Category: International

Reporting delegates in Haiti: a ‘necessary annoyance’


Catherine Lengyel is an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reporting delegate in Haiti:

Whenever I tell someone that I work for the Red Cross, their eyes light up. They are usually intrigued and slightly envious. Inevitably, they ask me if I’m a doctor. And just as inevitably, their eyes dim and their interest fades when I tell them that I am a reporting delegate. ‘What’s that?’ they ask politely.

It’s an uphill battle to revive their interest.

I try to explain that, as reporting delegates, we are ‘the necessary annoyance’ in any emergency operation. We are the ones whom ‘operational colleagues’ flee – too busy with their relief, health, shelter, logistics or water and sanitation activities to want to deal with the tedium of reports. But, as one of my fellow ‘reporters’ put it: “Without us, the others don’t exist!”

Indeed, we are the ones who tell the world how things are going, what the needs are, and what the Red Cross is actually doing about it all. We have to take raw data, bullet points or even mumbled comments gathered ‘on the run’, and turn all of this into something that is easy to comprehend and, hopefully, interesting. It often means taking a jumble of statistics and information, and massaging it into shape. Graphics help, as do tables, and the aim is to end up with some well-written narrative to give a sense of ‘what it really is like out there’.

In fact, the job is much more interesting than it initially sounds. For one thing, we get a sense of the operation as a whole, not just a narrow perspective on a sector by sector basis. This means that we can be useful to the emergency operations in other ways as well: as a sounding board for the head of operations, as a source of ideas to colleagues, or even as a means of identifying overlap or confusion (something that inevitably happens in the early days of an emergency). For example, having just been in Haiti, I have been able to highlight some ‘gaps’ to colleagues – such as how many people will actually be receiving ‘debris clearing kits’, an incredibly important element of our distributions to people who have lost everything and want to clear their land of rubble to begin rebuilding.

During the long days of drafting and crafting the final reports, there are some welcome moments of humour as well. Gems from my time in Haiti include the message from a non-native English health team (they shall remain nameless!) underlining the need for additional beds and ‘mistresses’. It was with some relief that I finally figured out they meant ‘matresses’. And then there was the water and sanitation team that provoked much hilarity in the office, when they wrote about ‘the needs of latrines’. There must be a limit to how ‘inclusive’ we should be, we jested.

In addition to all of this, I do get to go to the field, and see what is going on. I try to use these opportunities to talk to colleagues and better understand why, for instance, we can’t distribute a sufficient number of tents (Answer: because the spontaneous settlements in Port-au-Prince are so tightly packed that there is not enough space – and if we did start erecting tents, we would end up displacing the already disposessed).

I also try to talk to the people, because we are, after all, here to help them and it is important to understand first-hand what they are experiencing. I remember going out on a ‘cash distribution’ during the food crisis in Niger. This was quite a controversial concept at the time – giving people cash rather than food – and there were many ‘naysayers’ amongst the aid community, who predicted that the people would not spend the money wisely.

But, that day at the market in Tanout, not only did the women tell me that they were buying foodstuffs and live chickens, some of them also said that their villages were pooling a percentage of the money received for communal projects, such as a well or an ambulance cart. It was one of those wonderfully vindicating moments that revives one’s faith in humanity, and confirms that what we are doing is useful.

I can only hope that you’ve kept reading this far, and that I’ve managed to turn your look of polite disinterest into a glimmer of intrigue at the work of ‘necessary annoyances’ such as myself. Happy to tell you more anytime…. OK, just kidding!

How the rains are impacting life in Haiti camps


It’s stiflingly hot here in Haiti, the fierce sun beating down and making life under the tarpaulin shelters unbearable for those in the camps. The relief comes when the clouds roll over the hills on the edge of Port-au-Prince and the first rain drops begin to fall. But relief quickly turns to discomfort as the heavens open and the rain pours in.

It has rained heavily the last two nights here, making conditions even more difficult. We have been preparing for the rains and the tarpaulins we have given do provide the minimum of shelter needed. This together with extra drainage, increasing numbers of latrines, clearing of rubbish, and the provision of bathing areas is improving conditions in the camps where we are working.

Yesterday we assessed the 30 most vulnerable camps to see what the impact of the rains had been. Ten vehicles went out, with experts in water and sanitation, relief, and health. We were looking for signs of shelter or latrines collapsing and drainage channels blocking or flooding. Of the 30, nine were identified as in need of additional immediate assistance in the forms of new shelters, latrines and extra drainage which we then proceeded to provide.

Most pleasing to me was that the two camps had not suffered any exceptional damage and that the community teams with whom we have been working were out and about checking the drainage channels, unblocking any accumulated rubbish, and making sure that the latrines were clean. The rains will get heavier and last longer, but this exercise showed we are moving in the right direction.

