Chaos in Efforts to Feed Haitians
by Damien Cave and Ginger Thompson
Four days into a new food distribution program
from the United Nations that aims to repair a
faltering aid effort, paper coupons that can be
redeemed for 55 pounds of rice have become more
valuable than Haitian money.
Women hide them away in their bosoms. Aid
workers count them furtively in the back of
S.U.V.’s. The government wants control over who
gets them, while schemers have already created
The food coupons are akin to diamonds: they are
precious because sustenance is scarce. For three
weeks since the international effort to feed
millions of Haitians has been dogged by
confusion, transportation snags, security
problems and a lack of coordination. Before the
coupon program started on Saturday, food
giveaways had become a Darwinian sport — with
biscuits and bottles of canola oil or biscuits
thrown like footballs from the backs of trucks
to masses of men jockeying for position.
Many are still hungry. As of Sunday, 639,200
people had received a meal from the United
Nations’ World Food Program, 32 percent of the
two million estimated to be in need.
Aid groups say that they have been knocked back
on their heels by a catastrophe they describe as
more difficult to manage than famine in Africa
or the tsunami in Asia.
Rarely if ever, they say, has a natural disaster
so ravaged the crowded capital of an already
poor country, devastating both the government
and the international agencies that usually step
And yet the food crisis is not simply a natural
disaster. Interviews with aid groups, United
Nations officials, experts and Haitian
government leaders reveal that communication was
not a top priority early on. Inexperience and a
go-it-alone approach — by groups Haitian and
foreign — contributed to the dysfunction.
In many ways, the new food distribution program
is an improvement, with its stepped-up security,
emphasis on women as recipients and its plan for
16 fixed locations. But the disorientation that
immediately followed the earthquake has been
especially hard to cure.
Two weeks after the quake, in a khaki tent on
the United Nations campus in Port-au-Prince,
Haiti’s interior minister led a meeting of
bleary-eyed officials from the government, the
United Nations and a half-dozen other agencies
assigned to such issues as food, water and
Almost immediately, confusion surfaced: they
were not working from a common map.
Several people at the meeting complained that
they were not getting reports fast enough from
organizations on the streets to help keep an
accurate tally of which areas were getting
Numbers were tossed about, all of them adding up
to staggering challenges. The shelter cluster
reported that it had only 4,000 of the 200,000
tents requested by Haitian authorities. Food
rations — a basic meal — had been distributed to
less than half of the people the government
believed needed them. And while potable water
was reaching about 500,000 a day, only 20,000
had been given access to latrines.
“How do you provide toilets to makeshift camps,”
Guido Canale of Unicef said in an interview
after the meeting, “in a city that did not have
sufficient sanitation to begin with?”
Agencies Were Also Hurt
The meeting revealed how aid groups were
struggling with an unexpected development: in a
country where many of them had worked for years,
they were starting from scratch. Sophie Perez,
the country director for CARE, for example, said
that 80 percent of her 133 employees had lost
their homes to the quake.
The government, weak in the best of times, was
incapacitated, and three of four United Nations
warehouses with stockpiles of rice and other
staples had been damaged. Food, more than
anything else, became the pressure point.
Haitian officials pushed to get off the
sidelines; aid groups, fearing rampant
corruption and violence, sought to limit their
The World Food Program started out by trying to
feed as many people as possible, wherever,
whenever. But by Week 2, some aid groups and
Haiti’s interior minister, Paul Antoine
Bien-Aimé, were saying that without better
coordination, “it’s like we are shooting in the
Anthony B. Banbury, a high-ranking United
Nations logistician, said that it had become
clear that distributing food properly would
bring peace, while mistakes could lead to
“One of our main tools to achieve security is
also a source of insecurity,” he said after
being sent to Haiti to speed the relief effort.
“We need to do it in a well-planned,
well-organized and well-coordinated manner.”
That, however, proved to be immensely difficult.
The collapse of the headquarters of the United
Nations mission here robbed the relief effort of
a central command.
Some of the groups that had rushed into the void
were competent veterans. Others were what
organizers from larger groups described as
“humanitarian tourists”: nongovernmental
organizations full of good intentions, but with
limited supplies and experience.
“They added to the confusion,” Mr. Canale of
Unicef said, “not to the solutions.”
Dysfunction Was Clear
The dysfunction was all too obvious to besieged
Haitians. Sheets and splintered plywood with
painted calls for help began to appear on the
streets of Port-au-Prince just a few days after
the quake. “We need food,” said one sign, then
6, then 20.
