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Northwest aid groups defend Haiti effort that's been called a disaster

Haiti, January 28, 2010

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Nina Shapiro

Seattle Weekly
January, 2010

You can't expect a seamless aid operation in Haiti when the capitol city has been decimated, the president has been left homeless, and the official base of operations is "under a tree somewhere" (as Mercy Corps spokesperson Joy Portella puts it).

That's the response of two of the Northwest's biggest aid groups operating in Haiti--Portland-based Mercy Corps and World Vision, based in Federal Way--in the face of growing criticism of the relief effort. On Sunday, an Italian minister labeled the American response "pathetic." And an NPR report yesterday described the food distribution of international agencies generally as "irregular, inadequate and often violent and disorderly."

But World Vision and Mercy Corps say people have to understand that the Haitian earthquake is different than many disasters they've handled in the past.

"I can't overemphasize how much more complicated it is being the capitol city where the epicenter was," says Edward Brown, who oversees World Vision's humanitarian response from his office in Washington D.C. That has meant a lot of devastation in one place, with limited points of access to deliver food and medical supplies, especially since the city's port and airport were both heavily damaged. In contrast, he says, the 2004 tsunami swept over a broad swath of coastal communities along Southeast Asia so that "there were lots of entry points."

World Vision was in a better position than most. Unlike some aid agencies who are parachuting in, the Federal Way organization has operated in Haiti for 30 years and already had a food warehouse in Port-au-Prince. But the group's more than 100 workers in the city are operating out of a parking lot because its offices are wrecked, and Brown says it's difficult both to find places to distribute food and then to control crowds once sites are found. "We try to keep it down to 1,000, but word gets out."

Mercy Corps' Portella adds that in disasters such as last year's earthquake in the Sichuan Province of China, the national government in the affected country has led the response. In Haiti, that has been impossible because government ministers themselves have been killed or left homeless. "Add to that a history of weak governance," she says, alluding to infamous, decades-long corruption and repression among the leaders of one of the world's poorest countries.

She calls working in such circumstances "incredibly difficult."