“The police can’t restore order in Haiti and for the most part don’t try”

Michael Petrou reports from Port-au-Prince on aid, amputation and an empty Penitentiary

Michael Petrou reports from Port-au-Princ

Michael Petrou reports from Port-au-Princ

I’ve been in Haiti since Friday. Much of what I’ve seen and heard will appear in the print edition of this week’s magazine, but in the meantime here’s a very brief rundown of the trip so far.

On Thursday night I flew into Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. There I hooked up with Rahul Singh and his team from Global Medic. Global Medic is something Singh, a Toronto paramedic, started 10 years ago after a collapsed marriage sent him backpacking around the world. He ended up in Nepal, worked for an NGO there, and was appalled by the bureaucracy and waste that’s rampant in so many international development organizations. He wanted Global Medic to be different. It doesn’t have a bureaucracy to speak of. Its overhead is low. Its staff of medics, doctors, and engineers are volunteers. And its goals are simple: bring clean water, medical aid, and food to people in disaster zones as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It helps that Singh could sell ashes to the devil. People give him free stuff because he makes you believe in what he does. He scored a free flight to Dominican Republic for his team of seven on its way to Haiti from a charter airline, which also lugged all their water purifying systems and medical gear. He hired a bus and jeeps in the Dominican Republic and drove them all to Port-au-Prince. We arrived around 3 p.m. By nightfall, one of the doctors on Singh’s staff, Michael Howatt, was amputating gangrenous limbs on a table at an outdoor field hospital, cutting with shaving razors instead of scalpels. By noon the next day, they had set up a water purification system and were pumping out clean drinking water to thousands.

Global Medic has an annual budget of a few hundred thousand dollars. The Canadian International Development Agency, by comparison, spends one hundred million dollars a year in Haiti alone. This doesn’t mean that Global Medic is popular with other, bigger and more established NGOs.

“They are what we call a cowboy organization. They come and do something flashy,” says Bogdan Dumitru, a security officer with Care Canada. “We could have distributed all our stockpiles and grabbed a bunch of journalists, and it would be great. But that’s not the point.”

Dumitru says the responsible thing to do is to coordinate aid efforts with other organizations, especially the United Nations. Doing otherwise, he says, risks creating a “holy mess” if word gets out that there is fresh water in one part of the city but not in others.

To be frank, it’s not a convincing argument. Care, which already had a presence in the country before the quake, planned three water distributions Saturday. One was successful. They gave water purification packets to 600 people. They say they had to work through a local committee that had a list of people designated as water recipients. The same day Global Medic delivered clean water to 25,000. There was no riot or even disorder in the lineup of people waiting. And they trained Haitians in the neighbourhood to take over the purification system when Global Medic leaves.

"The police can't restore order in Haiti and for the most part don't try"

A police officer patrols Port-au-Prince downtown to discourage looting (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

“If you look at the other NGOs, not to be critical, but they go in with clipboards,” says Singh. “When they fill up that clipboard with notes, they’ll go back and start bringing in what people need. Our job is to come in and be an expert, efficient, and immediate solution.”

International development types are welcome to fight this one out in the comments section.

I SAW THE FIRST dead body minutes after arriving in Port-au-Prince. Today, three days later, I can’t count them anymore. They’re everywhere, and some died much more recently than the earthquake. Vigilantism and score settling are on the rise. The police can’t restore order and for the most part don’t try.

I was in Port-au-Prince two years ago. Today, the city has turned into something I could not have imagined then and cannot accurately describe now. How many horror-infused anecdotes are necessary to convey what’s happening here? People carry toothpaste in their pockets so that they can re-apply a smear on their upper lip when the stench of death becomes too much. Body parts stick randomly out of the rubble, blistering in the sun. Is that enough?

I remember visiting the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince two years ago. Then, the overcrowding flooded my senses, and it took me a few minutes to trust my eyes, with men packed together tighter than animals in a stockyard. During the earthquake, the prison burned and crumbled. Some 3,000 prisoners forced their way out and onto the streets. I walked in to the prison Sunday, kicking open a gate and stepping over the razor wire that clung to my pant cuffs. It was like visiting the abandoned set of a horror movie. The cells were busted open, but inside dozens of hammocks crafted from scraps of cloth hung between bars and bunks to mark the tiny piece of air where men were once forced to carve out a place to sleep. Four dead bodies lay swelling in the prison yard. It’s impossible to tell how they died.

