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A status report on Haiti: Money flows, leadership lags

While Sean Penn may be splashed across American TV for his relief efforts in Haiti, on the ground easily the most substantial private humanitarian operation belongs to Catholic Relief Services. With a history in Haiti dating back fifty-five years and a staff of 300 even before the most recent crisis, CRS was delivering food, water and shelter to victims by the next day after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.

The official humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in America, CRS recently passed a fairly staggering milestone: More than $100 million has now been raised for relief and rebuilding in Haiti, with some $43 million coming from a special collection organized by the U.S. bishops, and the rest from private and public contributions. All told, CRS expects to generate somewhere between $150 and $200 million, making Haiti the largest emergency relief effort in its history.

The massive American Catholic response, according to most observers, is a reflection of at least three factors:


  • Proximity to the United States, coupled with a long history of American Catholics sponsoring parishes, schools, clinics, and other projects in Haiti;

  • The presence of a large Haitian diaspora in America, including many Haitian priests and religious;

  • Haiti is an intensely Catholic country where damage to church property and personnel has been immense.

Experts say this generosity, coupled with similar outpourings from other parts of the world, means the resources theoretically exist to rebuild, but they worry that funds could be squandered through a lack of coordination, competing agenda, the absence of agreed-upon standards for money management, construction codes, and so on. There's also an immediate imperative to shore up existing shelters, to avoid the risk of yet more death and destruction when the hurricane season peaks in the spring and early summer.

In what amounts to a back-handed tribute to CRS, the Vatican tapped the agency in mid-January to be in charge of the overall Catholic response in Haiti. That step by Cor Unum, the Vatican's department for charitable activity, caused some heartburn among other church-affiliated groups, especially Caritas Internationalis, the global umbrella group for Catholic humanitarian agencies, which apparently was not consulted.

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CRS officials stress that they never sought a mandate to run the show, and have no intention of throwing their weight around – ultimately, says CRS President Ken Hackett, it's the Haitian bishops who have to be in charge, with CRS or anybody else doing no more than offering support.

I was in Baltimore this week, giving a couple of talks to the CRS staff on Wednesday, based on my book The Future Church, and then delivering the Carroll Lecture at St. Mary's Seminary and University on Thursday evening. While in town, I sat down with Ken Hackett to talk about where things stand in Haiti, and where they might be going. The following are excerpts from that interview.

* * *

What's the situation at Petionville?

By about day three, it had about 60,000 people at night living there, with virtually no shelter. They were cutting up plastic bags and trying to stitch them together, taking old pieces of cardboard that they found and making lean-tos. We were trying to organize enough food and water for them to survive. By now, it's still not adequate at all, but at least we're getting tarpaulins and things like that in. It still swells up to about 60,000 or more each night.

I've heard that one problem is that when people in the camp are told that they can go home because their street has been cleared, they don't want to leave.

There are lots of different situations. Some people are living in the street, right outside their house that has collapsed. They're blocking off the street at night, so thieves don't come down, and they're putting their beds in the streets, anything they can get. There are also people living in the camp at night, and during the day they're searching for food, trying to get back into their homes and businesses. The camp is not a nice place to live, but it is a place where you can get food and water.

What about safety?

You can be reasonably safe, particularly in the Petionville Golf Club, because you've got the 82nd Airborne, so you know that the gangs aren't going to raid the camp. We run some other places downtown, in the sense that our role is to provide the basics ... latrines, food and water, and some kind of shelter. In those spots, there is no 'management' of the camp yet. Some are hit by gangs. Right now we're trying to get systems into place to protect the young girls, because you can imagine that on a rainy night, the guys are hitting the rum, and if there's a girl out going to the latrine or something, there could be trouble.

CRS can't actually provide security, so how do you cope with that?

Actually, we have people who know about this kind of stuff from their experience in eastern Congo and other places. One thing you can do is to organize the women in the camp, so they know where everybody is, they don't go out alone, all kinds of stuff like that.

How many people do you have in the country now?

We've got about 400 staff, all Haitians, and about 30 international staff. We've got an operation called "Emergency Response Team." These people are dotted throughout the world, but they function with one head. They've got a shelter person, a housing person, water persons, logistics, communications, security, all those different disciplines that we brought to bear in Haiti, all sitting around in a room on their computers like crazy. They've all done it before. They worked together before on the [south Asian] tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, and so on. They just started hitting it. We had our plans operative very, very quickly, and that was a blessing.

