January 20, 2010

Haiti: Aid is only as good as the infrastructure

The whole world is presently focused on the recent earthquake in Haiti, as it should be.  With estimates of approximately 50,000 mortalities from the disaster, and countless numbers of people in need of assistance, the immense scale of this disaster warrants immediate relief efforts by the international community.   At this time aid agencies are find themselves faced with an array of logistical challenges however, which makes this disaster somewhat unique.

Although an array of aid organizations are on the ground, media reports present portray them as struggling to get matters underway.  In short, the aggression of the earthquake has broken down the necessary transport lines for the delivery of aid, consequently, agencies are bottlenecked.  With a single, partially operating airport in Port-au-Prince, and a defunct harbor, aid agencies are having to determine alternative supply lines, via ground transport from the Dominican republic.

However a quick glance at a map of the roads between these two countries reveals that there are only 2 major arterial roads between the two countries.  Each roadway has extends to either the far north or the far south, and assumably have been damaged within the earthquakes as well.

Islands are complicated terrains.  An island economy is generally not self sustaining and relies upon a high quantity of imports to maintain its populations.  Islands likewise have limited resources available, and therefore have few products available for export or even a balanced consumption by their own populations.  Within the Caribbean, it is not uncommon for such islands to primarily thrive on sugar cane or tourism, with additional minor products such as cigar rolling or the manufacture of alcohol for export.  Haiti of course has been severely scarred by civil war within the last 10 years, and therefor does not even have such basic assets as their island neighbors.

With such limited economic means, it is easy to recognize that the nation does not have - or possibly even require - an advanced system of physical infrastructure.  Although the mandate within aid organizations are to work with communities, the conflict and disaster terrain can only facilitate the distribution of aid to the extent that industrial infrastructure is available.

Within Haiti, aid will therefore continue to be a one way process and will need to be a 'top-down' operation by necessity.  Agencies that have strong supply chain capacity and yet flexible field protocol will be the best equipped to handle the situation.  But even then, these agencies, such as MSF are faced with daunting challenges.  Unable to access fuel for planes and trucks, agencies are forced to import their own fuel.  This is of course an expensive and tedious process, considering that the delivery of fuel within vehicle will likewise consume fuel going to and from the destination point.  The greater the distance, and the more fuel in delivery, the more fuel that is ultimately consumed.  At certain point, the cost/benefit of shipping fuel becomes a loss.

Listening to NPR, watching the news, or reading the papers, many reporters and American citizens clearly have a limited or maligned view of the international institutions working within Haiti.  Regardless of appearances, aid agencies do coordinate with one another, emergency rosters and teams do exist on standby for immediate deployment, international aid standards do exist and state governance is in place.  Agencies do not have carte blanche to property, resources, or methods as they are still subject to the interest and directives of the sovereign government.  Therefore setting up an emergency settlement of tents for 10,000 people is not a matter of immediacy and whim, considering a) the settlement may be there for years   b) land ownership and property rights laws still exist and must be honored for the location of such a settlement an  c) other large scale planning concerns must be taken into account such as access to water, transportation, sanitation.

It becomes clear that regardless of the procedure taken by the aid organization, in the end, it is the infrastructure of the country that determines the viability of its immediacy.  Regardless of political will or the imbalance of power and capital throughout the world, aid will always be better distributed where fuel, supply lines, and raw supplies are readily available.  Otherwise, agencies must construct new infrastructure at the same time, reducing the efficacy of their mandate and undermining their success.

January 7, 2010

New Video from Slim J

This morning I woke up feeling heavily congested and rather sick, yet when I opened my email, it suddenly made me feel a little better.  My friend Mohamed Jalloh, aka Slim J, sent an email announcing the creation of a new hip hop video.  Jalloh and I used to make hip hop music in Cairo before he returned home to Freetown, Sierra Leone.  He told me that he has managed to get many our songs on the radio, and are even being played at the national soccer stadium.  He said progress has been slow, but he has been working really hard to advance his music career.  He recently wrote and recorded this song - Fula Boy Rap - and also made his own music video.  Apparently this song is catching on in Freetown as well, and is getting quite a bit of play on the radio.  Watching the video I couldn't help but smile when a few pictures of me popped up in it toward the end.  Thanks man.  I can't wait to see where this goes.  You can watch the video below, or at this link.

January 6, 2010

The Price of Aid?

WFP Ration Distribution

It was announced this week that the World Food Program, WFP, has been forced to suspend programming within Somalia. The lives of 1 million people are now at risk, due to the demands of Al Shabaab placed upon WFP to pay a semi-annual $20,000 "security fee" and to dismiss female employees.

Food aid is always a challenging issue, as the provision of aid may undercut existing markets and lead to a struggling reconstruction process. However within Somalia, it is arguable that food aid is essential, as the instability within the region will likewise to continue to undermine the efforts of farmers and shop owners.

Of course one must question, will the payment of $3,300 per month to Al Shabaab lead to greater complications and tragedies than the potential deaths of 1 million people? Is each life only worth 1/3 of a single cent? Or are there bigger issues at hand? Will the provision of $40,000 per year lead to increased militancy, increased terrorism, and later increased demands? Will the present loss of 1 million lives prevent the loss of 5 million lives in the future? How can we weigh these factors?

This problem has always existed within the world of organized crime. Mafias demand a fee for protection, the store owner must pay that fee to be protected. The threat is of course the mafia. Witnessing this process occur within the international domain however is highly disturbing. It highlights the position of power held by Al Shabaab. Clearly attempts to remediate this problem can not be determined in a traditional militaristic fashion, with military tactics utilized to bring down a particular rebel group. The stabilization to this region will require global efforts, engaging Al Shabaab as a political power.

We do have institutions to deal with such issues, such as the International Criminal Courts. The question applies however to the desire of the international community to recognize Al Shabaab as a political actor, on par with a state actor.

But in doing so, we will have to change our language. While a state might sponsor terrorism, a state is not a terrorist. A political faction acknowledged as having the same credibility and responsibility of a state, may not necessarily be a terrorist. It will of course be a matter of targeting.

Is the civilian population harmed? Aid workers? Are these targets or unwanted causalities? Is Al Shabaab taking responsibility of its actions wherein civilians may be at risk? Could this demand for $20,000 actually be an attempt to assume proper responsibility in lieu of insufficient resources? If agencies began to acknowledge Al Shabaab as a credible holder of state responsibility, could greater stability be placed into the region?

Many Western governments argue that they do not negotiate with terrorists. However, at what point do we recognize a ruling party as something more than terrorists, and instead as a major power holder within a region, en route to state control? The Maoist have overtaken Nepal, the Taliban had Afghanistan, and now Al Shabaab are taking over Somalia. We might not like them, their ideas, or their actions. But when does this dialogue change?

At this time, I fully support WFP's withdrawal from Somalia, because I do not believe that supporting Al Shabaab's demands will lead to a better situation. However, I suspect that in the future, greater dialogue and cooperation will be required, although as we will never know when this time is upon us, we will miss the opportunity.