Aid is coming slowly. On Sunday, the joint Canadian and Norwegian Red Cross field hospital still hadn’t arrived. A handful of Canadian nurses and doctors did their best providing basic first aid to patients who lay on disintegrating mattresses and moaned under a field of tarps.

At the Canadian Embassy, mid-afternoon Sunday, Canadian Forces Captain Mark Peebles said that the Disaster Assistance Relief Team reconnaissance unit had sent its report back to Ottawa in the last “24 to 48” hours but that an order to deploy DART in full had not yet been given.

The embassy’s compound was filled with cheerful journalists and Canadian citizens waiting to be evacuated. The grounds are shaded, and there is a tennis court. There is also a small medical tent, but staff there are sufficiently underwhelmed: a man who appears to be suffering only from loneliness is attended to with compassion and time. Elsewhere in the city bodies are burning in ditches for lack of a place to bury them. It’s like stepping into a different world.


“The police can’t restore order in Haiti and for the most part don’t try”

  1. Oh, God. __Thank you, Michael, for reporting this. It's hard to have any idea of the horror looking at it from here, but it's articles like these that allow us to try and grasp, even for a minute, the size of the catastrophe.

  2. "“We could have distributed all our stockpiles and grabbed a bunch of journalists, and it would be great. But that's not the point.”

    Dumitru says the responsible thing to do is to coordinate aid efforts with other organizations, especially the United Nations. "

    What is the point, then, of disaster relief? Distributing medicine and other badly needed items sounds good to me, what's the point of hoarding. And the UN is a disgrace as anyone would know if they looked into the org's performance during disasters, particularly the tsunami a few years back, and many people will die before the UN pulls its finger out of its arse.

    Low admin cost, more nimble orgs is exactly what's needed during disasters because people need help immediately not a few months down the road.

  3. You seem to be actually in the city, and so are the CBC/RDI reporters. However, CTV seems to be reporting just from the airport. Do I have this right?

    • Thought the same thing the other night watching Tom Clark report literally from the airfield. The engine noise was so great you could hardly hear a word he was saying. :)

      • I have been in the city and the country side the entire time. I only go to the airport to feed the story on the satellite.

  4. At long last we've come to the point of realizing there should be only one group in charge of any and all aid.

    This business of 30 countries all racing to the rescue to gain headlines and 'look good' to their own voters has got to stop. They just keep bumping into each other, arguing over everything, and not even their radios are compatible.

    Our current practice kills more people than it saves.

  5. Thinking of you, Mike. Your writing is helping us to begin to understand.

  6. Great post, as to be expected. Moved me to tears.

    Stay safe Mike.

  7. Thank you Michael for the insight to this horific situation.It is unbelievable how beaurocratic red tape is thwarting efforts to give aid to the people.
    Kudos to Global Medic

  8. Thank God for groups like Global Medic who can actually get things done, not coordinate with meetings and processes. People need water, get them water. Worry about the process later. The risk averse bureaucratic mindset though inverts the importance of those 2 actions

  9. Thanks Michael for giving us, dare I say, a realistic view of what is really happening. Take care of you.

  10. The article contrasts, by context, Care Canada and Global Medic, which both provide immediate disaster relief, but have very different on-going capacity building. I think that everybody involved – Singh, Petrou, Dumitru – are all too damn busy to frame things more carefully. I understand that far too often the administration of aid becomes a thing of its own (as a civil servant, yeah, I get this intimately), but I think there are also economies of scale not being considered here. Also, I'm reviewing the relevant parties' websites from the safety of an over-warm office in downtown Toronto, and not the on-the-ground delivery.

    I've been wondering about all this aid to Haiti. Wouldn't it have been cheaper had there been better aid that had considered disaster preparation? Is surmising like that only a waypost on the horrible path to totalitarian socialism? The one world government-kind, with a huge database of every single person's last detail? I dunno – but I can't help but think that our donations are expensive band-aids and not cheaper solutions.