Will CRS be involved in rebuilding the church in Haiti?

The church in the United States will be a key player in reconstructing ecclesiastical properties, but what role CRS will play has yet to be determined. Traditionally, it's not our function to rebuild churches. That's not to say we haven't done it from time to time, in a special case, but it's not usually our role.

Are you going to do it in Haiti?

We may find ourselves in an advisory role. We're even considering setting up a Catholic construction capacity, at the disposal of the Haitian bishops, to handle the awarding of contracts, standards and codes on the rebuilds, and things like that. We've also got to find a way to coordinate our efforts with the Germans, the Italians, the French, and so on, because you don't want competing agendas ... 'I got the cathedral!' 'No, I got the cathedral!' We've got to work out that kind of thing.

At the same time, we're still in an emergency phase of just getting enough food, water and shelter to people. We're also starting to help people find a livelihood. We've got a lot of cash-for-work programs going on ... clean out that drainage ditch and get so much money per day, basically getting people back to an income flow and some sense of normalcy.

One of the greatest challenges for us right now, given that we're focused on helping the people of Haiti, is what we should be doing to help all those parishes and dioceses here in the United States, all the universities and so on, which don't have any immediate access [to Haiti], but who want to know about Sr. Mary down in Port-au-Prince, or what happened to our project, our sister parish, etc.?

All these people are coming to you?

That's right, and we haven't satisfied all their needs because we can't do everything. We're trying to develop the capability to be of service to the church here in the United States in its effort to be generous and in solidarity with the church in Haiti. The idea is to try to raise the level of the engagement -- not the amount, but the quality of the engagement.

Meaning what?

We've noticed that there are a lot of twinning relationships with the church in Haiti and in other parts of Latin America which are just about money. Fr. So-and-So comes up here, he goes to your church this week, he doesn't tell you he's going to another church the next week, and so on. Really, it should be about much more than that. We're hoping we can add something.

What would that something be?

That's a good question. I've got three smart people trying to figure that out right now! What wise Haitians are saying is that this crisis has to be seen as an opportunity, to find a new model of governance, of engagement between the different strata in society, even what role the church has in the country. They're talking about 'a new Haiti.' That may be overly ambitious, but it's the right approach. The question is, how can the church here in the United States support that?

For the last twenty years in Haiti, because of the failure of governance and systems, the lack of transparency and accountability, combined with the proximity to the United States, there have been an awful lot of foreign-run institutions offering the capacity down there … religious communities, parish efforts that send down the two nuns from here and they run the show. We have to find a way to put qualified Haitians who are now in the United States, in Canada, in Europe, back into the driver's seat. We've got to make it attractive for them, we've got to make it suitable to raise their families back at home. That's going to be a big challenge.

In January, Cardinal Josef Cordes of Cor Unum issued a letter effectively placing CRS in charge of the Catholic response in Haiti. At one level that's a vote of confidence, but it also put you in a tight spot. What does this mandate mean?

We actually don't know what it means. What it means to some of our European sister agencies is trouble: 'We're not going to let those Americans coordinate us!' What we've said is, 'We're not going to coordinate you. We're going to support the efforts of the church in any way we can.'

The point is that somebody needs to know what everyone is doing?

Yes, and we're still working on that. Right now, when we publish our daily reports, we publish what we are doing in conjunction with Caritas Haiti and all of the other Caritas sister agencies that are supporting Caritas Haiti. Some are forthright with their information, others just don't think there's any necessity to do that.

This is not a role you sought?

No, we didn't seek it at all. In fact it's a burden, and we're not sure about it. We're in constant dialogue with the nuncio and some of the Haitian bishops to ask, 'What is it you want us to do?' There is no specific leadership action where we say, 'We've got the plan and you'd better follow it.' We have no authority to do that.

No one from Cor Unum has explained what role they see you playing?

No, no one has done that. I think there is a concern that the surfeit of money coming from all kinds of sources could potentially generate a scandal. I think Cor Unum was looking around and asking, who could do this? They know we have done big things before, like the Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake, and that we were already in Haiti.

When you're asked, 'Who's in charge of the Catholic response in Haiti?', what do you say?

