The President of SOS Children's Villages, Helmut Kutin, recently visited Haiti ten months after the earthquake. SOS staff member, Hilary Atkins, was there and asked him for his impressions:
Helmut Kutin, President of SOS Children's Villages International, recently spent five days in Haiti, to assess the situation ten months after the devastating earthquake. His timing was significant. "Initially I didn't want to come in and make things more difficult", he explained, because "visitors put tremendous pressure on the people we should be helping, the victims of this horrible earthquake". This was Mr Kutin's fourth visit to Haiti and he neatly summed up the social and economic situation: "This country Haiti has suffered for the last 29 years, since my first visit," he said. "Poverty has become rampant. There have been political disturbances, and infighting. It declines year by year and every visit it was a little worse, instead of better. And to top it all, this horrible earthquake hit this small country."
We had just driven through Port-au-Prince and seen for ourselves how some buildings had buckled under the weight of heavy concrete roofs, others had been reduced to huge piles of rubble, while some had not been affected at all. Clearly, the quality of construction defined the extent of the damage. What were Mr Kutin's impressions of the relief work throughout the city so far? "There was a tremendous amount of equipment received from the UN", he answered, "and I was expecting a better situation. And now, three weeks ago they had this outbreak of cholera in the centre of the country, which will definitely remain with them. And it's a continuous downgrading of the well-being of the population."
Co-workers’ achievements remarkable
What about the relief work carried out by SOS Children's Villages? He replied that the achievements so far were remarkable. "The village was solidly constructed which gave us an advantage to start immediately." This meant that the SOS Children's Village in Santo in Port-au-Prince could be used as a base for relief activities, while established community centres for children's day care could be strengthened and expanded. In addition feeding centres were opened to cater for the immediate needs of children and mothers, and children who had been separated from their families were given shelter in the village houses or in newly created temporary shelters constructed in the village's extensive grounds. Ten months on how does Mr Kutin assess the way ahead? "I am used to this scene around the world", he said, "but it's always the same: too many foreigners, and the locals get used to simply receiving handouts and simply queue everyday for their food and let others do the reconstruction."
Time to stop emergency relief
"It is now time to stop emergency relief", he declared, "and make a clear evaluation of which children have parents who can take care of them. We have to stop distributing food because too many agencies are doing it. We give meals in community centres where the community can learn to take action for themselves. Personally I am very pleased to see the thousands of children who have received help, but the main achievement we can make in the SOS Children's Villages is to help the children who have lost their parents."
Many challenges ahead
Despite this clear objective there are many challenges ahead said Mr Kutin, but the main one is to find people who understand the care model of SOS Children's Villages for children without parental care and the family strengthening programmes - and put them into practice according to their own local standards. "This has been a major challenge in Haiti for the last 25 years", he continued. "We still have to learn a lot about the culture, religion and situation of this country. The main challenge is to move forward and not to become a target. To build power to redo, to reconstruct." It had been hoped that during the President's visit to Haiti he would sign a memorandum of understanding with the government relating to the construction of ten schools. SOS Children's Villages committed to these schools on the basis that, once operational, they would be taken over by the government. However the minister responsible was apparently not in the country and the signing ceremony has been postponed.
Plans to build a model school
Mr Kutin also attributed the non-signing to forthcoming elections to be held on 28 November. Nevertheless it is still possible that the MOU will be formally agreed before then. Meanwhile SOS Children's Villages has made alternative plans: "We will build a model school", Mr Kutin explained, "within the SOS Children's Village because we have a huge piece of land. Then we will try to cooperate with the government". This model school is being donated by the Government of Germany and will be prefabricated, allowing for rapid construction. In cooperation with the University of Port-au-Prince, teaching methods and curricula will be developed. In addition, a second school will be quickly constructed in a community that has shown willingness to work with SOS Children's Villages.
We have to be patient
Now that Mr Kutin had seen the situation in Haiti for himself what would he say to the donors? "It is important to realise," he explained, "that things in Haiti are not working like in many other countries. We have to be patient otherwise the co-workers will collapse and nothing will happen. We have to give the Haitians time to come up to the mark. Otherwise the more we push the less we will achieve. We have to realise that after the earthquake there was a large input by the UN and 700 other NGOs. With a determined plan we can go ahead and achieve our objectives, but in a longer time frame than we would have liked." And for the SOS co-workers who rallied quickly to support their colleagues in Haiti, some of whom are still there? Mr Kutin emphasised again that their achievements so far were remarkable. He asks them to look for the positive and through it to move forward. He reiterated that it was time to change the emergency relief to long-term help through a predetermined plan.
"We will always have challenges", Mr Kutin concluded, "but we have to go straight and if we do I am sure we will achieve the best possible for the children in our care - each one of whom is looking up to us for hope and for the future."