Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Monday, 1 February 2010

Anderson Shelters for Haiti.

Carefully reported on the BBC and in and in some of the Scottish newspapers (but not so far in any "English" papers) are details of Mr and Mrs Brown's attendance at a poetry fundraising event at Westminster Hall in London.

Whilst there Mr Brown announced that he had bought all the corrugated iron in Britain - all 5,700 sheets of it, worth £35,000. He's taking that money out of the £20 million 'pledged' by the government in aid, and is sending these sheets of metal off to Haiti where they will be used to provide up to 2,000 "hurricane-proof" shelters. It seems that this might be the first thing Britain is sending to Haiti.

Bear with me, because the rest of this post rambles on a bit, and wanders off at disjointed tangents.

These sheets of corrugated iron are to be taken to Haiti on the RFA vessel Largs Bay. It's a "landing ship dock", so should be able to unload almost anywhere there's a beach - one of the more sensible decisions that's been made, as explained by The Yorkshire Ranter . (It's worth a read)

The BBC points out that around 1.5 million Haitians are now homeless - their homes are heaps of rubble, some of which covers decaying human remains.

Britain is sending these people (who have survived devastating earthquakes and many of whom suffered terrible injuries and are at risk of cholera and other diseases) bits of metal (no mention of timber to build supporting structures) that will make the equivalent of Anderson Shelters - something British people would never consider living in, not even during wartime. People in Britain would now never consider living under a tin roofed house either, not even one with proper walls - it would be too hot when the sun shines, and too noisy when it rains, so it wouldn't look nice enough and probably wouldn't be environmentally friendly either.

Sending this corrugated iron seems slightly  hypocritical and seems, somehow, to lack respect too, and respect is sadly lacking in the media's portrayal of Haiti - as pointed out by Andy Kershaw in an excellent article in the Independent. Please read the article, it'll make you think.

All this, along with other snippets that have been recently highlighted by other bloggers, has left Mrs R in something of a quandary, and has made her ask a few questions she can't easily answer.

One of the things she can't answer relates to the moral responsibility of aid-givers at the time of a serious national disaster, especially when our own government's aid-givers seem very slow to help people within our own country who are in desperate need - after flooding, during heavy snowfall etc - when private individuals have been left to their own devices and told to use 'community spirit' to keep themselves going.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation lists what British people think they need in order to maintain the most basic standard of living, and Raedwald recently pointed out that, according to Save the Children, British children are "living in poverty" if they don't have, amongst other things :-

Dressing Gown - 1
Jeans - 3prs
Jumpers - 4
Jumpers - 3 (different?)
Pants - 10prs
PE shorts - 2prs
Swim shorts - 1
PE tops - 1
PE 'T' shirts - 2
Plimsoles / trainers - 1 pr
Polo shirts - 6
Pyjamas - 2
School shoes - 1pr
School socks - 5prs
Shorts - 3prs
Socks - 10prs
Tracksuit bottoms - 2ps
Trainers - 1pr
Trousers - 4prs
T-shirts - 5
Vests - 10
Waterproof coat - 1
Wellington boots - 1
Winter Coat - 1
... more items are listed on this spreadsheet, which runs to several pages

If British children need all these things they also, presumably, need somewhere to put them - so have to have wardrobes and or chests of drawers. They also need a means to keep these things clean, and a decent enough building in which to put everything, complete with closable windows and lockable doors to keep out thieves and inclement weather. In Britain we might get frost, snow and heavy rain, but we rarely get hurricanes strong enough to blow our sturdily-built homes away.

All these 'essential' things are provided for British children via their parent(s) - out of salary if the parents work, via the benefits system if the parent(s) won't or can't work. Nobody in Britain is left without, it's a social contract.

Britain as a nation, and using money collected via taxation from every person who spends money, is sending 5,700 sheets of corrugated iron to Haiti. Corrugated iron is the most basic of roofing materials - and is to be used to make 'shelters', it is not described as being suitable to make 'homes' or houses. The Haitian hurricane season usually starts in May, and Haitian hurricanes can blow away homes.

