Chaos contained: security awareness comes down to planning

from ACT Alliance
Published on 24 May 2011 View Original

Chris Herlinger of ACT member Church World Service always knew security was important – but an assignment in Haiti in January 2010 following the devastating earthquake confirmed that.

One Saturday, staff of ACT Alliance agencies joined Haitian humanitarian workers of the Lutheran World Federation at a distribution of relief goods in Gressier village, 20km west of Port-au-Prince. This was the first assistance people in the village had received since the earthquake. Despite this, the people waiting in line were orderly and quiet.

But soon the order and quiet dissolved. A group of young men not on the list of people to receive goods tried to disrupt the distribution. Local police officers were called in to control the crowd but refused to stop the young men because they themselves wanted some of the goods. They were particularly keen on getting tents. The Haitian LWF aid workers – much to their credit – refused the demand. As some in the frustrated crowd rushed in, the police simply watched. Some people grabbed what they could. A policewoman fired several shots in the air. It was a chaotic moment, which luckily did not worsen. It could have. One person brandished a shotgun. A convoy of United Nations peacekeepers arrived later.

Some foreigners watched the chaos in dismay. Some in the ACT group were philosophical, saying incidents like this were common in areas that had not yet received assistance. “In the beginning, it’s difficult,” said one Finnish aid worker. But the LWF staff members were disappointed, even crushed, that their efforts had not gone as planned. “Yes, it’s complicated,” said distribution coordinator Sheyla Durandisse in an understatement that revealed her frustration. “There is a lot of pressure on the team.”

Fellow aid worker Emmanuela Blain, a medical doctor who had been at another LWF distribution a day earlier, admitted she and other aid workers were more than frustrated. Some were infuriated, even livid. “Yesterday we had a distribution that was perfect. Perfect,” Blain said, kissing the tips of her fingers.

The day ended with a return to Port-au-Prince where the LWF country director praised the workers for their patience in a difficult situation. A de-briefing helped clarify the day. LWF staff at Gressier were always in touch with office staff. It was office staff who notified the UN of the problems. Security protocols had been adhered to, though some wondered if it would have made sense to stop the distribution once it was clear there would be problems. Others said stopping it would have been unfair to the people who had waited for the distribution.

The events were a reminder of the need for security awareness at all times - to brief staff about potential problems before leaving the office and for field staff to stay in constant touch with those back at headquarters. There's no real secret here: security can be best summarised as planning, planning, planning.