Interview: Oxfam’s Liz Lucas In Haiti

Providing water and preventing diarrhea is Oxfam’s main mission in Haiti right now, says Liz Lucas, the relief organization’s American press officer. And HeadCount is donating all money collected at shows through March 1 to Oxfam America’s relief effort in Haiti. (Learn more about how you can donate here.)

Emergency-response organizations from around the world have been stationed in Haiti since the earthquake shook the poverty-stricken country four weeks ago, causing an estimated 230,000 deaths to date. Musicians, including Radiohead and will.i.am, have also been coming together in various ways to support Haiti. (Check out will.i.am’s Superbowl remix of The Who’s “My Generation” here.

Liz Lucas filled us in on the relief effort and her personal experiences on the island of Dominica. She told us about what’s being delivered as well as what will be needed in the months and years ahead in order to rebuild Haiti’s environment, infrastructure, and, most importantly, the lives of as many as a million displaced survivors.

HeadCount: Tell us about Oxfam’s relief work in Haiti and what your role has been thus far.

Right now, Oxfam is focused on water and sanitation. This means we provide and try to ensure access to water for drinking and washing, as well as latrines and hygiene kits. Sanitation will remain an important health issue in the coming weeks to avoid the spread of disease – increasing cases of diarrhea are already being reported. The situation will be exacerbated when rains flood the solid-waste areas and drainage ditches, some of which have become blocked by rubble. Most at risk are those living in temporary settlements and crowded conditions with little, if any, space to improve drainage, and those at the camps’ lower end, which are liable to flood. Oxfam has installed 150 latrines to date, and a team has just arrived in Port au Prince to do a major solid waste disposal project.


We’ve also been working on cash-for-work initiatives. We started the program in Haiti because it’s an effective alternative to food distributions when sufficient food is available for people to buy. We pay people to do necessary jobs in their community, such as removing trash, waste, and light rubble. It gives them an income to buy food with. We’ve seen that markets are open and heard repeatedly that food is available – people simply lack the cash to purchase these goods.

There seem to be mixed messages about how efficiently help is being delivered. Have you seen things progressing on a day-to-day basis?

Things are getting better and every day we see more aid getting through. Our relief operations have seen a marked improvement over the last two weeks. We have a steady truck pipeline from Santo Domingo and now operate eight sites, with more to come. We have our full complement of experts on the ground. A steady stream of water trucks keeps our water points full. We’ve built latrines and water points serving more than 90,000 people at this point. The cash-for-work program is up and running.

But humanitarian agencies are facing serious challenges in reaching millions of affected Haitians quickly. The enormous scale of the disaster means hundreds of thousands of people need a massive amount of assistance. This has required large volumes of aid, and more humanitarian workers need to be transported into and around Haiti. The main airport at Port au Prince is functioning with limited capacity, while the main sea port, though usable, was badly damaged. In addition, the United Nations and several humanitarian agencies suffered many fatalities and injuries to their staff, including the head of the UN mission.

President Obama laid out a plan to send military forces to maintain peace and quell any post-disaster unrest. What are your thoughts on the US government’s reaction to the earthquake?

There are principles to guide the international humanitarian community on the use of military assets in humanitarian response. Essentially, military assets should be requested only where there is no comparable civilian alternative and when such assets can meet a critical humanitarian need. The US military plays an important role in responding to huge disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, especially with logistics and security, which are greatly needed at the outset of a devastating disaster. This isn’t the first time the US military has been asked to respond to a disaster, and it’s to be commended for its efforts.

However, the US military must operate under the leadership of civilian emergency-relief professionals whose mission, mandate, and expertise lie in mounting effective relief and recovery operations. The President’s designation of USAID as the lead agency for the US government’s response to the earthquake means the military is in a supporting role to civilian development and humanitarian response professionals. As such, relief efforts carried out by the military should end as soon as civilians are capable of taking over those efforts effectively.

The image projected by the media is one of people coming together and holding onto their faiths, even in suffering. How are the Haitian people coping with this tragedy from your point of view?

From what I’ve seen on the ground, Haitian people are coming together to cope with this tragedy. Many Oxfam staffers have lost homes and loved ones and yet still come to work each day to support the aid effort. People are offering shelter to one another and sharing what little they have.

Has there been a widespread eruption of violence since you arrived?

Not at all. What we’ve seen more than anything is Haitians working together and sharing what resources they have. There has been sporadic violence and we’re monitoring the situation. So far, our aid stocks have not been looted and our aid workers have not been attacked.

What’s been the most difficult part of your work? And what has been most gratifying?

By far the most gratifying party has been watching our Haitian staff come to work in the face of unbelievable personal tragedies. It’s been incredible to see their dedication to assisting fellow Haitians. This has made us all strive to be and do better as well.

What’s the next step after basic needs have been delivered and direct aid begins to pull out of Haiti

After basic needs have been delivered, the next step will be rebuilding and making sure the world continues to support Haiti. Some of the most pressing issues will certainly include finding space where people will want to live and having access to safe materials to build homes that can withstand potential threats – including hurricanes, future earthquakes, and aftershocks. Job creation and income earning will also become major issues. Haiti faces problems that may make the stabilization and recovery phases stretch out over a long period despite everyone’s best efforts. First, there’s the preexisting weakness of public institutions now utterly devastated by the quake. Basic public services, like water and sanitation, that used to be woefully inadequate are now simply absent.

Earthquakes are natural disasters. But how can manmade disasters be prevented? Since many institutions that provided a voice for the poor have been destroyed, how can we sustain ongoing efforts to fight poverty and rebuild infrastructure?

The humanitarian response should form the basis for a sustained international reconstruction effort. This would reconstruct what was destroyed while establishing equitable international and regional policies toward Haiti and focus on the country’s most vulnerable communities, especially women. There are three key criteria: First, all efforts should be made to reduce people’s vulnerability and increase their resilience. Second, public institutions lie at the heart of good development. We must ensure that the new Haiti has strong institutions able to provide basic services and guide the reconstruction effort. Third, solutions cannot be imposed from outside. Haitians must have voice and vote to control their own destiny.

As with many organizations, I imagine Oxfam’s efforts have had to adapt to the changing
needs of developing countries. In your experience, how does Oxfam differ from other organizations in its approach to relief?

Oxfam America is an international relief and development organization that creates lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice. We’re particularly effective because, beyond immediate relief work, Oxfam works with local and national partner organizations to build alliances, networks, and create strong, effective organizations that eventually no longer need our support. Most importantly, what our partners teach us about the best solutions to poverty is just as valuable as the funding and collaboration we provide them.

People have come from many parts of to offer their services in Haiti. Have you worked with other relief organizations since you’ve been there?

We work with local NGO partners, camp committees, Haitian government ministries, and other actors. We’re part of coordination teams with many other NGOs. It’s important for all of us to work together.

(Photo of Petitionville tent city by Liz Lucas.)

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