It's been well documented that there are temporary "tent towns" in Haiti. These temporary towns are home to, so far, around 500,000 people near Port-au-Prince alone. The tents - some are high quality, stormproof affairs, others are very temporary and are little more than plastic sheeting supported by posts - have mostly been provided by charities and are emergency relief that's already in situ. This emergency relief includes the Rotary Club's excellent ShelterBoxes - which have been paid for by online donations, street collections - all voluntary giving.

Let's carry on looking at these ShelterBoxes. Each one contains a 10-person tent, 10 sleeping bags, cooking equipment, cutlery and so on. The boxes themselves are huge (I've seen one), need two people to carry them and are large enough to be used as a crib, sturdy enough to be used to carry water and when covered by the lid could easily be used as a temporary table.

More than 1,500 (and rising) of these boxes have already arrived in Haiti - that's 1,500+ tents providing emergency accommodation and basic living equipment for at least 15,000 adults. Look at the pictures here and you'll see how successful, and how neat and tidy it all looks.

Reading around the internet it seems that Haitians don't actually like living in these tented towns, but they've got no choice because there is nowhere else to go, and there is such a lot to do before they can return to the areas destroyed by the first, powerful, earthquake and the lesser aftershock. They are grateful for the aid, grateful that things arrived so fast, disappointed that food etc wasn't distributed more quickly - but acknowledge that it wasn't easy because the poor transport and communication infrastructure had been made worse by the quakes and because Haiti is a poor country it didn't have the heavy machinery to move things from the airport to where it was needed.

To help the people of Haiti, who are mostly living in temporary accommodation, our government is sending, on our behalf, enough corrugated iron to make approximately 2,000 temporary roofs - which is only 500 more temporary roofs than have already been provided by ShelterBox, which is a fairly small charity.

There is no suggestion that there will be anything whatsoever to go beneath these temporary tin roofs - at least not yet - no beds, no tables, no chairs, no clothes, no wardrobes - all those things so essential to British people, so this shipload of stuff doesn't seem to be the best use of public money and nor does it seem to be particularly forward thinking - in terms of long-term need and long-term help, just a temporary fix that probably isn't exactly essential.

So here are the unanswerable questions ...

What right does our government have to buy up all stocks of any material, effectively depriving British people of this item in order to make a 'gesture' - because a temporary roof is little more than a gesture.

Has our government decided that, because some of the people who've lost their homes used to live in shanty towns, they neither need nor deserve anything better than what they had before the earthquake stuck?

Do the children of Haiti need, or deserve, the same as British children in terms of belongings and accommodation? If not, why not, and if yes - is it our responsibility to intervene at a time of crisis to ensure Haitian children get what they either need or deserve, or should we sit back and hope somebody else does it, or hope that somehow the surviving adults will manage to provide these 'essentials' all on their own - something they would never be expected by British have-nots.

At what point does "giving overseas aid" amount to interference or meddling with another country's affairs?

I've absolutely no idea how to answer these questions, but it's something to think about - and it all started with 5,700 sheets of corrugated iron and how they compare to some nice-looking tents.

As an aside - it will be interesting, don't you think, to see if Mr Brown offers to help rebuild the Presidential Palace.


Anonymous said...

My dad's very small company did the sheets for the dad does it often when there are distasters, he contacts relevant agencies and sees if there is a need (there always is) and he makes no profit from it. Corrugated sheets provide shelter, for food/medicines/supplies and i'm sure that for now many people in Haiti will want to use them as shelters too, unless of course loads of homes are rebuilt rapidly??
Whats the problem with the government actually buying stuff which will be useful while there are no suitable buildings. the sheets will be used while there is nothing else, and then other uses will be found for them.
Its easy to criticise when you dont know the facts.

babybu said...

oh and the sheets were going on a hugeee cargo ship containing tonnes of vital aid. the sheets are just a tiny part of whats going.

Mrs R said...

It's good to hear varying opinions, thanks.

Maybe you would consider the questions this post asks?