Looking back at the last three months of disaster response here in Haiti, so much has been done of which we should be pleased. British Red Cross alone has contributed more than 55 personnel to the wider international red cross effort of more than 1,000 international staff, committed over £10 million in funds with more to come as we enter the recovery phase. Don’t get me wrong, lots more needs to be done and at times here it an feel like two steps forward and one step back.

On a personal level it has been a stretching time for all of us in the disaster management department with the Haiti response demanding, and receiving, a high level of attention. We’ve not been neglecting other situations around the globe though as evidenced by our response to the Chile earthquake, conflict in Yemen, the deployment of a team to Mongolia’s severe winter emergency, drought in Niger and the monitoring of flooding in Brazil and conflict in Kyrgyzstan.

There’s no doubt though that the scale of needs, the pre-existing poverty and the damage to the country’s centralised infrastructure make Haiti in 2010 one of the biggest challenges the disaster management community has faced for many a year.

Donate now to the Red Cross Haiti earthquake appeal

How we’re preparing Haiti for the rainy season


Haiti’s rainy season is bad enough in a normal year. In April, there’s an average of 160 mm of rainfall, rising to 230 mm in May. At the season’s height, there can be five days of uninterrupted rain. It regularly causes mudslides and flooding, destroying houses, livelihoods and potentially taking lives.

But this isn’t a normal year. The Haitian government initially estimated around 1.3 million people were made homeless by January’s earthquake, although it may be many more than that. Although host families have taken many of those in and some may be able to return to their quake-damaged homes, there are still hundreds of thousands of people crammed into improvised camps and settlements across the affected area.

If those people don’t have adequate shelter, they’re going to lose belongings, be more vulnerable to disease – or worse. In short, it’s a potentially massive problem.

So what are we doing to prevent the rains having such a disastrous effect?

Clearly, we need to provide safer, better living conditions for as many people in the camps as possible in the time available to us. But that’s easier said than done. It’s an incredibly complex issue, which I’ll try and unpick in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. But there are two main threads to our work right now – emergency shelter materials and sanitation.

The absolute priority is to make sure all displaced people have emergency shelter materials to shield them from the rains – predominantly waterproof tarpaulins. There are more than 50 agencies working on shelter in Haiti, and between us we’ve been getting these materials to an average of 100,000 people a week since the earthquake struck. So we’re closing in on the one million people mark now.

Considering the massive challenges in the early days of the aid effort – destroyed port, blocked roads, clogged airport – this is close to a logistical miracle. It means we’re on track to reach the vast majority of people by 1 May, although because of the uncertainty over numbers of people in need, we can’t be complacent and mustn’t slacken our pace.

We’re also starting to distribute more durable materials, like wood, rope and nails, but realistically we have to accept not everyone will get those before the heavy rains begin. Some work has also started on building more robust transitional shelters, built to last for years, but that’s in the early stages – we’re talking about more than 100,000 structures, which will take months to complete. Frustrating as it is, for the time being, making sure people have simple waterproof materials is still the key to keeping them safe during the rains.

The other area we’re focusing on is sanitation. Toilet facilities in the camps are pretty poor and heavy rain could flood the current camps with untreated sewage water–a potential major health risk.

Red Cross teams, including our own British Red Cross mass sanitation team, are working in several camps to install latrines – more than 1,300 have been built so far – improve drainage, manage waste and raise awareness about hygiene issues among the camp inhabitants. Some interesting techniques are being used to accomplish the latter, including clowns.

For once, the storm clouds gathering above us are real, rather than metaphorical. We have to continue to move as quickly as possible – and continue to work towards stopping a disaster that’s already terrible getting even worse.

As I said above, I’ll write some more over the next few weeks to tackle some of the key questions in more detail.

Global snapshots: the Russian Red Cross


“If you know about HIV, you don’t have to be afraid of it”: How the Red Cross is helping to challenge stigma and offer hope in Russian prisons

Daniil was a teenager when he contracted HIV from having a tattoo in a pretrial detention centre. He recalls: “I was scared and didn’t know how I’d got infected because I had never taken drugs. I didn’t know what to do and I thought I’d die soon.”

“When I got to the colony, I found out there were guys called peer trainers’. I was very glad to receive support in those hard times.”

There are an estimated 40,000 HIV positive inmates like Daniil in Russia, making the prison population a major focus of the country’s HIV epidemic. The majority of inmates were infected before entering prison and many have been injecting drug users. Entering prison is often the first time they have been tested.

The Russian Red Cross began working in prisons in 2005 with the aim of reducing HIV transmission by raising awareness amongst inmates and staff and providing support to those living with the virus. The programme provides support and education to inmates right the way through the prison process, from entering a detention centre to being released back into society.

Training prison staff was vitally important for the programme’s success. Elena Feodorova from the Russian Red Cross explains: “We
encountered staff members who believed myths like you can tell if somebody is HIV positive simply from their appearance. Educating staff to understand the real facts about HIV prevention made a big difference.

