Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
I have come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, at which we heard from representatives from Concern, Haven, the Red Cross and a few others. I commend them on the fine contributions they made. We heard about what they were doing on the ground in Haiti and it is useful to follow up on that discussion with a debate on this motion.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the awful tragedy that has happened to the people of Haiti, to whom I extend my sympathy, particularly those who have lost many friends and family members.
This is a massive disaster. I prepared a script but, having listened to the contributions of the representatives at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, I do not know from which angle to approach this disaster. Some 200,000 people are dead, more than 190,000 have been injured and a great number are now homeless. How in the name of God can we meet that challenge? It is a colossal undertaking. I was taken aback by what I heard about the role being played by Irish Aid workers and how they were trying to get to grips with the problem. It is essential that the emergency needs of people in terms of health, food, water, sanitation, shelter and other basic requirements are met first. The problem is whether aid workers can get to them to provide them with such assistance.
The big issue that arose from questions put by colleagues at the meeting of the joint committee was whether the co-ordination of the relief effort can work on the ground. Is a central body overseeing the co-ordination of the relief work? I have a sense that the relief effort is all over the place. Perhaps I do not have enough knowledge, but that is my thinking on it. The challenges to be faced are huge. The rainy season is only two months away and those who can are moving out to the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. The challenge is to erect tents for people and to relocate families before the rainy season begins.
Is there conflict among the agencies as to which one will merit most in their delivery programmes? I have a sense that there is such competition, which is a concern as competition should not form part of their thinking in the relief effort.
I commend the Government, through Irish Aid, on its response, as well as the non-governmental organisations such as Concern, GOAL, the Red Cross and many others. Showing a united front by the various organisations is commendable. A website www.howyoucanhelp.ie has been set up to let people know how they can volunteer or donate to fund the relief effort. The outstanding response by members of the public in seeking to help those affected should also be acknowledged. Irish people, as always, have answered the call to help those in need and have raised some €10 million. That is a colossal sum of money from a population of only 4 million. The response is a credit to the nation and can be compared to the sum of €40 million raised in the United Kingdom which has a population of 67 million. The generosity of the Irish people in the face of such adversity is well documented. Ireland is the seventh largest contributor to the United Nations central emergency response fund. The Government was quick in its response in donating €2 million and distributing 85 tonnes of essential equipment which has helped an estimated 12,000 so far.
A co-ordinated response has been slow to emerge and my big concern is whether a central body will co-ordinate the relief effort. There is a weak government in Haiti and there is a concern about whether it can lead the relief effort or who will take the lead in its organisation? What role will the United National humanitarian section play? A motion was tabled at the meeting of the joint committee to the effect that the IMF should disregard Haiti’s massive loan. This proposal should be given consideration. We have a role to play in that respect.
The challenges faced in terms of reconstruction, the relocation of people, the provision of tents and the delivery of emergency rations in the next few weeks are colossal. In an article I read today it was suggested a new city might have to be built far away from the geological fault lines in Port-au-Prince. The international effort must take all these considerations into account. Skilled workers and professionals, including paramedics, nurses and educationists, who can give of their time and make their way to Haiti quickly are needed as a matter of urgency. However, as I mentioned earlier, there must be a partnership arrangement. If we are all donating money, there must be accountability in how that money is spent. There must be a partnership between the UN, the EU and the Haitian Government. I understand the US is hosting a conference in due course to discuss these issues. The time for talking is over; the required co-ordination must be put in place. Otherwise I worry about those who are homeless or have emergency needs. If we do not reach out to them now, I worry for the future of Haiti. It is the poorest country in the western world. We must make it our business to help it in any way we can. The Irish people have never been slow. We will continue to help, but we do need accountability. We want to see how the money is being spent and how it is getting to its locations.
