Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reflections on Haiti

After landing on March 7th it didn't take long to get consumed in the work that the World Food Program (WFP) was doing in Haiti, leaving me a shortage of the headspace in which to step back and write about it.  So for those of you who are interested; here is a retrospective rumination on one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

The last leg of the 75 hours of flying time which it took me to get from India to Haiti was certainly the most enjoyable from my point of view.  The single engined Cessna Caravan climbed slowly above to above the clouds from the Dominican Republic only to immediately begin it's descent towards Port-au-prince.  It was dusk by the time we descended over the arc of Caribbean coast that sandwiches this sprawling city against an imposing mountain range, but even with limited visibility it was obvious that  the destruction as a result of the January 12th earthquake was not, and could not, be over emphasized.  Thousands of hastily erected shelters could be seen clearly from the air, and what was left of the city's ramshackle buildings took on the appearance of an archaeological ruin where the roofs of buildings had long since abandoned their supporting walls and lay in rubble on the ground beneath.  Unfortunately the combination of low light, and a bouncy descent resulted in my photos looking more like an epileptic fit than a city, so this photo (right) taken on the ground in Port-au-prince will have to suffice as evidence of the destruction. 

After checking into the humanitarian community's own tent city (Camp Charlie) for the night, we were refreshed and ready to meet our co-workers.  It didn't take long to get into the swing of things, and although there were other options (that were "infinitely more difficult, and over priced" according to one colleague) our first meal together consisted of a US army MRE feast, hosted around an elegant flyaway container which was being used as a makeshift esky.  On first impression, these ingeniously designed ration packs are quite tasty, and come with all sorts of little extra's including the historic tiny bottle of tabasco sauce, matches, coffee, tea, sugar, napkins, and even toilet paper.  However, after a couple of weeks of eating three meals a day from plastic sachets, the novelty wears off to the point that even now I would have to be pretty hungry to consider one.  At the time, I was quite impressed and like a good humanitarian tourist I captured a moment that, as evident by the expressions on my colleagues faces, was clearly not worth capturing for those who had worked in a disaster zone before (left to right, Fredrik, Michael, Ivan, and Martin).

The work that I was brought in to do was fairly straight forward, or so I thought.  Essentially I was to improve functionality and stabilise the IT environment for the humanitarian community working around Haiti.  Coming from a professional background I honestly thought that this would be a fairly straight forward task.  We had some success in this regard, however I've included this picture from the server room in Port-au-prince for my more technical friends who have seen a few data centres to give an impression of the challenges that we faced. 

For me, the interesting thing about this kind of work is not so much the task itself, but context in which you have to work.  Although slightly dramatic, it analogous to a space mission.  While you do have the support of mission control in Houston (in our case WFP headquarters in Rome) you are pretty much limited to what you brought with you in order to solve the many an varied problems that you face on a day to day basis.  This problem is not limited to equipment either, the many and varied specialists that are available in the first world aren't available in these countries, so basically you make do with what you do know, and hit everything else that you don't understand with a big hammer until it works.

So I don't ramble too much more, I'll come to the most memorable and magnetic aspect of this kind of work; the people.  

The international staff that come from all corners of the globe and all walks of life provide the colour and bizarre night life which only comes about when passionate and enthusiastic people have a few drinks.  As the work became more manageable later in the deployment we had the chance to have a few fantastic weekends away for day hikes in the mountains, trips to deserted Caribbean beaches, and on each occasion the fervor with which we let our hair down was never dulled by the number of hours people had worked in the preceding week.

I think the part of the experience that I will look back on with the most nostalgia, is the opportunity to get to know some the local staff that we worked with.  It is easy to forget just how much harder it is for those who come to work every day without the knowledge that the harsh situation they are in is temporary.  I met Jean Serge Seide when he came to do an installation of some equipment from a local ISP.  I thought it was amazing that he could be working away at installing this equipment with a smile on his face, cracking jokes through his all too apparent exhaustion, and then turn around and ask in the politest way possible who he could speak to about getting basic supplies, such as food and tarpaulins for the small group of tents that he and his family lived in along side many others.  After submitting his resume, he eventually became part of our team and the more I worked with him and saw the determination with which he applied himself, the more my respect for him grew.  Jean Serge is just one example, in our small team we had nine local staff, each with there own stories, and each with an amazing attitude to the adversity that they faced.  As something to remember them by, they all signed a 25 Haitian Gourd I can't think of a better gift and / or inappropriate use of official currency.. 

This is not a sales pitch, but simply a practicality because everyone I talk to about this asks me how I got into this type of work, if you are interested in disaster work and have five years of experience in the one of the various fields that they accept, then you should look into joining the RedR Australia register for disaster workers, and attend one of the fabulous training courses that RedR offer:

For more information about WFP as a whole check out:

And for anyone with a Electrical, Telecommunications or IT background who wants to work in the Humanitarian arena: