Written by Tristan Clements, Country Program Coordinator, Humanitarian & Emergency Affairs, World Vision Australia.
It's been a week since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, levelling the city and killing at least 50,000 people. Survivors are wondering about the slow pace of aid delivery - and who can blame them? It is not uncommon in the wake of a disaster for aid to take time to reach those who need it. There is always footage of frustrated residents complaining that promised aid has not arrived.
Slow aid delivery gives the international community in general a bad name - the United Nations and aid agencies cop flak in the media and donors wonder what has become of their donations.
In the case of Haiti, there is every reason to think that aid delivery is going to be slower than appears acceptable in the face of a disaster of this magnitude. It will be easy to point the finger at governments, charities and the UN for not overcoming obstacles and doing what they're supposed to do. But it is worth examining some of the realities affecting aid delivery to Haiti's victims.
Port-au-Prince has one small international airport, and it was damaged in the quake. I have flown into it, and there is not much there. At any airport it takes time to land, offload, and take off again. There is refuelling, as well as paperwork and clearances, to consider.
The US military is managing a strict system to allow planes in and out of the airport, placing a ceiling on the physical volume of aid that can come in. In other words, it doesn't matter how organised you are: there is only one airport, and it can only process so much cargo a day.
Similarly, the access road from the main seaport to the city is buckled five feet into the air. Offloading cargo ships at a modern dock is not a matter of pitching sacks over the side: there are 40-foot steel containers to contend with, which must be craned or trucked off decks. If the heavy lifting gear is damaged, you can have all the aid supplies in the world - but you can't offload them.
The roads into Port-au-Prince from neighbouring provinces are largely accessible. However, roads inside the city remain blocked by debris and by people too scared or unable to return home. Heavy trucks struggle to get through. Even when supplies make it to key points of entry to the city, distributing them within the city will be a slow process.
Telephones - mobile and landlines - internet communications and power are intermittent at best, so communicating with different parts of the city to identify access routes, resources and alternative solutions is difficult.
Problem-solving, especially between trucking companies, government bodies and aid agencies, is complex and frustrating when basic communications are crippled.
Another fact that has been overlooked is that many, if not most, of the surviving UN and international charity staff have lost homes or loved ones. Some will be unable to help in relief operations. Key roles lie unfilled. The same is true of transport companies, service providers, and government departments overseeing infrastructure and logistics. New staff are flying in to fill some of the gaps, but they are less familiar with Haiti and will not make decisions as quickly as their local counterparts may have.
All of this is not to say that the operation is hopeless, or nothing can be done. The response community as a whole and as individuals are aware of these challenges, and are tackling them in myriad ways: solutions are already being found. Access roads are being cleared, staff brought up to speed, and communication systems replaced. Already World Vision has flown in tonnes of aid. It passed through the airport, and is being distributed in the community.
It is worth remembering, too, that the most valuable resources are the ones already on the ground. We had stockpiles of emergency supplies based in different warehouses around the country that were immediately mobilised, regardless of airport problems. Likewise, more than 350 trained and experienced in-country staff are already responding, without needing to fly them in.
Most importantly, though, it is community members who are always the first responders and the people who, far outstripping the efforts of the UN and aid agencies, save the most lives. They pull loved ones and neighbours from the wreckage, and share the limited resources they have. By providing local people with basic first-aid, rescue and survival skills, as well as material supplies, their effectiveness is greatly enhanced. This is the way many aid agencies approach disaster relief.
Finding solutions to the bigger logistics problems will still take time. During this time, a sad reality is that more people will die, through untreated injuries, dehydration, diarrhoea, and exposure. We acknowledge this will happen. But the constraints listed will not go away because we don't like them. Aid agencies and the international community are tackling them as quickly as possible, and we hope that in doing so, the number of people who die will be reduced.
Many of the challenges remain outside direct control, lying either with physical constraints that are absolute, or with levels of state authority not easily influenced. But we should be careful not to criticise the international community unfairly for the complex delivery of help into a highly challenging environment.
Read latest updates about World Vision’s response and children sponsored by Australians here.
You can donate to the Haiti earthquake appeal here.