DURHAM — The numbers coming out of Haiti are stunning: tens of thousands dead, many more injured and homeless. The images of a decimated country only hundreds of miles from our shores are equally difficult to process. Humility in the aftermath of disasters is important, especially for donors and relief agencies. Nobody knows better than survivors and victims what it's like to be in a disaster, and nobody knows better than they do what aid is needed and how it should be distributed.
Governments, individuals and organizations worldwide have already begun to respond to Haiti's urgent appeal for support. Haiti was desperately poor even before this latest disaster, and there cannot be enough money donated.
What matters most, though, is how all this aid is distributed. The history of disaster relief is replete with examples of outside experts going into a stricken city, region or country and attempting to show the locals how best to reorganize their society. The same history of disasters suggests, however, that the best way to distribute relief is to use the formal organizations and informal communities that existed before the disaster.
Aid agencies need to trust their recipients to know best what help they need and how best to distribute relief. Individual donors should give their money to organizations run by and employing Haitians, groups that worked in and knew Haiti before the earthquake and that will continue to work there in the years to come.
Historically, disaster survivors have benefited more, and in more lasting ways, from aid distributed by friends rather than by outsiders. In 1917, a munitions ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, exploded, killing nearly 2,000 people and leaving about 25,000 homeless or jobless. People knew exactly where to go for help. They gathered at doctors' homes and military hospitals looking for medical help. They went to convents for spiritual succor. And they broke into drug stores to avail themselves of first-aid supplies. All this activity was uncoordinated and unofficial.
The coordinated, official action was counterproductive. The army, concerned there might be a second explosion, made survivors stand outside in freezing weather, exposing them to sickness and discomfort. Later, aid-givers were disappointed that survivors used neither the army tents nor the official shelters, preferring to stay in damaged houses, sometimes 15 to a room.
Staying with friends and family - people who knew them, people who could give emotional support - was more important than getting official aid.
In disaster after disaster, the most important support for sufferers has been offered by friends, neighbors, family and other people they know and trust.
After Katrina, as the rest of the country bemoaned the incompetence of the government's response and heard what turned out to be false stories of violence run rampant, New Orleans organizers and activists picked up the slack. "Mama D" French Cole, an experienced civil rights organizer and NAACP veteran, led a "Soul Patrol" to rescue stranded neighbors in the Seventh Ward. Union activists helped a group of stranded tourists and New Orleanians to escape the city. Even gang members, who had well-established networks and self-organization, worked together to find water, food and medicine to take care of seniors in the Superdome.
Haiti, despite being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has similar networks of local people eager and able to help one another in a spirit of solidarity. We have seen this spirit of mutual aid already. In pictures of people digging through the rubble or of tending to injured children, our eye is naturally drawn to the victim being rescued or to the bleeding child. But the people digging and caring are doing what disaster survivors always do: helping each other.
The aid we give should support those people in their work. Haiti desperately needs money, it needs outside investment in its infrastructure and it needs basics like food, water and medicine. But it needs that help to be given in ways that strengthen the networks of civil society that already exist. Aid agencies and their donors must remain humble and remember that Haitians know better than anyone else what it means to survive this disaster.
Jacob Remes is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke University who studies the history of disasters.