    • "I think that everybody involved – Singh, Petrou, Dumitru – are all too damn busy to frame things more carefully."

      I agree ahm.

      Petrou is doing us an incredible public service, and a dangerous one too. Being on the ground in Haiti cannot be conductive to careful analysis. But, I wish he would refrain from drawing srs conclusions as a result. His suggestion that efforts to channel aid via a coordinated, though more bureaucratic, channel is the best defense against "creating a “holy mess”" is "not a convincing argument" is difficult to accept in light of the info he presents.

      He seems to have a single case, in a single geographic location at a single point in time delivering a single intervention in a single crisis as his evidence (or at least all he has revealed to the reader). To be frank, that is insufficient to draw the conclusion he does.

      This is not to say that more established are not too bureaucratic. My skepticism is mainly tied to what happens over a longer intervention (days, weeks, months). I suspect that the what makes rapid responders like Global Medic so effective in the immediate period post-disaster becomes a liability in ongoing delivery. but that is just a (somewhat informed) hunch. There is probably some kind of appropriate balance. between the two. I think it is also important to keep in mind the kind of demands that 'we' have created (rightly or wrongly) for more established non-governmental organizations that are capable of handling much larger amounts of cash and delivering broader and a greater quantity of servicesthat add to their bureaucratic character (e.g., accountability and reporting; risk mitigation/liability).

    • I'm a civil servant too. The difference between people intent on getting something done and the difference between people intent on coordinating with other people to get stuff done is huge. It can't be understated.

      Care, the UN, the DART reconnaisance team, and all the others are there to figure out what we should do. Global Medic is there, actually doing it. Given that this is a time sensitive operation and lives are at stake, it's pretty clear which one of these is preferable.

      The difference in actual obtained results is staggering, and it doesn't favor the large established organizations. They're good at creating reports and fundraising commercials, but nowhere near as good at actually doing something. You need different people for that.

  11. As someone who has also been an "on the ground, operate by the seat of your pants medic", I know all to well, that gov't agencies waste more time planning what they are going to do, instead of just "doing it" And while they are planning people are dying. We need more groups like Global Medic and kudos to Singh for speaking his mind. Keep safe, all of you.

  12. GREAT article Michael. I volunteer as much time as an Event Coordinator to Global Medic because in every way they give give give!

    Rahul and the team are a wicked group of guys and in order to keep their efforts going I try to organize as many events as possible. Just to let all of you know I am putting together a ski and snowboard event at Blue Mountain on Feb 26. We are in the process of launching a registration site but If you would like any further info in the mean time please email me directly mpolsoni@globalmedic.ca

    Keep up the good work Michael, its guys like you who allow all Canadian's to see our passion & support … Thanks


    if you want to donate directly to Global Medic please see:

  13. Your report is excellent Michael. I am so impressed with the style you have developed. The picture you paint with your words allows us to see what is really going on in Haiti. Thanks Michael. Uncle John.

  14. Great article Michael, take care of yourself.

  15. Good Gawd, I am so ashamed of humanity! What if it was a WHITE island? We wouldn't see this racist relief effort.

    • There are TEN THOUSAND aid agencies operating in Haiti, the overwhelming majority white run and white financed. Precisely how many more might you require before you stop whining about racism? Even Malcolm X conceded that whites do great work overseas, check this out:

      In a 1965 conversation with Gordon Parks, two days before his assassination, Malcolm said:

      "In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument."


      Tic, when you're more hateful towards white people than Malcolm X, it's time to reconsider some of your beliefs. A lot of people have noticed, btw, that of the 53 countries in Africa, many rich with natural resources, only a handful have pledged relief and none of them are there on the ground; are they racist too?

      Stay safe Petrou, and give us the straight goods. You're not helping Haitians or Canadians by perpetuating the cycle of dependency and it's clearly time to reconsider how and why we do foreign aid. A hundred million a year in aid from Canada alone, ten thousand aid agencies, and 50% of the country has no access to drinking water? How is that possible? How?

      • And the majority of those ten thousand are Christian based. Another tidy fact that cuts like a knife through anti-religion propaganda.