The Haitian bishops have to be in charge, and their agencies, which would be Caritas Haiti. We have been supporting them for years. We like and work well with the director of Caritas Haiti, and the president of Caritas Haiti, Bishop [Pierre-André] Dumas, but their capacity is more limited operationally than ours.

At the moment, the nuncio is playing a very important role supporting the bishops. He's just so capable, so willing, and you have to remember that many of the bishops are themselves still traumatized.

Everybody says the nuncio [Archbishop Bernardito Auza] is terrific. Is that your experience?

He's amazing. He's a Filipino, and a classmate of Monsignor [David] Malloy [general secretary of the U.S. bishops' conference]. They both graduated from the Academy [the Vatican's school for diplomats]. They knew each other, they had been corresponding with each other.

We found that on the evening of the earthquake, he was already moving through the city, checking on bishops and priests and nuns and so on. He found that Archbishop Miot was lost, and nobody knew where he was that night. The next day, we were moving with him church-to-church, parish-to-parish, seeing what was going on, trying to figure out what we can do immediately. It was absolute chaos. You couldn't get down certain streets. Our people who were there talk about the wailing, that it was unnerving. People were in such grief and sorrow that the wailing continued right through the night and the next day. It was like a siren call in parts of the town, which made it really difficult to keep your focus.

What's the overall hit the church has taken in Haiti?

First of all, many priests and nuns and catechists and church workers have lost their lives, or lost members of their families. They're traumatized, as are the bishops who lost members of their families. There's a lot of trauma, which has been palpable when I've been down there, and our people continue to see it. That's compounded by the chaos in the aftermath. Even the Caritas director, on the second or third day after the quake, was roughed up by a group of youth who wanted to take over the food whose delivery he was trying to organize. They chased him down the street. So, there's a lot of rough stuff happening on the personal side.

Secondly, the physical structures of the church have been devastated. Everybody's seen the pictures of the cathedral, with the crucifix standing and all the rest of it collapsed … that's duplicated all around. The rectories, the convents, and so on, are destroyed. You've got priests living under those plastic sheets, nuns and catechists, everybody. The physical facilities have been shattered, and they have to be rebuilt. Are they going to be rebuilt exactly as they were? That question remains to be answered, but there will have to be a massive rebuilding.

Are there the resources to do that?

Yes, I think so. The question is time.

You mean, how long will it take?

Yes, and who's going to organize it. The nuncio has asked us to provide immediate shelter for priests and nuns back close to their parish, so that they can be the caregivers. We'll try to do that ... that's tomorrow's discussion, how we're going to do it.

The Haitian bishops are going to come together on April 5 in a meeting where they'll lay out priorities ... who's in charge, how's it going to work. Archbishop [Louis] Kébreau, president of the conference, is a good leader, but Archbishop Miot, who passed away, had a kind of legitimacy as the leader in Port-au-Prince, so the absence of an archbishop there makes things more difficult. They've got to take the lead, and we've got to support them in helping them take the lead.

Are you saying the resources are there to do the reconstruction, but what's needed is organization?

Organization, coordination, leadership. The Haitian bishops should have their priorities after April 5. Hopefully the Europeans, the Americans and the Latin Americans, the Canadians, those who have the resources, will come together in a fairly coordinated approach, because if it's not coordinated, it's chaos.

Who will provide that coordination?

Hopefully the nuncio will encourage them to come together, along with the bishops. If the nuncio can help the bishops come up with a good plan, people are going to get behind the plan. It's as simple as that.

Now, will everybody simply transfer the money to the bishops' conference? Probably not, since the conference doesn't have the capacity to manage the hundreds of millions of dollars that will flow. That's a role we don't particularly want to play, but we might want to guide and encourage. We're thinking of things like setting up a construction oversight capacity that could service the bishops' conference.

Would it remain under CRS auspices?

Not necessarily. We'll see how it goes. If the Germans want to use it, fine. If the Italians want to use it, fine. Maybe we can do it jointly with them. We just haven't gotten to that point.

Let's say I'm the coordinator of a youth group in a parish someplace in the States, and my kids want to do something for Haiti. What should we do?

Well, you've probably already sent some money, and that's very much appreciated. You should stay engaged by watching the situation. You should not be thinking now about going down to Haiti, because you'll be in the way, you'll be a burden and you'll become part of the problem. Over the summer, maybe there's going to be an opportunity when things loosen up a little bit to do something. Maybe that priest or nun you've been supporting needs some time away ... maybe you can bring them back here for a little vacation. That could be one of the best things that could happen. The Archdiocese of Miami is doing something wonderful, because they have a lot of Haitian-Americans and Haitian-American priests living in the archdiocese. They're rotating priests in and out, and it's working. They can get out for a week and know that somebody is taking your place.

