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U.N. Under-Secretary General Updates Needs in Haiti

February 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Nearly 600,000 people are still without shelter as the rains begin to fall in Port-au-Prince. Ray Suarez speaks to Under-Secretary General John Holmes of the United Nations about Haiti's long journey of rebuilding ahead and the state of the relief effort.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: an update on Haiti, five weeks after the earthquake.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Heavy rains began falling on Haiti today. It brought mud and more misery to nearly 600,000 homeless people living in tent camps around Port-au-Prince.

And, overnight, eight American missionaries who had been accused of child kidnapping returned to the U.S. They flew to Miami on a U.S. Air Force plane, before going on to final destinations in Texas, Missouri, and Idaho. They could still be called back to Haiti for more questioning.

Two others, including the group leader, remained in jail in Haiti. They face a Haitian court hearing tomorrow.

And joining us now is the United Nations’ point man for Haiti humanitarian efforts, Under-Secretary-General John Holmes.

Mr. Holmes, you have just recently been to Haiti. What’s your assessment of the relief and recovery efforts so far?

JOHN HOLMES, United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs: I think you can say that we have made very good progress in some areas. And I think we have solved a lot of the immediate emergency medical problems, one way or the other, with a lot of help from many organizations around the world.

I think we’re where we need to be in terms of provision of freshwater. We can still do a bit better, but, essentially, water is not a problem. I think food is — is out there in much larger quantities than before. I think everybody who needs some food has now got some food, more or less. I mean, I’m sure you could find someone who hasn’t received some aid, but that’s largely a problem which we’re getting on top of.

What we need to do now is step up further, because we have a lot to do in areas like shelter and sanitation, particularly because, as you say, the rainy season. And whether it rained today or not is — is perhaps not the point. The rainy season proper, when there are very heavy rains, is only a few weeks away.

And that’s why we need to make sure that everybody’s got a roof over their heads, they have got the best sanitation available, so that both they’re comfortable, but also, particularly, we avoid the outbreaks of disease, which can easily come in — in rainy conditions, particularly in conditions of poor hygiene.

So, I think those are the biggest problems we face right at this moment.

RAY SUAREZ: In those first terrible days right after the earthquake, people and material poured into Haiti, and nobody seemed to be in charge. Everybody sort of did what they were good at, whether they were doctors or handing out food or trucking in supplies.

Is there somebody in charge now? Is there an overall intelligence coordinating relief efforts?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, there always was. And that was us. Whether you thought we were visible or not, that’s what we were doing.

There is the system which is tried and tested for disasters, and which has been improved since the days of the tsunami. We have a — a system where all the agencies and organizations, NGOs and others, working in particular areas, whether it be health or food or water or shelter, get together, decide who’s going to do what where, apportion out the tasks, make sure there’s no duplications, no gaps.

Now, does it work perfectly? Of course not, particularly in the first few days of the chaos, the inevitable chaos after a disaster, and particularly when you have, as you do have in a place like Haiti with a catastrophe of that size, tens and then hundreds of organizations working in the same sector.

But it is a lot more organized than it might seem from the outside. And these systems do work, even if sometimes the immediate visible results on the ground are a bit slower than the media would like them to be, and, of course, more importantly, than the people in — who are waiting for that help might like them to be.

RAY SUAREZ: In an internal memo written by you that’s been widely circulated, you talked about the things that need to be done quickly that haven’t been done yet. What did you identify as some of the shortcomings?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, what I was talking about — and I was trying to both appreciate the progress we have made, but recognize the scale of the task we still faced ahead of us in the next weeks and months — was to talk particularly about the shelter and sanitation issues. That’s where we do have to have a real surge in the next few weeks, equivalent to the food surge we had a couple of weeks ago.

I was also talking in rather technical terms about the kind of human resources that are needed to run these clusters, to run these sectoral arrangements in a disaster which is of the magnitude of Haiti.

Now, I say, I don’t think you should take what I said in that e-mail, which is a private e-mail not for circulation, not for scrutiny by the media, as being criticism of the operation. It’s more encouragement that, given the scale of what we face, we have to do even better.

