In Haiti's struggle with emergencies, a new partnership

By Elizabeth Stevens
We love the staff here, says community member Jean Jose of Atchevrot (right, speaking with Oxfam humanitarian officer Wasley Demorne). They've given good advice and really helped us get rid of cholera. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

In a disaster, says Philippe Merisson, “Before a response team can leave Port-au-Prince, we are already there.”

Merisson is the leader of a team of first responders in the Artibonite region of Haiti—a  team made up of nurses, technicians, journalists, farmers, and teachers who, when emergencies strike, get right to work in their communities. They know how to assess the needs, evacuate people to safety, disinfect drinking water—even, if need be, create the disinfectant. And in the space between emergencies, they are taking steps to reduce risks, like renovating wells to keep water safe from bacteria, and helping people understand how to avoid getting cholera.

If the idea of journalists renovating wells strikes you as odd, take it up with their trainers—an equally eclectic group of Salvadorans that, over the course of the last five years, has developed into a strong national emergency response squad, renowned for the speed and quality of its work.

Local people taking charge

All of this is part of Oxfam’s effort to help communities and organizations in at-risk areas take charge of their own health and safety.

“Local people and organizations are the first on the scene of an emergency,” says Oxfam humanitarian officer Wasley Demorne, “and they are the last to leave, by which I mean that they have a strong commitment to addressing the risk of future disasters. But they lack resources.”

So, Oxfam is supporting our expert Salvadoran partners to share their knowledge with teams in Haiti, Guatemala, and Honduras.

“We learned a lot from the team from El Salvador,” says Wislène Sylvestre, who has attended several week-long trainings in Artibonite. “We learned to detect bacteria in water. We can build emergency toilets and install pumps and pipes. We can respond in an emergency even if the government response is taking time.”

When people see women leading, it surprises them

Making sure women’s voices are heard loud and clear in our programs is a high priority. Nine out of the 21 members of the Haiti team are women, and their presence is helping ensure that our emergency responses reflect the needs of women and girls, as well as those of men and boys.

“Women ask questions like, ‘where will you put the latrines for women? Will there be any lighting? What is the placement of latrines to ensure that women have privacy?’” says Valeus Wislor, a public health engineer who works with Oxfam.

And because Haitian women face significant discrimination in their lives, it’s important that they have chances to demonstrate their leadership—which they do each time they carry out trainings in their own communities.

“Women are respected for doing this work,” says team member Marie Bettue Cadet, who makes her living as an agricultural technician. “When people see women leading, it surprises them. They used to think women couldn’t do anything. It makes people curious. Farmers—women and men—will stop their work to listen.”

We’ve made giant steps

Merisson and the team believe their work has already saved lives by reducing the spread of deadly waterborne disease.

“We’re hoping to get to zero cases of cholera,” says team member René Philistin. “But the change we want to see can’t happen in a day. It will take time.” Still, he says, “We’ve made giant steps.”