So they don't feel like they're abandoning their people?

Exactly. That's something we hope we can work on.

Another thing we're working on is a list of all of the parishes and other church operations, although I'm not sure it's complete, that have been destroyed or damaged. We hope to put together a status report ... 'church destroyed,' 'convent partially destroyed,' that sort of thing. What we're thinking about is taking that information about St. Mary's Parish in Petionville, St. Joseph's in Delmas, and so on, and put it up in a database on the Internet so people in the United States can tap into it, along with who's supporting that parish. People can see, 'Oh, they're going to put up $50,000, maybe we can put up $50,000 and make this thing happen.'

Any sense of when that database might be rolled out?

It's got to be done within the next month. We're going to get a team in there to do an assessment. We'll take the list of parishes and so on, and have some engineers and architects go in and say, 'That can't be rebuilt,' or whatever. It'll take three weeks to a month to do that. The Germans from Adveniat are sending in a team in about three weeks too, so we're going to try to coordinate with them.

You've coordinated two visits of American bishops to Haiti. One delegation was led by Archbishop Dolan of New York and Bishop Wenski of Orlando for the funeral Mass of Archbishop Miot, the other by Cardinal O'Malley of Boston and Archbishop Gomez of San Antonio to see the aftermath. What's been the value of those visits?

The first visit, with Dolan and Wenski ... Wenski has long-standing and robust connections there ... showed to the people and the church of Haiti, including the president and the bishops' conference, that we care. When Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Gomez went down, I think the payoff was that their eyes were opened. O'Malley said something in the car to the effect that, 'I don't think we're going to have enough money to do this. We may have to take up another collection.' The magnitude struck them, how devastating it was. An earthquake? Well, you know, you've got earthquakes in Turkey, you've got earthquakes here and there, but this was in a dense, condensed city, where the church is everywhere. It's sort of like Brooklyn or Baltimore ... you've got a couple of parishes on the same block across from each other, the church runs the hospitals, the church runs the university, the orphanage, and they're all collapsed. The magnitude, the intensity, and the power of the devastation, and the trauma that it left behind, kind of sunk in.

In a sense, you could say that the first trip, with Dolan and Wenski, was for the Haitians, while the second trip, with O'Malley and Gomez, was for us?

That's a good way of putting it. I didn't think of it in those terms, but it absolutely was.

* * *

As a footnote, I recently had an interview with Dolan in which he spoke about his experience visiting Haiti for the Jan. 23 funeral Mass of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince, who was killed in the earthquake. Dolan made an important point about the Catholic response, stressing that the toll in Haiti isn't just a matter of infrastructure, public health, and so on. The earthquake and its aftermath have also created a crisis of meaning, and the church must offer a spiritual response.

Here's the relevant portion of what Dolan had to say:

"When I was down in Haiti, we spent late Saturday afternoon with 300 or so CRS workers. We sat on this hillside … There was destruction all around us. I had seen all the work they'd been doing for the last twenty-four hours. Many of them are Haitians, and had lost family members and homes, so they're personally devastated. They're all exhausted, they're all frustrated, they're all saying, 'How are we ever going to get out of this?' We talked for a couple of hours. I tried my best to be a cheerleader. As I was leaving, I looked out at these 300 and asked, is there anything more I can do for you? I'm thinking about medicine, money, blankets, maybe getting messages home. One girl says, 'Yeah. Could you say Mass for us tomorrow morning?' I'm thinking, she gets it. This is the church at its best. I'm the one who had capitulated to a purely functional view of things, because I'm thinking that's all they were worried about."

I'm sure you didn't want to come off as pie-in-the-sky piety ...

"Right, I didn't want to say, just kneel down and I'll give you my blessing and everything will be okay. But they were the ones saying, the best thing you can do for us is to give us some meaning here. The best thing you can do for us is to tap into our faith, in this act where we believe we are united to the dying of Jesus on the Cross and to his resurrection. She may not have used that vocabulary, but she knew it deep down. Her theology in that question would rival Thomas Aquinas' 'Office for Corpus Christi.'"

[John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@ncronline.org.]

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