Now, today, we have launched a new revised appeal for the immediate needs of Haiti and the early recovery needs. And that covers these areas like food, shelter, water, sanitation, but also looking ahead a little bit further, cash for work, so that the Haitians themselves can get to work clearing the rubble, clearing the waste, getting some money in their pockets, and also areas like education and agriculture, where we need to restart things quickly, so that people have got livelihoods, children go to school.

So, we have been — we’re launching that appeal for the next 12 months. And I hope that generous — donors will continue to be generous for that.

RAY SUAREZ: The Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank just released a report by their lead economists looking at the problem, and they estimated $7.2 billion to $13 billion price tag for Haitian recovery over the medium and long term.

Does that sound about right to you?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I’m sure it will be billions and billions of dollars.

There is a separate assessment under way — this is more in the long term, and not necessarily in my emergency field — called a post-disaster needs assessment, which the U.N., the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and other major actors are doing together.

And that’s designed to produce the proper needs assessments, priorities, time scales for the reconstruction and redevelopment aimed at a donor conference at the end of March here in New York. And I think that will be a very important moment to see exactly what the needs are and what the plan is.

And, of course, former President Clinton will be playing a very big part in that, too.

RAY SUAREZ: In all these various areas, food and water, medical, shelter, and so on, work, there are assessments ongoing, as you mentioned.

Has a full accounting or a closer-to-full accounting of the human cost been done? What are the figures that people are working with for the dead, wounded, and displaced?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, the figures we have are the figures given by the government. I think the latest figures are around 220,000 people killed, 300,000 people injured, more than a million homeless, half-a-million who have left the capital and the surrounding area affected by the earthquake to go to other areas of Haiti.

Now, I don’t know exactly whether those figures are right. There’s no way of telling at this stage, and we may never know the exact figures. But I think they’re the right order of things, and they do give some indication of the — as I say, the — the sheer magnitude of this disaster. And the particular feature of it, which I think we need to keep bearing in mind, that it hit the capital of the country.

It hit the government of the country. It hit all the main institutions of the country. So, that made the response and, indeed, the recovery that much more complicated and, of course, slowed it down as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have reason to believe that, after this initial surge of concern, this outpouring of generosity, that the world has the attention span to keep on with Haiti over what you’re saying is a much longer recovery period?

JOHN HOLMES: I think that will be a real test for the international community.

As you say, it’s easy when the media scrutiny is there, when everybody’s attention is there, when everybody’s sympathy is caught by the dreadful scenes we saw, to talk about it. To be there five years later, still offering help to a country which will desperately need that help in five years, or maybe even in 10 years, that’s a much bigger challenge.

The floodlights of attention do tend to move on. And that’s where I think that we need to do things differently from the way we have done them in the past. We need to rebuild Haiti not as it was before, but much better.

And that’s where — also where I think that President Clinton can again play a role in keeping everybody’s noses to the grindstone, keeping everybody at work, making sure they don’t forget about Haiti, and that we don’t miss this opportunity, because a disaster is an opportunity, if you take it, but it will take a lot of time and attention, in a way which perhaps the international community is not always good at.

RAY SUAREZ: You have written in your leaked memo of the necessity of putting in place the right plan.

Do you have this feeling that time is being lost right now, that there are — there’s a plan that needs to be put in place quickly in order for the situation not to — this opportunity that you described not to be lost?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think we need to move fast.

I mean, I was talking there again about the emergency needs. We need to — to define very clearly what they are for the next three to six months. And that’s what, of course, the appeal we were launching today was about.

I think, for the longer term, we do need to have a quick plan, but it’s very important to get it right, and it’s very important to get it right in the sense that it needs to be owned by the Haitians. It needs to be something which the — the Haitian government believe in and the Haitian people believe in, and that they can do.

What we don’t want is something which is devised by the international community, seen as being imposed by the international community, and it will never take root in a meaningful way. That’s more difficult, but we do need to get that part of it right, even if the institutions of Haiti were weak before.

RAY SUAREZ: U.N. Under-Secretary-General John Holmes, thanks for joining us.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you.