World News

Aid distribution in Haiti can be hit-and-miss

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - “If you can’t fight you can’t get anything,” said a petite 19-year-old Haitian named Darling who missed the bags of rice and bottles of cooking oil handed out at a crowded earthquake survivors’ camp in Port-au-Prince.

Four-year-old Joe, an orphan, is pictured in the park at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in this picture taken on January 21, 2010 and released to Reuters on January 24, 2010. REUTERS/Handout

She was one of some 15,000 survivors of the Jan. 12 quake who lined up at a camp in the shattered Delmas neighborhood over the weekend to receive rice and cooking oil given by aid workers to every fourth person in the line.

Aid agency Plan International’s idea was that the Haitians would divide up the rice, or barter it for other supplies.

But for many in the makeshift camp -- one of around 400 such sprawling settlements that carpet open spaces in the wrecked Haitian capital -- it didn’t work out that way.

“The majority of the people did not find anything,” one survivor said. “There was no sharing,” another said.

As aid slowly finds its way to Haiti’s several million desperate quake victims, the U.S. government and military, United Nations and international relief groups have created almost as many different ways to distribute food as there are improvised survivors’ camps in Port-au-Prince.

In Cite Soleil, a gang-ridden slum of 400,000 in Port-au-Prince, residents queued patiently along several blocks at dawn on Sunday to receive small but varied bags of aid from U.S. military and Brazilian “blue helmets” - U.N. troops.

Children smiled at soldiers handing out packets of cookies, and adults took grocery bags of rice, beans, pasta, salmon and other goods.

Lieutenant General Ken Keen, head of the U.S. relief effort in Haiti, said at the food distribution point that the 10 truck loads of aid would not be enough.

“You cannot feed every citizen every day,” Keen said. He said the aid operation would start giving each family two weeks’ worth of food at a time and he hoped this would be working next week.


Even with U.S. and U.N. troops and Haitian police standing guard, earthquake survivors at the camp in the shattered Delmas neighbourhood scrummed for bags of rice dropped from the back of a dump truck on Saturday. Shots were fired into the air by authorities and alarmed aid workers briefly stopped the delivery until they had managed to bring the group to order.

Local residents said Plan International had made a mistake by asking four people to share each bag of rice.

“The way they give the food is not good -- maybe someone takes several times and someone else doesn’t get it even one time,” a survivor said. On occasions, two people would carry off a bag of rice chased by two others, while other groups of four walked calmly away carrying the rice together.

In a camp on the slopes of Haiti’s only golf club, tens of thousands awaited aid over the weekend, having seen no food relief for two days.

“Our problem is we are drawing too many people into this camp. It is dangerous at the moment. It is a complete fire hazard ... there is not a toilet in here,” said Donal Reilly, a Catholic Relief Services coordinator.

Catholic Relief Services was dividing the camp into sections and handing out to each family a colour-coded card entitling them to a two-week supply of dried food to complement what is available in nearby street stalls.

But to get this new distribution system going, CRS had to stop the U.S. military from distributing their ready-to-eat rations, to discourage more people from coming to the area.

“We are going to distribute a two-week ration of food, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day,” said Reilly. CRS trucks were being unloaded at the U.S. military encampment at the club and the aid was being re-packed into ration kits.

Reilly did not know how many families were there. “I have heard estimates of anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 people.”

The dried grains included in the food aid need to be cooked and cooking gas is expensive and scarce. Near one camp, people were cutting down the few remaining trees to build fires.

The U.S. Coast Guard said a first shipment of propane gas was expected to arrive at Port-au-Prince’s port on Sunday.

Aid agency CARE feeds the hungry by giving cards to women entitling them to rice, beans and oil or other goods. Giving to women ensures the food will get to families because men are more likely to sell it, CARE’s director in Haiti, Sophie Perez, said. And it is more orderly.

CARE operates near the quake epicentre of Leogane and Carrefour as well as in Petionville suburb in the capital.

Monsignor Bernardito Auza, the Papal envoy to Haiti, said Roman Catholic groups have been avoiding security problems by using cars and small trucks to distribute food at night.

“The distribution has been working well,” Auza said. “I remind everybody -- we don’t have to wait for security to distribute aid. We have to use our moral authority.”

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, editing by Pascal Fletcher and Vicki Allen