital for many hours on end. The Adventist hospital has capacity for about 70 beds, but there are over 140 occupied cots in the hospital at any given time. This number does not include the patients living in tents on the hospital grounds. The hospital kitchen was able to provide only about 90 meals to feed all the patients on campus. Almost half of the patients did not receive a lunch.
The scenario in the hospital pharmacy and stockroom provided an interesting contrast. I spent one morning helping to organize the pharmacy with all the drugs that the hospital received as donations since the earthquake. Boxes upon boxes of drugs were crammed in the tiny stockroom that was previously in disuse. The donated drugs included life-saving medications as well as an excessive number of crates of less commonly used drugs that would be impossible for the hospital to use up in the next ten years. Donor countries also sent random samplings of pharmaceutical samples that would not be enough to fill the prescription of even one patient. Archaic drugs that were phased out by most Western countries years ago were included in the boxes, along with an overwhelming number of broken crutches, virtually useless athletic muscle bands and collections of completely unidentifiable foreign-made medications. Just before we arrived, a group donated hundreds of brand-new wheelchairs to the hospital, but this equipment was given freely to a random selection of patients, rather than strategically provided to those who needed them the most.
Through these mistakes on the part of the Haitians as well as the global community, much can be learned and applied towards dealing more efficiently with future disasters. The global response to Haiti was heartfelt and timely. Billions of dollars of aid, and countless hours from volunteers has saved so many Haitian lives. In the event of such a tragic disaster, sometimes a response needs to lean more towards speed and less towards slow planning. A 'band-aid' response is not always a bad thing; speedy intervention is often needed to prevent someone from bleeding to death.
However the long-term effects must always be considered. How can donors ensure that their assistance empowers rather than cripples? How can victims grow to participate (and ultimately spearhead) the rebuilding of their new lives?