Soon after January 12th, I found myself crossing the border into Haiti before dawn, in the midst of a vast convoy of lorries carrying relief supplies. It is just a two hour drive from the border to Port au Prince, and the outpouring of support from the public around the world for the worst natural disaster since the 2004 Tsunami was evident.
Staff from my charity, Progressio, had been working in support of local charities in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic before the earthquake happened. They immediately switched from long term work to emergency relief. Indeed, a hidden story of this emergency is the huge response made by such local organisations to the emergency: within the first week of the emergency, our partners had distributed emergency food to over 50,000 people, and treated thousands of medical cases. Because they were so close to the scene, they reached communities before many other major aid agencies.
I travelled out to the grounds of a ruined hospital in Leogane, at the epicentre of the quake, and met my colleague Raquel Casares and her health team. Working from tents, and with equipment salvaged from the ruins, they were treating hundreds of injuries every day. To get there we had driven through some thirty miles of flattened concrete buildings. Then on to a nearby school compound, where around thirty to forty children were sheltering under makeshift tents, assisted by church officials, without, at that stage, outside assistance, some ten days after the quake. We left them with some large tents, and agreed to send more supplies quickly from our distribution centre.
Discussions are now taking place about the future: how can Haiti be rebuilt, and how can this future be one that leaves Haiti stronger, less vulnerable, less poor? As these discussions develop, I am hearing one consistent message from Haitians themselves - that aid agencies need to be involving Haitians fully in decisions about the way forward. This is far harder than it sounds - in the face of such a catastrophe, our instinct is to work quickly, and consultation can feel overly time-consuming. And in Haiti, both government and the voluntary sector were never strong, and have now been decimated. But if we do not invest time and energy in consultation, we can quickly waste money; providing well-meant white elephants that won't last, because they aren't really what is wanted or needed. Fortunately, experienced aid agencies know that if we have the humility to ask questions, then we stand far more chance of helping Haiti find a sustainable future.
In Port au Prince, the Haitian head of the Jesuit seminary where we were staying (by necessity, in tents) held an evening meeting for those of us staying in the compound, aid workers, seminarians, and families of Haitian relief workers. As we stood together in the garden, in the dark, he asked us to hold hands, and say the Lord's prayer, each in our own language. What a challenge, in the midst of such meaningless horror, to be asked to pray in this way. And yet, we did.