2010 - Fabrice Hansé, Belgian-funded JPO with UNDP, shares his experience of his temporary assignment in Haiti with WHO.
Most infrastructures in Haiti were severely damaged after the earthquake of January 2010, and a need to develop the cross-border logistics has occured as a consequence. JPO Fabrice Hansé went from Vietnam to Haiti on a temporary assignement to help facilitate this with WHO.
From Vietnam to Haiti
What did you do in Haiti?
I went to Haiti on a special assignment with the World Health Organization office in the Dominican Republic. Because most logistics infrastructure (harbor, airport) in Haiti have been severely damaged during the earthquake, as we are talking today the bulk of humanitarian aid still goes through Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and is then shipped by trucks overland to Haiti. My job was to facilitate the cross-border logistics for WHO assistance, mainly medicines and medical supplies.
How did you end up going to Haiti?
In previous job assignments, I had lived and worked both in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic. I still have many friends and contacts in Port-au-Prince and was very affected to see the images of devastation on television. When I finally managed to get in touch with my friends in Haiti and realized how urgent and extensive the needs were, I felt that I could probably be useful at facilitating coordination and logistics between the two sides of the border. So I looked at the different options available and got to know that luckily WHO was just looking for someone with my profile who could speak both French and Spanish to be based at the border. The UNDP Vietnam country office has been very supportive and agreed to let me go from Hanoi for 1.5 month.
What was most rewarding experience?
Overall, one of the "positive" outcome of this crisis has been to see a strengthening of the ties and understanding between both countries. The Dominicans have been extremely swift and generous in deploying assistance to their neighbors, and both countries have realized more than ever how much their have to rely on each other. Through humanitarian assistance many young Dominicans have entered Haiti for the first time and could discover by themselves the country with which their share the same island. The huge economic gap and important cultural differences (French speaking Haiti vs. Spanish speaking Dominican Republic) between both sides had traditionally hindered a constructive cross-border dialogue. For example Haitian and Dominican customs officers working some hundred meters away from each other seldom communicate due to the language barrier.
On a more personal standpoint, one of the most rewarding moments of my mission was when we managed to deliver a urgent shipment of quinine from a lab in Santo Domingo to a hospital in Port-au-Prince. As soon as we got there the doctors rushed to administer it to patients in order to stop an important malaria outbreak. We did all we could to get it to that hospital as fast as possible and I was told it saved lives.
How was it like to work in the emergency circumstance?
I got there exactly one month after the earthquake, and the most hectic phase had already passed. In the course of my mission, apart from occasional urgent needs, I could see the situation change slowly to early recovery and I would even say some sort of routine. Haitians have been extremely resilient facing the situation; from what I heard, a few days after the earthquake the markets were back on the streets on beauty parlors were running again among the rubbles.
I was based out of a small town on the Dominican side of the border called Jimaní, about 45 min from Port-au-Prince and with all the necessary infrastructure to organize logistics (water, electricity most of the day, warehouses, telephone, bank, etc.). Being based there I was crossing the border into Haiti everyday but I had the chance not to live under a tent like many colleagues based in Port au Prince.
What about most challenging thing while you were there?
The most challenging part of my job was to get the trucks across the border. The Dominican-Haitian border at Jimaní is a section of 300 meters of unpaved, two-lane road bordering a lake, where an important informal market is taking place daily. Through this section, about 150 trucks of all sizes had to pass between 9am and 6pm, along with private cars, taxis, buses, people on feet, etc. The customs clearance process was somehow complicated despite being classified as humanitarian aid. Often commercial trucks which couldn't get the clearance blocked the whole border and we often ended up regulating the traffic in order to get our humanitarian supplies through on time. But everyday we managed to find innovative solutions in collaboration with the colleagues from the World Food Programme (who were coordinating the UN logistics cluster) and in the end we did not have to face any major issue. We laughed at saying that in order to work in logistics at the border, one should practice playing at Tetris!
Haiti after the crisis
Please tell us about living condition in Haiti now?
iving conditions in Haiti are still very rudimentary. Most people who lost their homes have now received a tent, and food assistance is reaching the majority of Haitians in Port-au-Prince. But aid workers are still struggling to get regular access to remote communities, which have often had to receive displaced people from Port-au-Prince, putting under strain local resources and economy. Often even people who still have their house standing are sleeping outside under tents by fear of aftershocks. For UN colleagues, there are different living camps where they can access basic facilities and restaurants. As there is not enough room availability for all of aid workers in town, the UN has rented a boat-hotel which is anchored off the harbor of Port-au-Prince.