Saturday, February 20, 2010
Helping - why is this so complicated?
Shouldn’t it be simple to help people in desperate need? There has been such an outpouring of support from around the world, billions of dollars and tons and tons of donations without thousands of aid workers and volunteers on the ground. It’s amazing to watch first hand, how incredibly complicated this is. It can be done well, and it cone be done so badly – even with the best of intentions.
First, how do you distribute food? How do you know who really needs it most, and how do you ensure that they get it? I know the TV has been full of images of riots over food thrown from the back of a truck, and police shooting people suspected of stealing that food, and I’ve seen glimpses in person of what that looks like. Even in our little neighborhood this morning a truck pulled up with some bottled water and bags of rice and our normally subdued and peaceful neighbors went a little crazy, yelling and pushing each other to get to the truck first. It’s strange because most of them are not actually worse of now than they were before the earthquake, so honestly that same thing probably would have happened two months ago if a truck full of free stuff had pulled up. But certainly in the tent cities there is a much more acute need, and sense of desperation, so when the food comes to the those places the reaction is even more intense.
I’ve seen food distributed really well too. The US military lines people up on a huge field, then releases them a few at a time to walk across another field to the place where the bags of rice are being handed out. Then tap taps wait on the other side to drive the people and their huge bags of rice home. Of course there are guys standing guard over the line with automatic weapons, so that helps maintain order, but the whole thing looks calm and dignified. The Missionaries of Charity are my favorites though. They have been here so long, that they know who really needs the food. They go out into the neighborhood and the tent cities and hand out tickets with a date and time stamped on them. People with the tickets then come to their door, and they only allow the ones with the [roper ticket into the compound. Then they each receive a bag with all the staples – rice, beans, cornmeal, soap, crackers, oil, and bulgur wheat. I’ve helped in the packaging and distribution of that food, and it’s a totally peaceful, dignified process. People smile and say thank you. Most of the people who come are women, the ones likely to be caring for their family, whereas most of the food riots you see on TV are battles among young men. Butt even the sisters say it’s hard when they go out into the tent cities and bring prepared food directly to the people there. They don’t know everyone, and the desperation is so acute, that they often need help controlling the crowds. But this is their mission, to serve the poorest of the poor, and they are doing it with as much love and tenacity now as they ever have before.
At LCS we decided early on that we would not become a large scale food distribution site, but rather would follow more in the example of the Missionaries of Charity and St. Vincent de Paul and bring assistance directly to the people in need. In the days after the earthquake that meant setting up a huge pot of rice and beans on the street and serving it directly to our neighbors who came by and ate it, then handed their spoon and bowl to someone else who hadn’t received any yet. That worked pretty well for a week, but it was never a long term solution. Now we’re back to feeding the neighborhood children at the school, as we always have. But since we’re a well established organization, many individuals and some of the larger aid organizations are beginning to turn to us to help figure out how to get help to the people who need it. The Red Cross of Colombia just made a huge drop off of food and supplies to LCS this week. We spent Thursday sorting the food into study shopping bags with brightly colored cartoon characters on them. Then on Friday we handed one bag to each student on his or her way out the door, and personally delivered them to families in the neighborhood, and some of the hardest hit families even beyond our immediate neighbors. There was no drama, or pushing, or yelling, or fear. Everyone got one. Now I think one of my first Spanish classes next week will need to be focused on reading the labels ad directions on some of this food that the families are a little less familiar with …
And how do you prioritize what to do first? Of course our first priority is caring for our own students and neighbors. We’ve also worked downtown excavatig the Cathedral, but then our focus shifted to one of the few functioning hospitals. While we were able to provide some actual medical help in the form of LCS graduates who are medical students, and current students to work as translators, one of our main roles at the hospital became … surprise, surprise … managing the trash. I’ve noted in the past my newfound appreciate for waste management, but this is a whole new thing. What do you do with the medical waste when the incinerator that usually burns the trash collapsed in the earthquake, and the national trash company that usually picks up the trash is a little overextended right now? We burn the trash ourselves. I’ve never personally participated in this oh so glamorous activity, but the stories of rats the size of cats are enough to give me a pretty good sense of what that’s like.
Where do you start on the physical reconstruction? The “monuments” to the earthquake are everywhere, and I worry that the longer the piles of rubble and broken buildings sit there, the more normal they will become. And once people stop noticing them, then the urgency to remove them will disappear. This is the same lack of urgency that lets people walk past piles of trash in the street here without blinking, and if the rubble problem becomes like the trash problem, then this country will not move forward. So, in our own neighborhood we’ve worked hard to clean up our own rubble, and encourage neighbors to do the same. We’ve even started paying a team of unemployed young men from the neighborhood to do some of that work. They cleaned up a large, destroyed house on a prominent corner, and are now helping to build a foundation, and eventually a house, for another neighbor who lost everything. Even the little kids in the school were helping this week, carrying cement blocks in wheelbarrows, and even on their heads, from our own pile of rubble to the site of the new house where they were being used in the foundation. After this house is constructed, we’ll move on to another one.
I’m hearing all the weird stories about utterly useless things that have been donated and shipped halfway around the world. And I’ve felt the frustration as I sit in gridlocked traffic in a line of cars bearing the logos of prominent NGO’s … each with one person inside. But I honestly don’t know enough about international aid organizations and disaster relief to offer any real criticism or analysis of what’s gone on here, and how it all could have been managed better. I just think that for myself,if I’m ever looking to make a contribution to assist people after a disaster, I think I’ll give it to the Missionaries of Charity. They know who needs the help most, and they know how to distribute it.