Land of Confusion: Dynamic air cargo NGOs bring relief to Haiti

A view from the cargo door of an MD-11 freighter being unloaded on the tarmac at Port-au-Prince.
A view from the cargo door of an MD-11 freighter being unloaded on the tarmac at Port-au-Prince.

SOUTHWESTERN HAITI — When Hurricane Matthew came ashore on this island nation in early October, Dr. Anke Brugmann was running an orphanage in the village of Beaumont, in Grand’Anse, a municipality the Haitians call a “department.” In the chaos that followed, the only practicing doctor in the area packed his bags and left the country, and Dr. Brugmann’s position changed from overseeing an orphanage to the sole doctor for an estimated population of 30,000 – in one of the hardest-hit areas of Haiti. Almost a month later, she finally got medical assistance from a six-person medical team flown in from the Ireland.

The team came from Disaster Tech Lab, touching down in two donated Bell Helicopters in early November, working in conjunction with Airlink, a Washington, D.C.-based rapid-response humanitarian relief organization that links airlines with pre-qualified nonprofits to move resources to disaster zones around the world. For this mission, I accompanied the crews for a couple of days, representing Air Cargo World.

Makeshift medial and housing in Beaumont, Haiti.

“Haiti is in the business of being poor,” is something I heard within minutes of landing, and my view during the descent into Port-au-Prince was all the evidence I needed to know that statement was true. However, despite the dire conditions in the capital, it’s out on Haiti’s southern peninsula, where Beaumont is located, that the scope of the country’s poverty can be fully comprehended. The ravaged area visited by Airlink and Bell had water sources so polluted following the Category 4 storm that they exacerbated an already existing cholera outbreak that began after Haiti’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, and has killed nearly 10,000 since.

Much of this suffering, however, is going unrecognized. As Haiti’s northern neighbor comes to grips with the surprising results of its recent Presidential election, the chances of the Caribbean country’s predicament returning to American headlines are lower than ever, as aid groups struggle to get the kind of relief supplies that the country desperately needs.

At the same time, the economic impact of goods-based aid has also forced nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Airlink helicopter team, to seriously reevaluate the impact of their efforts. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that food aid was “discouraging food production by local farmers.” Historically, material assistance that NGOs brought into developing countries has depressed local commerce and undercut domestic economic growth that is critical for long-term recovery. In Haiti, this is especially pronounced, and part of the reason that Airlink and other nonprofits, such as LIFT and the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), are so intent on cutting logistics costs for aid deliveries to facilitate other forms of aid.

Some of the palleted relief supplies for Haiti gathered by Airlink and other NGOs.

Long history of inefficiency

For centuries, Haiti has suffered from colonial rule, enslavement and crushing debt – it’s essentially a permanent welfare state. Some 80 percent of Haitians subsist on less than US$2 per day, and departments such as Grand’Anse and Sud, which were particularly hard-hit during the storm, are at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. With this year’s harvest destroyed, locals are scavenging for fallen fruit, as the specter of widespread famine lurks in the wings.

“Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” said Kathy Fulton, executive director of the ALAN aid group. “The problems are longitudinal. It’s going to take a significant effort, not just from going in and providing aid, but by putting systems in place that rise up from within the country.”

On a systemic level, the disaster relief community is battling inefficiency and overreach that can cripple ongoing efforts. Disaster relief is one of the largest unregulated sectors in the world, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent with little accountability. Billions went missing in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Organizations operating in Haiti are often fractured, and face daunting costs as they attempt to deliver aid and personnel to areas without basic infrastructure, while facing bureaucratic impediments on the ground that could cost lives if aid groups can’t find alternatives.

For instance, in Beaumont, Dr. Brugmann complained that a ban by the Haitian government on makeshift shelters was causing extensive hardship and propagating homelessness. According to the government, the existence of tarps highlights the country’s failure to rebuild. But simply banning materials is not a long-term solution, and an illicit tarp trade has sprung up.

Michael Rettig, who runs LIFT, one of three nonprofits involved in the operation, lamented that “60 to 80 percent of dollars that are spent on disaster aid are spent on logistics.” Further complicating matters, organizations often don’t cooperate and, at times, compete for supplies and services.