  16. Thanks for an insightful article, Michael. What a tragic situation. Stay safe down there.

  17. Coordination is too often just another word for bureaucracy, and this was one of the problems that beset the relief efforts in New Orleans, where the authorities spent a lot of time and effort preventing unofficial attempts to help.

    It is impossible for any one organisation to coordinate the scale of help that is required – anyone that shows up with a useful skill or resource should be applauded and let loose. We need to be wary of the mega-aid agencies.

    For what its worth, I think they need to get some of the big retailers involved – these are organisations that know logistics in and out, and have the means to distribute huge quantities of small goods in the best time possible.

  18. What we're seeing in Haiti is what happens when lots of bureaucracies get together: we get a mega-bureaucracy incapable of accomplishing anything.

    Global Medic is a lot smaller then Care. It's managed to accomplish far more, with far less in resources. All the governments and aid agencies combined haven't dealt with this very well, because they're too busy "coordinating" to actually DO anything.

    What we need is a lot less of these aid agencies, and a lot less bureaucrats involved. Get people actually intent on accomplishing something to take charge, and you'll see a lot more get done. The current system costs lives for its failures.

  19. Great insight on what's going on. We can count on you for honesty.
    Stay safe and know that we are thinking of you and praying for your safe return. Know also that we are praying for the people of Haiti, and that we are giving what we can where we are, and knowing that will never be sufficient.

  20. Thank You Mike, Take Care!

  21. I think Michael needs to do some fact checking. That a small organization like Global Medic could distribute to 25,000 people in one day is beyond credibility. Even the military forces there barely have the transport capacity to carry that quantity of water into the field in one day. Two massive 5000litre water bladders is still only enough to supply some 3300 people with daily water.
    Michael needs to investigate Global Medic's claims. A guy who can "sell ashes to the devil" might just be prone to a bit of exaggeration, don't you think?

  22. Just for clarity: the evening before CARE assessed the same site where Global Medic arrived and setup their water purification equipment. The next day, CARE arrived with its water supplies, but chose not to duplicate and supplied another of the hundreds of makeshift camps within the city. For the record also, when all media was mentioning there is no aid to Leogane (almost next to the epicentre and over 90% destroyed), CARE was the first agency there supplying thousands of people with water, hygiene kits, matresses and other emergency items. The second there were the Canadian Forces and Canadian Medical Assistance Team with their field hospital and the first handshake was between the CF Commander, Colonel Demers and this "bad guy" Dumitru, full of dust and broken pants from jumping barbed wire during distributions in downtown Leogane. Let alone other hundred of thousands people CARE was already assisting throughout the affected area. And last, but not least, Singh and Dumitru are friends, traveled together with Michael and other Canadians to Haiti and never in the heat of the moment thought about competing or anything alike. But that won't make a juicy story, would it.

  23. I have worked with Global Medic, and whether or not you agree with "cowboy help" I think if you speak to any member, past or present you will find a very strong loyalty to Global Medic and Rahul. I have seen and been a part of the amazing work that Rahul does. He gets things done. He cuts through the red tape and the "politics" of disaster relief. He also doesn't just cut and run. He is committed to returning to places he and his team have offered disaster relief. I LOVE that Global Medic does everything in it's power to support and train locals. They hire local drivers (instead of shipping in their own landrovers), stay at local establishments, eat locally providing money back into a (usually) devastated economy. I LOVE that the philosophy of Global Medic has in it's essence been the old saying "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. TEACH a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime". Rahul is dedicated to providing useful and long term solutions to devastated areas. Instead of sending trucks full of water, Rahul brings an engineer in to teach people how to use our water purifiers, which he then leaves. He also teaches men in villages to clean wells, who in turn teach others. Long term solutions to giving water to individuals, families, and communities.
    I have seen with my own eyes the amazing work Rahul does. I have seen that what he says, he does. He is also on the ground with his team. So when a question, concern, or problem arises he is there, in person to deal with it. I 100% believe in what he does and says. And I think you'll find if you poll other medics, firefighters, doctors etc who have been a part of Global Medic you will find the same loyalty.

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