Third intervention during the thematic segment of the 36th PCB meeting on HIV in emergency contexts
Delivered by Charles King, North America NGO Delegate
Late Tuesday afternoon, one of Housing Works’ staff, a member of the Haitian diaspora, called me on my cell phone. There has been an earthquake in Haiti, she said. For two years, Housing Works had been providing technical assistance to 17 small Haitian grassroots AIDS organizations. I sent several text messages to friends in the country to ask if they were ok. Only one, Edner Boucicault, responded. “We are dying,” he wrote. “Please help.” “What do you need,” I responded. “Everything,” was the reply.
Within 48 hours, we had collected medical and other supplies, and were on a plane to Santo Domingo, where we filled a truck with food staples and other commodities. We made our way to Port-au-Prince, not a part of any formal relief effort, just friends helping friends. That experience resulted in an intensive collaborative effort for a year following the earthquake, and also gave us insights into the formal humanitarian relief efforts.
Following the riots that were provoked by UN forces throwing bags of rice off the back of trucks, the impacted area was divided into zones, with an international organization contracted to manage relief efforts in each zone. Each had its own mechanisms for selecting community leaders through which to work. Overall work was coordinated through clusters that met on the United Nations base camp, far from any population center.
Only official vehicles were allowed near the base camp, and only personnel with identification or with international passports were allowed in. All the cluster meetings were conducted in English, without translation, in a country where the elite speak French and the vast majority of the population speaks only Haitian Creole.
The need for participation by representatives of vulnerable populations could not have been more obvious. Food vouchers were given to female heads of households, but left gay men, abandoned by their families, and widower heads of households and even disabled and frail women without access to food. Later, food distribution was shifted to the appointed heads of camps, who often used their power for sexual exploitation. Sex workers were often forced into a single area of the camp, known as the “nich miel”, where they were expected to provide sexual favours for security. Persons with HIV were terrified to be found out and so refused to bring their medications into the camps, where there was no security for personal property. Without light, at night, the camps were filled with violence, especially sexual violence targeted at girls, women, and gay men. Neither the Haitian police, nor the MINUSTAH UN “Peace Keepers”, would enter them at night time. Yet, a year passed with no provision of lighting.
Even as the reconstruction began, the same marginalization of spokespeople for vulnerable groups and key populations continued and often was only bridged, when I, US citizen, would seek a meeting with UN and other authorities and bring them to the meeting.
Communities impacted by HIV face many pressing needs in addition to HIV. The challenge during emergencies is mobilizing communities in the AIDS response. Internal community mobilization is as important as any aid from international or outside assistance. However, such mobilization during emergencies is unlikely to be successful where governments and international organizations do not have a prior partnership with civil society and key populations in the pre-existing AIDS response.
Communities and civil society organizations are among the driving forces in providing help in emergencies, and can link efforts of States and humanitarian organizations. They have operational information, relevant vision and motivation to solve problems. That is why support for communities is a cost-effective strategy in ensuring sustainable service provision during emergencies.
We need to support people living with HIV and key population networks and other vulnerable groups to collaboratively plan for and participate in disaster responses. Without such community mobilization, it is unlikely that we can ensure that the needs of vulnerable groups are adequately met in the planning and implementation of the humanitarian response.