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Stories from the field – “We have accomplished something noteworthy starting from scratch here”

Doris Knoechel, member of the DRC Humanitarian Response Roster, recently completed a six-month deployment as Humanitarian Affairs Officer to OCHA in Gonaives, Haiti. DRC Standby Roster intern Celine Manriquez Nordheim had the opportunity to interview Doris in November. In this interview, Doris shares her deployment experience, on the dire situation in Haiti, escalating insecurity due to gang activities, limitations on aid operations, and challenges in coordination.

Doris and a precious source. Photo: Doris Knoechel

Posted on 18 Dec 2023

Celine: Can you describe the situation in Haiti right now?

Doris: The situation in Haiti is dire on multiple fronts. Foremost among the issues is the insecurity inflicted by gangs. This problem is particularly acute in the capital and its surrounding metropolitan areas.

Gang activities have also expanded to regions like the north, including the department of Artibonite, where I am working. Additionally, within Artibonite itself, there are local gangs engaged in conflicts, appearing unexpectedly in areas previously considered safe.

This creates an overarching sense of insecurity, almost like a dome over the entire department. We are forced to find ways to function despite this atmosphere of insecurity, which significantly impacts our humanitarian efforts to reach the people in need.

Furthermore, the lack of adequate funding is another critical challenge. We have received up to date only around 30% of the required finances set down in the response plan.

This shortfall is a struggle, both for those who desperately need aid and for those who are committed to assisting them. Consequently, aid workers are forced to curtail their operations and make decisions on how to prioritize.

The psychological burden of determining who will receive assistance affects everyone involved.

Celine: You’re currently in Gonaives, could you describe the situation there, particularly regarding limitations or restrictions on your activities?

Doris: Gonaives, the capital of Artibonite, is situated north of the capital by the seaside with a port, although only intermittently active; it sometimes receives shipments from organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP).

The population suffers accelerated economic downgrading because of gang activities like roadblocks, hostage taking, and harassment of farmers.

In addition, the hostilities force people to flee and seek refuge in less affected communities. In terms of restrictions, if you mean regarding security, we can operate in Upper Artibonite, but in Lower Artibonite, half of the department is under the influence of gangs.

However, my situation is notably different from the situation of my colleagues in the capital office. They’re heavily reliant on armored vehicles for transportation, shuttling between their hotel and the office, and are constrained from moving freely.

For me here in Gonaives, while I do have the freedom to go to my office with a car at my disposal, the reality is that I lack places to go. I could go where I wanted, but there is nowhere to go in this miserable town.

Celine: What are some of your key tasks as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer?

Doris: In my role with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), our duties are well-defined. In May, we declared an escalation to a more significant emergency level than previously assessed. Consequently, all our offices had to increase their scale of operations.

Headquarters supported us with additional funding and positions to enhance our presence. One of the tasks was to decentralize our operations in Haiti, which were previously centralized in the capital area. As the need expanded across all regions in the country, it was important to establish at least two operational hubs.

One of these hubs was then initiated in Artibonite, the largest and most populated department beyond the capital area.

An OCHA Sub-office was set up here with a DRC Standby Roster member until a permanent OCHA staff member can be assigned. The office began engaging with existing UN entities operating in the area, primarily the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP).

Our challenge was to bring more sectors like health, child protection, Gender Baded Violence (GBV) response, and Internally Displaced People (IDP) solutions to Artibonite to forge a coordinated, multisectoral response to the multifaceted urgent needs of the affected population.

I can say that all the sectors present that are present in the capital area are now also operational in Artibonite. The access working group of Artibonite complements the OCHA National access group focusing mainly on the constraints in the capital area.

Celine: So, it seems like you have achieved a lot in your six months?

Doris: I am happy to say that, at least formally, I’m quite satisfied with our achievements. However, as it goes, one is never entirely content.

To have a smoothly functioning, highly efficient humanitarian operation requires further efforts, not least high financial contributions. Nonetheless, the groundwork has been laid, and in that regard, I am satisfied.

I can affirm that we have accomplished something noteworthy starting from scratch here.

We have accomplished something noteworthy starting from scratch here.

/  Doris Knoechel

Celine: You’ve mentioned some of the challenges in Haiti, but what are the primary challenges you’re encountering in your work?

Doris: The main challenge is possibly a certain routine of partners and counterparts. Establishing effective collaboration doesn’t simply happen overnight, it requires a shift in mindset towards communication and coordination, forming a united front for humanitarian action.

We, as humanitarian operators, are organized into sectors, which can result in what we call the “silo effect”. Each sector operates independently without much interaction with others. Therefore, the main goal is to capitalize on synergies generated through collaboration.

