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Minimizing food aid mayhem

Canadian army holds back a rowdy crowd at the stadium in Jacmel
(Phuong Tran/IRIN)

As food distributions spread to more parts of Port-au-Prince, so have kilometre-long lines of hungry, at times angry, people pressed against various crowd-control barriers: ropes, a corrugated steel wall, an army platoon, even a hole in the ground. IRIN joined the line in various food distributions in and out of the city to ask people on both sides of these barriers: what’s the best way to do this?

“I just avoid them altogether,” Kellely Casimir, 23, a pregnant mother of three in Port-au-Prince, told IRIN. “I have to fight to get food...Parents with children are the ones who are not getting food. People without children are getting the food because they have the energy to fight for it.” She said she avoided food lines after she was punched in the ear while waiting in line.

Casimir has since moved to a former amphitheatre in the Delma neighbourhood where some 10,000 people have built shacks of tin and cloth. After the earthquake hit the Salvation Army spent US$20,000 building a corrugated steel wall to create a passageway for food distributions to 3,200 registered families.

“We know we needed to create order and space between the food and the crowd so there could not be a rush on the food. There must be a buffer zone,” said John Berglund, a disaster worker with the evangelical charity.

He pointed out a large pothole right in front of the table where coupons were stamped. “That is a blessing that prevents sudden movements.”

On 1 February the Salvation Army cut short a planned distribution of 552,000 rice packets by 90,000 rations because the distribution would have ended too late in the day. “The longer the distribution, the longer the line, the more unruly,” said food manager Damaris Frick.

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One hour into the distribution, two women without blue food coupons screamed out in Creole. “This food is awful for us,” said one woman. Another woman tore apart a bag of rice she had found and spat on the scattered contents. “We do not need these tiny bags of rice that cannot fill us. We need soap and cooking oil.”

“This is what we have now, what we could get into the country quickly," explained Cedric Hills, the head of the Salvation Army’s disaster team in Haiti. "It is impossible to please so many palates."

Women first

On 1 February the UN World Food Programme (WFP) began distributing 25-kilogram bags of rice – intended to last a family of six for two weeks – around the city, trying to reach two million people in two weeks.

People receive rice coupons 24 hours in advance; NGOs and community groups are targeting women for the distribution.

WFP spokesman Marcus Prior told IRIN the agency was targeting women to reach the most vulnerable and to reduce chaos during food handouts.

But the Salvation Army’s Frick suggested this could actually make women more vulnerable. When her organization moved women to the front of queues in previous food distributions, some men charged discrimination.

“The women go home with these rice bags they can hardly carry and men see them. They have to live in these communities and be the target of anger,” said Frick.

She said as many women as men had sparked chaos during handouts and pointed out that many households now have no women in them and so would be excluded from distributions focusing on women.

Prior said WFP was counting on NGOs and community leaders to bend the rules as necessary for such families.


Airdrops are unfair, said Marlene Disiré, a farmer in the largely destroyed town of Leogane, 60km south of the capital.

Last week “a military helicopter dropped cases of canned salmon, but by the time I got there, they had all been taken,” she told IRIN.

Competition, rumours and speculation about food distributions make chasing after food drops chaotic, said officers of a food cooperative of 1,200 members in Leogane. “The fastest youngest people get to it first,” said Disiré.


People in line for food distribution in Jacmel, Haiti
Phuong Tran/IRIN
People in line for food distribution in Jacmel, Haiti
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Minimizing food aid mayhem
People in line for food distribution in Jacmel, Haiti

Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
People in line for food distribution in Jacmel

Another WFP spokesman, David Orr, told IRIN the agency discouraged airdrops directly to the people, which can provoke mayhem.

“These drops can put vulnerable people at risk. It works better if drops go to aid workers at distribution points who can then organize the distribution. We are constantly trying to deliver better. With so many to reach – less than half in need have gotten food – we have a ways to go.”

Distributing food at sporadic times and places tends to increase public anxiety, according to WFP.

“We quickly knew that distribution at fixed points was the only way to go in a dense population in a decimated city,” Prior told IRIN. Since 31 January, the agency has been working with community leaders and eight NGOs to distribute coupons daily that instruct people where they are to pick up rice the following morning. “The trigger for anxiety and unrest when distributions wind down are due to people’s fear that we will pack up, leave and not come back.”

The Salvation Army also gives out food coupons, but does not indicate where or when the next distribution will occur. “We do that to avoid long lines. Through word-of-mouth, those registered in our camp know to come,” said distribution manager Frick.

Hot meals

During a distribution of 5,700 meals of beans and rice in Jacmel, 80km south of Port-au-Prince, Canadian army troops forcibly held back a group of men who were pushing their way to get into a roped-off section which fed into a second section that led to large pots filled with the steaming food.

When asked why he was pushing despite the fact he was in a line, one man told IRIN, “I have not eaten for two days. I do not want to be turned away.”

A Canadian military officer tiredly observed the crowd. “We are trying new things every day to see what works.”

WFP has been in Jacmel since 2008 for school feedings and already had a warehouse with 600 tons of food. “We decided to go with hot meals rather than dry rations because we were worried there would be violence and women and children would have less access,” said the town’s WFP director, David Baduel. WFP has handed out 30 large cooking pots to street committees that cook and serve one meal per day.

“Some chaos is inevitable,” Baduel told IRIN. “There is not enough food. Scarcity sparks disorder.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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