Most were in English, Spanish or French. The
underlying message was not just that Haiti’s
people were desperate — they also had no idea
who was in charge or how to get help. Voltaire
Samuel, like many others, concluded that perhaps
the foreigners needed some direction.
Last week, with one arm in a sling, he and a
half-dozen neighbors put up another S O S sign
in the median of Delmas Street, outside
“They are giving food to other places,” Mr.
Samuel said. “Here, they bring us nothing.”
Many of the residents in the district of Delmas
1 said last week they had not eaten in days.
They hesitated to go too far in search of food
because they feared that someone would steal
their last remaining possessions, so they
selected five men from among them to look.
But it did not work for them, or for thousands
At the most visible food distribution site in
the capital, near the collapsed presidential
palace, the line typically lasted hours, with a
swell of hungry Haitians leaving empty-handed.
After several days of trucks coming and leaving
without serving the entire group, chaos engulfed
Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the World Food
Program, said that around 60 police officers and
United Nations troops usually managed security
at locations where as many as 5,000 people
crowded around trucks with food.
On at least two days last week, United Nations
troops used tear gas after a mass of men rushed
the food distribution point and began grabbing
what they could. In a separate case, one World
Food Program truck stuck in traffic was robbed
by men on motorbikes.
First Come First Served
Violence was more the exception than the rule,
but food was still given out first come first
served. A truck would drive up and men would run
toward it. After awhile, women and those who
lived a few blocks away did not even bother.
“They are treating people like dogs, just
tossing things at them,” said Séjour Jean
Rodrigue, 38, one of the leaders in Delmas 1.
“We don’t want anything to do with it.”
The new system for food distribution, devised to
address these problems, has two major changes:
coupons and a focus on women, who are supposed
to be the only ones collecting rice.
The process also shifts power from Haiti’s
government to foreign aid groups; and from men
throwing food from trucks to local leaders
giving out coupons, like Rigaud Joachin, 48, a
gregarious bookkeeper with the national
telecommunications company who lives in one of
the few houses still standing in the
neighborhood of Nazon.
He was responsible on Sunday night for handing
out 300 coupons to a list of families, and he
took his job seriously. Inside his porch at
dusk, he bellowed for each person to come
Before long, the crowd was 15 people wide and 3
deep. But Mr. Joachin, a respected neighborhood
figure, had little trouble keeping order.
The next day, his 300 coupon holders and
hundreds of others lined Poupelard Street, as
two women at a time walked away with sacks of
Security Still a Problem
Other locations have had a harder time. Security
has been stepped up for food distribution, but
twice since Saturday Haitians have set up
blockades to try to stop United Nations supply
trucks from passing, and pressure on coupon
holders has intensified. On Monday afternoon, a
crowd of several hundred people rushed workers
from Catholic Relief Services as they tried to
hand out coupons near the presidential palace,
forcing them and a small team of American
soldiers to flee.
One woman, Marcelin Cristana, admitted that she
had gamed the system. “I bought the coupon for
20 Haitian dollars,” she said, or about $2.50 in
the United States.
At a park in the wealthy suburb of Pétionville
that day, the food arrived late, after thousands
without coupons had already gathered. Brian
Casey, an emergency coordinator with Goal, an
Irish aid group, explained that there had been a
problem obtaining fuel. His loaders also failed
to show up, leading him to pull 23 men with
coupons out of line, offering them $5 each.
The biggest problem was the location: the
driveway of a police station that was wide open,
with no natural entrance or exit. Aid workers
and United Nations troops set up a perimeter
with orange plastic fencing, and the area where
people left with rice felt as chaotic and
aggressive as the food lines before the new
program had started.
Meanwhile, theft occurred almost openly. Partly
because workers were trying to move quickly —
letting men, not just women, pick up the rice —
pairs of off-duty police officers slid in to
collect what they had no right to take.
“I’ll make a note of it,” said a United Nations
police officer who had pulled one of the men
aside. “But he’s a policeman, so nothing will
Many people nonetheless left pleased. Bernadette
Volcy, 54, said she was “so happy the Americans
are helping us.” But, she added, “it’s not
United Nations officials agree. As of Tuesday
morning, the new program had handed out enough
rice to feed about 212,000 people, according to
United Nations figures — more than 100,000
people short of its initial goal. Of the 16
sites chosen for distribution, only 9 were up
and running on Sunday, increasing to 12 on
Monday, and 14 on Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of people are still
waiting. When the empty trucks left Pétionville,
Haitians from the camp walked around looking for
another gathering, holding up small strips of
paper with their names written in careful
Desperate, hungry and still not satisfied, they
said they were looking for the white men in
control of food distribution. They needed
coupons. They needed to eat.