I trust the Minister will consider my points and keep us informed, because we will have ongoing discussions about this massive disaster. The rainy season is approaching, followed by the hurricane season later in the year. We need regular reports on the situation.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I extend my sincere condolences to the people of Haiti, especially the loved ones of the approximately 200,000 people who lost their lives in the devastating earthquake that struck their country and continues to wreak havoc there. Our thoughts also go to the family of the Irish man Andrew Grene, who tragically lost his life in the disaster while serving with the United Nations. We should also extend our sympathy to Concern on the death of one of its volunteers and to the UN itself, which lost so many of its staff in the earthquake.
The scale of the devastation, based on eyewitness reports and what we have seen on our televisions, is considerable, with Port-au-Prince and other cities almost completely destroyed. In addition to the major loss of life and the destruction of the main government buildings and that housing UN personnel and staff, most of the communications infrastructure was either gravely damaged or destroyed beyond repair. The UN, which would have been expected to play the lead role in co-ordinating the relief effort, was seriously hampered in its organisational capacity due to the loss of staff. In view of all these factors, including the lack of disaster preparedness planning and the weakness of the government’s capacity to respond, it is no surprise that aid did not immediately reach people who desperately needed it.
The American response was swift, welcome and absolutely necessary, and it brought much-needed leadership and co-ordination to what quickly descended into a chaotic situation. We were all anxious about the delay in bringing aid to these poor people, but thankfully things are improving each day, as has been explained by all of the aid agencies. Food, water, sanitation, shelter and medical expertise are the most urgent requirements in the short term. However, the international attention and resources that are now available must be used to lay the foundations of a more productive, fair and stable Haiti in the longer term.
It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the Irish aid agencies, which have responded in magnificent fashion, as we have come to expect from them. The generosity of the Irish people knows no bounds, which never ceases to amaze me. For example, in my small parish of Sacred Heart in Waterford, our curate informed the church congregation that €2,000 had been collected during the first two masses the previous weekend, although I am not sure what the total figure was. This is typical of the generous response of the Irish people and I am sure it was replicated throughout the country.
The motion states that the Seanad “supports the Government in its efforts to assist the people of Haiti in the aftermath of recent earthquakes”. I have no problem with this motion, and to table an amendment, which is customary, would deflect attention from the overwhelming desire of all in the House to channel our support and show our solidarity with the people of Haiti.
The Irish Government’s response is part of a combined European relief effort. I would like to see the EU take a more hands-on approach and make it clear to the people that we stand by them. Not only will we provide rescue workers, medical personnel, food and shelter now, but we will pledge to assist them in the long-term reconstruction of their country. Haiti has been bedevilled by corruption and poor government for many years. However, the fact that the Prime Minister has acknowledged that the country needs a government that is smaller, costs less and does more is a small step in the right direction.
At the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, we have listened to reports from Concern, the Red Cross and Haven. Two of the people involved came back from Haiti to inform us of what was happening on the ground. It is certainly disastrous. What the representatives told us was in many cases harrowing to listen to. Before the earthquake, Haiti was one of the poorest countries in the western world, with half the population living on about a dollar a day and an unemployment level of 54%. What it faces now is the necessity of rebuilding almost 75% of its capital city. Can we imagine what it would be like if 75% of our capital city here was knocked down? That is what is facing the people of Haiti at present.
Haiti has been the subject of much media attention but, when the cameras are gone, I hope the international community will not walk away from its responsibilities. After the hurricanes, more than €100 million was pledged by the international community but, up to now, only about 15% of this was forthcoming. I urge the Minister of State to ensure the same thing does not happen now. The pledges that are made must be honoured. I am sure they will be honoured by our Government but it must be ensured the EU and the international community honour the pledges made in order that Haiti can be rebuilt properly by erecting earthquake proof buildings similar to those built by Denis O’Brien. It would be remiss of me not to mention the great work being done by him and the employment he is providing. His company was able to construct earthquake proof buildings and there is no reason all other buildings should not be constructed in a similar fashion in future.
I urge the Minister of State to do his utmost to ensure the international community honours its pledges in the long term. Aid will flow in the short term but proper co-ordination is the issue. We must look beyond the short to medium term and consider the long term for the population of Haiti, which has suffered such devastation. I am happy to support the motion.
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