Many began running training courses using the Red Cross methodology after attending courses themselves.”

Between 2006 and the first half of 2009, the programme reached over 12,000 staff and inmates with support and awareness raising messages.

For many prisoners, the Red Cross’ enduring support inspired them to become volunteers. Daniil explains: “When I found out the Red Cross was providing training for trainers, I was the first one to sign up. Now I’m a peer instructor and am very proud of it. I’m glad my life has meaning.”

This training played a particularly important role in 2007 when a change in legislation meant HIV positive prisoners were, for the first time, integrated into mainstream prison wards rather than being contained in special wings. As one inmate reflects:

“It’s not a secret that in the beginning we faced huge problems. I had very strong fear. I did not know how to live together with these people. After Red Cross training, I changed my mind. If you know everything about HIV, you don’t have to be afraid of it.”

First aid with the Red Cross of Serbia


In a few days, five intrepid young British Red Cross volunteers will be boarding a plane bound for Belgrade, Serbia. Their mission? To take part in the Red Cross of Serbia’s first aid training camp. Before images of ‘band camp’ (but with bandages) jump into your head please let me explain…

Every year, 28 National Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies gather to take part in the European first aid competition.  This competition pits teams of elite first aiders against each other as they tackle a range of challenging situations such as staged bus crashes, shootings and other incidents. I was lucky enough to take part in the 2009 competition and you can read all about my experiences in previous posts.

The Red Cross of Serbia take this competition very seriously. Their team has won the last three competitions (impressive stuff indeed). As part of their training, they run intensive weeklong first aid camps. We’ve been invited to take a team of young first aiders along to train along side the Serbian team. This camp will stretch their first aid skills to the limit as they work alongside their Serbian colleagues.

Leading the team is Lottie Stevens (16). Lottie, pictured, joined the Red Cross aged 15 and is an active peer educator. I caught up with her recently and asked her what she was expecting from the trip – “I’m hoping to gain more skills and soak up the culture of Serbia. First aid competitions are useful because they are so realistic which helps develop your confidence in emergency situations”.

None of these young volunteers are super heroes, they’re just ordinary young people who’ve chosen to volunteer their time. Sound interesting? There’s a whole range of opportunities for young people in the Red Cross, find out how you can get involved today!

Update: The young volunteers that visited the Red Cross of Serbia were in no way related to the British Red Cross team which participated at FACE 2010 in Belgrade. This was a separate trip designed to give our young people experience of how a different National Society operates and to extend their first aid skills.

Life in the Haiti camps: one family’s story


The British Red Cross mass sanitation emergency response unit has been working in Auto-Meca camp since January 2010, providing sanitation facilities such as latrines, hand-washing stations, rubbish collection and health and hygiene promotion. Auto-Meca is a camp for people made homeless by the January earthquake in Haiti. It is densely populated with around 10,000 people sharing a small space in the Haitian capital city, Port-au-Prince. Here is the story of one family living in this camp:

Denise Peralte is a mother of two boys, aged seven and two. She came to Auto-Meca with her family of seven people after the earthquake damaged her house beyond repair. Denise’s cousin was killed in the quake but she is thankful that other members of her family were unharmed. Upon coming to the camp with very little, Denise and her family used what they had to build a small shelter, a one-room shack covered in plastic sheeting packed tightly between other similar shelters, which she shares with her sons.

“I know the Red Cross well,” says Denise. “Before the earthquake we knew the Red Cross as somewhere you could go to if you were sick, somewhere you could go to give blood and I know they also have ambulances.” Denise was therefore very happy to see the Red Cross come to Auto-Meca camp to provide sanitation facilities.

“We are happy that the Red Cross cleans up the camp by removing the garbage, this works well. It is also good to have latrines that we can use.” However, there remains concern as Denise explains: “The latrines are now starting to smell so we think they may need more disinfectant or a pipe installed to take away the odour.” Feedback from people like Denise is vital for the British Red Cross team to continue to improve the conditions in the camp. The emergency toilets are getting full and therefore the mass sanitation team is arranging for the pits to be emptied so they can be reused before the new improved latrines are installed in the next couple of weeks. These new latrines are sturdy and wooden with a raised design to resist flooding from the impending rainy season.

Denise and her family also met with the Red Cross hygiene promotion volunteers when they did house to house visits to speak to people about health issues. “The Red Cross volunteers spoke with us about the importance of washing our hands after visiting the toilet and before eating food, and of making sure the children use the toilet in the correct way,” Denise says. Despite living in the camp, Denise’s family have managed to stay fairly healthy, not suffering any illness such as diarrhoea, but she is concerned that her kids have had colds and a skin rash.

