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

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.

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