Haiti and the Caricom reply

What was really needed was the instant activation of the machinery of the community’s disaster relief arm. Though only recently changed over from the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Relief Agency, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency should have already been primed for action. This was not to be. Not even the words of solidarity which might have soothed ears of the suffering Haitians were evident from Caricom.

Though the earthquake occurred on the afternoon of January 12, it was not until after midday on January 14 that the Georgetown-based Caricom Secretariat was able to issue a formal statement – almost two days later. It was a shocking revelation of its incapacity and a lack of recognition of how necessary it was to be front and centre of this disaster that gripped its neediest member.

By contrast, within hours of the earthquake, and alert to the extent of the devastation, statements were put out on Tuesday evening by the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) President, Luis Alberto Moreno who immediately pledged US$200,000 in emergency aid, the World Bank’s President, Robert Zoellick who promised emergency assistance and a team to plot reconstruction needs, the Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza who offered support and the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) describing the quake and announcing preparedness to make insurance payouts in Haiti.

The day after there were follow-up statements from the OAS – about the channelling of aid –from the CCRIF about an US$8M insurance payout to Port au Prince, from the World Bank on US$100M in emergency aid, from the IDB on the re-directing of aid and another from the OAS on a planned mission to Haiti. There was also a statement from the Association of Caribbean States expressing solidarity with Haiti and a statement from the International Monetary Fund pledging assistance but up to this point not a word from the Secretariat at Turkeyen though Caricom Chairman Roosevelt Skerrit had spoken to the Caribbean Media Corporation on the evening of January 13th.

When it finally came, the Caricom statement offered so little in way of comfort to the battered citizens of Haiti that it could well have been the prating of a distant cousin rather than the hoped for solace of a parent.

Even up to Friday, all that could be said for the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) by a second statement from Caricom was that it was “still collating and processing pledged assistance from around the region”. There was then a recounting of offers of assistance from Guyana, Belize, Barbados, Jamaica and others. Still at that point, however, no boots on the ground in Haiti, no easing of the pain of even one hamlet. Hallowed ground had yet again been lost to those with the wherewithal and the will to take charge in Haiti.

While the Haitian quake was way off the scale in terms of Caricom’s ability, the region could still have made an impact. It required a structure.  The Dominican Republic – which has close ties to Caricom – and Jamaica would have been logical staging grounds for the essential needs: water, food, medical aid accompanied by a relief party of soldiers, police, medical and logistics personnel. There was no reason why this could not have been set in motion on the afternoon of January 12.

CDEMA has among its inscribed objectives:

-to make an immediate and coordinated response by means of emergency disaster relief to an affected Participating State;

-to mobilise and coordinate disaster relief from governmental and non-governmental organisations for affected Participating States;

-to mitigate or eliminate, as far as practicable, the immediate consequences of disasters in Participating States.

Thus far it could be said that it has failed comprehensively. If CDEMA is to mean anything it must have the ability to respond within hours – not days – of catastrophe striking Caricom and its associates. It must be built for this purpose. It must be the focal point for action and be able to efficiently and effectively tap national nodes for emergency relief. So if there was an emergency in Kingstown: Trinidad and Grenada would be the areas mobilised for the immediate dispatch of relief supplies in addition to what may be accessible in St Vincent.

CDEMA would require immediate and guaranteed access to transport: marine, air and land. It would need a core unit of soldiers, policemen, doctors and emergency services workers who could be marshalled at a moment’s notice.

It would require a core permanent staff with reserve elements that could be mustered in the various member nations.

It would require access to a line of credit that would allow the immediate purchase of goods and services and the hiring of the relevant personnel.

Foremost, it would be the channel through which all donations from member states are handled so as to avoid  disarray and unseemly one-upmanship as in the case of the Guyana government’s criticizing of the local Red Cross appeal. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Mexico’s national appeal for Haiti is being mobilized through the Mexican Red Cross. What is the sense of six or seven member states announcing their own initiatives? How is Guyana’s US$1M going to have an immediate impact if there is no discernible channel? How will Grenada’s water donations get to Haiti? It all has to be handled through CDEMA but this isn’t how it is configured as yet.

The extraordinary suffering of hundreds of thousands of quake-hit Haitians must impel Caricom to immediately refine the protocols that govern CDEMA so that it could function adequately in emergencies.

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