If we fail to function cohesively, we miss out on potential benefits. Intersectoral meetings bring together the partners to inform about each other’s work, conduct joint analysis, avoid duplications, and discover gaps to close.

The Intersectoral group chaired by OCHA is the platform for subjects cutting across all sectors like protection against sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) and accountability to affected populations. Promoting these common issues is also among OCHA’s ongoing challenges.

Celine: Several NGOs and UN agencies have labelled the crisis in Haiti as “forgotten”. Would you say that is a fair description of the situation in Haiti?

Doris: Unfortunately, yes. There are several factors that play a role in this. First, Haiti is a small country, and the world is witnessing a surge of crises, diverting attention away from this region. Another factor is that there is a certain fatigue after the earthquakes and storms that have raged here.

There’s a distinctive response from the international community when it comes to natural versus man-made disasters. The international community tends to react positively to natural disasters, but there’s a reluctance to support man-made disasters.

When a country is struggling with internal conflict, there is often a sense of, “why should we donate if they can’t maintain peace within their own borders?”.

Celine: So, donors find it challenging to see how their aid could make any difference in this situation?

Doris: Exactly. This is the very question they may ask themselves.

Is it worth investing money if internal conflicts persist? Haiti could be labeled as a failed state where governance structures have collapsed. There is a continuous failure of leadership, elections are manipulated by certain groups for their own gains, rather than for the benefits of the citizens.

A few people profit from this chaos to the detriment of the majority. Such a situation does not encourage donations.

Celine: You have been in Haiti since June. How do you think the situation has developed over time in your six months?

Doris: Unfortunately, the situation has clearly downgraded. The level of insecurity has notably increased and spread further compared to when I first arrived. Internal order, particularly concerning security, has deteriorated, consequently affecting the lives of ordinary citizens.

In Artibonite, despite the direct conflict being localized in the south and certain areas in the north, the entire department suffers severely due to the disruption of connections to Port-au-Prince. The supply chain originating from the capital is affected as main roads are controlled by gangs, inhibiting normal traffic on highways. Consequently, the flow of goods, including fuel, is reduced.

Adding to this, the closure of borders by the government of the Dominican Republic, from where a considerable number of supplies used to enter Haiti, has further aggravated the situation. Luckily, this imposition has been lifted now.

Celine: How do you manage to get food then?

Doris: The market primarily offers frozen products imported from the Dominican Republic. Displayed openly in what can be described as sub-standard market conditions, with only frozen chicken feet and pieces available. There are limited options for fresh produce. Occasionally, I can find green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and malanga.

Supermarkets offer imported tinned goods. Surprisingly, I discovered onions and garlic being imported from China, along with plastic hardware flooding the local markets. The streets have turned into markets filled with stands selling plastic items, contributing to an overwhelming amount of plastic waste.

The plastic waste has severely impacted the existing infrastructure designed to prevent flooding during the hurricane season. Structures like ditches, once in place to manage floodwater, are now filled with plastic bottles.

Ditches filled with plastic bottles and empty food shelves. Photo: Doris Knoechel

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Celine: Doris, you have been on six deployments with the DRC Standby Roster since 2014. How do you keep motivating yourself to go on these deployments?

Doris: With the Humanitarian Parole program initiated by US President Biden, there’s a situation where people from Haiti rush to the US with a two-year visa.

Allegedly over 100 000 young and somewhat skilled people have already migrated under that program leaving gaps in the local workforce. Many people will do anything to get out of here.

But there are some who say: “No. I am a citizen of this country, and I have a responsibility to stay and see what I can do here”.

I have met astonishing people like these, and to support them and to keep each other motivated, not losing hope, I find that to be a significant motivation that keeps me going. Also, I maintain contact with people from many of my deployments.

Even though it’s been 10 years since I was in Yemen, I’m in constant communication with people I met there. It’s a way of life; it’s dedicating your capacity to something that has a small effect but a positive impact for some.

So, I’d say I recharge my batteries during my deployment. It is not like working here and then going on holiday to recover; that’s not how I operate. I interact here with people who recharge my battery.

Celine: Have you learned something new from this deployment that you will bring with you to future deployments?

Doris: Observing the brain drain phenomenon here has been eye-opening. Witnessing organizations like WFP struggling to extend operations due to shortage of qualified local individuals.

The Humanitarian Parole program, attracting individuals with minimum qualifications to the US, intensifies this brain drain. This realization prompts reflection on our global aid efforts. While claiming to assist countries like Haiti, we selfishly drain them of their capable workforce, undermining the very assistance we claim to provide.

In my case here, finding a successor for my role is proving challenging. This crucial position of decentralization requires stability. Without someone to unify and coordinate, operations will fall back into the siloes.

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