“I am worried about the future,” says Denise. “We need jobs and food and we don’t want to stay in this camp forever. We hope that the Red Cross can stay in this camp to keep helping us, to improve the toilets and to give us bathing cubicles so we have somewhere private to wash ourselves and our clothes.”

Global snapshots: the Bulgarian Red Cross


“I’m helping to build a community free from hunger”: How ‘food banks’ are enabling the Bulgarian Red Cross to ensure vulnerable pensioners no longer need to go hungry

Six years ago, the Bulgarian Red Cross established a scheme of food banks to support low-income elderly pensioners struggling to survive on meagre pensions. The idea was simple: canned food is donated and stored in a ‘bank’, from where food parcels are delivered to vulnerable pensioners who are unable to leave their homes.

Tzanka Milanova, food banks co-ordinator, says: “The Bulgarian Red Cross has a long history of working with elderly people, who are often extremely vulnerable because of the lack of welfare support. However, this has traditionally been about providing short term assistance and we were struggling to find a means of offering more sustainable support. We wanted to do something that actively involved these communities and offered a longer term solution.”

The scheme was established following a six month engagement process with local communities to identify what elderly people most wanted and needed. This involved setting up local working groups and organising community forums made up of beneficiaries, community groups, local government and businesses – and, of course,  local Red Cross branches.

And there certainly was a pressing need. As Dr. Slavita Dzhambazova, deputy director general, explains: “When we asked low-income pensioners to name their single most urgent need, over 50 per cent chose food. More than one in ten reported going for a day or more without eating because there was nothing available to eat. That was the reason we selected the food bank.”

Since 2007, the Bulgarian Red Cross has successfully replicated the food bank model in four new regions of the country where the schemes are fully operational using local resources and volunteers. At the same time, the branches that originally pioneered the scheme have developed new co-operation models and, as a consequence have been able to expand the services and reach more people.

For example, in the region of Stara Zagora, the food bank is now managed by a coalition trust between the Bulgarian Red Cross, the Community Donation Fund and nine other organisation. Meanwhile, the Red Cross branch in Pazardzhik has transformed the food bank into a non-commercial joint venture for community service founded by the local authorities, Red Cross, local NGO’s and businesses. This led to 50 more people being reached every month.

The Bulgarian Red Cross attributes the success of the scheme, which has reached over 32,000 people since it began, to a strong, sustainable concept that responds directly to the needs of communities. Tzanka explains: “Thanks to the partnerships, volunteer time and food donation initiatives, for every 1 Bulgarian lev [national currency] invested into the food banks, we are able to distribute 3 levs worth of food.”

The scheme has also had a positive social impact, both for its volunteers and in terms of fostering a sense of community. A pensioner volunteer from Shumen says: “I love volunteering at the food bank. Not only am I helping to build a community free from hunger, but I am also able to provide better food to my family. It feels good to work for what I receive.”

In December 2009, the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture and Food announced the strong willingness of the Bulgarian government to adopt the food bank model across the country. One volunteer says: “We are delighted that our government is looking to roll out food banks. As a pioneer in this field in Bulgaria, we are keen to provide our experience and resources to reach even more communities.”

Rain and shelter – the twin problems facing Haiti


Long meeting with Marcel and Ian, who are running the Federation‘s operation in Haiti. Already they are planning for what is effectively a second disaster response operation when the rains start in earnest.

This is one problem, the other is land. There isn’t enough and arrangements to release privately owned land for use by those displaced by the earthquake are making little progress. Every spare inch is crowded with tents and tarpaulins. Most people now, perhaps 70%, have cover of a rudimentary kind: but it’s not enough to withstand days and nights of torrential rain, let alone a hurricane.

But that’s a temporary solution. Somehow we have to find space to build tens of thousands of proper shelters that will last a few years whilst governments, hopefully, will make the money and the muscle available to start to rebuild.

Later, we drove downtown, past the Presidential Palace with its crazy leaning domes; the Tax Office reduced, quite literally, to dust; shops and offices with gaping windows and shattered walls. We went up into the hills, to see the broken headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross, and looked across a valley full of dusty rubble and blotched with blue tarps.

Across the city, in a 4 hour drive, we saw not a street untouched, nor a single open space without its crop of tents. Everywhere was dust and rubble, and only twice did we see any serious attempt at clearance.

We visited also the ‘Golf Course’ camp, publicised by Sean Penn’s recent visit. There are now US soldiers on guard duty, and concerted efforts being made to improve conditions. Sean himself swished by in a small jeep while we were there, evidently still concerned to help. Trouble is, it’s just one of 600 such camps, spread around the city and further afield.

Back at base, we talked with our shelter expert about the challenges of identifying who most needs help in crowded camps, of how to source sufficient timber for the task, and how physically to set about building while the camps are so crammed full.

No rain tonight at least, but tomorrow is another day…..