A chartered MD-11 freighter prepares to take off from Miami International Airport carrying relief supplies to Haiti.

Rethinking NGO operations

Several miles to the east of Grand’Anse department, Brad Barker, Airlink’s in-country team leader, air-drummed to Genesis (from the Peter Gabriel years) playing though his noise-cancelling earphones as our Bell 429 arced around the town of Miragoane, with its famous Co-Cathedral Saint Jean-Baptiste a few hundred feet below.

The small coastal commune plays a major role in driving the country’s informal economy, as bales of used clothing, appliances and used cars from Miami are unloaded here and resold around the country. That trade, however, is part of the problem, as the availability of cheap or free goods from the U.S. disincentivizes local manufacturing and entrepreneurial activity.

Early this year, the United Nations proposed a “Grand Bargain” to overhaul the international aid system by moving away from delivering physical aid and, instead, distributing cash. By doing so, the U.N. argued, donors could stimulate economic growth that would pay off long after aid groups had moved on. Of course, in underdeveloped countries like Haiti, the need to import physical supplies is more pressing, and economic development will not happen overnight, even under the best of circumstances.

Until then, Rettig argues, aid organizations need to rethink the way they operate. “The worldwide response community is currently strained and at a breaking point,” he said. “There simply isn’t enough funding to address all the man-made, natural, slow burn and rapid on-set disasters that occur annually. Lack of interoperability and competition between NGOs must be addressed and diffused for the greater good of the people affected by crisis.”

The Airlink, LIFT and ALAN cooperative effort on this early-November trip to Haiti represented a real-world solution to this discontinuity. Steve Smith, Airlink’s executive director, explained that, “we leverage our partnerships with aviation companies and airlines to not only consolidate cargo and achieve economies of scale and efficiencies, but also to achieve better or donated pricing in order to send the aircraft. A lot of NGOs would end up paying through the nose, and those dollars go much further if we can work together.”

For this trip, Airlink and its partners combined shipments from seven NGOs, filling an entire MD-11 freighter with donations from across the U.S., and delivered it to destinations in Haiti using their extensive connections in the transport business. Aid-focused NGOs are unable to carry out this level of consolidation, so the less money they spend on transport, the more cash they can distribute on the ground, Smith says.

A helicopter carrying NGO representatives lifts off to visit hurricane-stricken areas in southwestern Haiti.

Rescue in Les Cayes

Later in the trip, our two-helicopter caravan made a final stop in the town of Les Cayes to pick up a team of volunteers that were stranded there overnight by unrest that saw the town’s mayor kidnapped and burning roadblocks set up along major roads. The extraction was successful, and our passengers were relieved to be on their way home via Port-au-Prince.

The situation in Les Cayes underscored how important it is that aid deliveries make it through by air. Aid convoys on the ground have reportedly been attacked and plundered by locals as the situation deteriorates. The town is also ground zero for the nation’s re-energized cholera epidemic that has infected at least 1,000 Haitians since the storm hit. Hurricane Matthew affected an area even larger than the earthquake zone, destroying crops as well as damaging infrastructure.

“We need a much greater response from the U.S. public, and from government organizations and NGOs,” Smith said. “This isn’t about Airlink, it’s about the overall response, we need to raise the tide for everybody.”

Even with limited assistance, Haiti has started the tortuous process of rebuilding not only from Hurricane Matthew but also from the earthquake, which left many structures still in ruins nearly seven years later. Time will tell which efforts paid off the most, but as attitudes towards aid evolve, relief organizations will be held increasingly accountable for where and when they spend their dollars.

Airlink and its partners are still on the ground now, helping Dr. Brugmann and demonstrating a competitive model for transporting aid thousands of miles across transportation modes and borders. And they’re doing it quickly, cheaply, and ultimately more effectively than anyone else in the game.

LIFT’s Rettig said the NGO cooperation demonstrated on this trip is the best way to mitigate transportation costs, and that his organization is working to, “encourage NGOs to cooperate with one another to drive down the cost of transportation during a crisis. By doing so, they will realize tangible savings and be able to redirect those funds elsewhere, for example by purchasing aid locally in an effort to stimulate the local economy,” he said. “That way, everybody wins.”

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