GETTING THROUGH HAITIAN BARRIERS FOR CHARITY'S SAKE
(Miami Herald) - By Anders Gyllenhaal - Miami Herald Executive Editor
When Joe Oglesby delivered a shipment of computers, cameras and video equipment to Haitian journalists two weeks ago, he was greeted with tears and bear hugs from people who've had little to cheer about for many months.
``It was a pretty moving moment,'' said Joe, who's heading up an international drive to help Haiti journalists with new equipment, support and training.
But there's an unfortunate subplot to this story that says something about why progress comes so slowly to Haiti.
It took more than two months of battling bureaucracy and corruption just to get the equipment into the country and in the hands of local reporters and editors trying to track the story of Haiti's recovery. At times, it looked like this simple gesture would be blocked by obstacles the Haiti government itself put up.
``It's sad,'' said Joe, former editorial page editor of The Miami Herald, who has devoted a huge amount of energy and time to this effort.
The Haiti News Project was launched right after the Jan. 12 earthquake. A group of media organizations from the United States and Latin America formed to help Haitian journalists, who like the country itself, were obliterated by the disaster. Many lost family members, homes, jobs and the equipment to do their work. More than 30 were killed.
A dozen media groups and U.S. corporations stepped forward to contribute. They include the American Society of News Editors, the Inter American Press Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Poynter Institute, Poder magazine and The Miami Herald. Google and Dell Computers made contributions or offered vastly reduced prices for equipment.
After a couple of smaller deliveries of computers and cameras to the neediest recipients, the Haiti News Project was ready to send a major shipment of 20 computers and other equipment. This was meant to be the easy part after the complexities of recruiting supporters and raising funds.
Instead, the underbelly of Haiti emerged. The very agencies that should have welcomed these gifts put up all sorts of roadblocks.
Joe started with the Ministry of Commerce, the agency that's supposed to handle permissions like this. His letters and phone calls went unanswered for so long he tried breaking through the bureaucracy when Haiti's prime minister stopped in Miami in May. Joe explained the situation to the country's second-highest-ranking official.
``He said, `Sure. We have a process for that,' '' said Joe, who was then introduced to a member of the prime minister's staff who said he'd line things up with the Haiti consul.
The consul told him, ``Yeah, yeah. We can do this. We'll contact the ministry and get the permissions for you.''
But days and then weeks went by and follow-up phone calls went unanswered. Eventually, a government official got back and warned it would take time and that he needed to be patient.
``At this point, the computers were sitting in Miami,'' he said. ``We were really hurting ourselves by not getting this equipment to Haiti.''
Finally, Joe thought it best to simply send the shipment and pay a 30 percent duty demanded despite the equipment's charitable nature. The computers arrived in Haiti two weeks ago. When Joe flew to Port-au-Prince to distribute the equipment, he learned that the crates had been confiscated under a vague rule that made little sense.
``This was purely discretionary on Customs' part,'' Joe said.
For days, Joe talked with officials and insiders until finally someone suggested he turn to a broker who had contacts with the agency. ``That's Haiti, as we've all learned,'' said Milton Coleman, senior editor at the Washington Post and president of the American Society of News Editors and part of the team on the project.
The broker's fee was $3,500, which was almost enough to free the computers, though not quite all of them. ``When they delivered the computers, one box was missing,'' Joe said. ``Not only had they taken the money, but they took one of the boxes.''
For the first time since the ordeal began, Joe lost his temper: These computers were going for a worthy cause, and the additional costs should have gone for more computers. He demanded the broker return to Customs and come up with the missing box -- what seemed an impossible demand that was, in fact, met.
Joe handed out the computers to reporters, editors and publishers the next day.
More than $6 billion in international contributions have been promised as Haiti emerges from this disaster. But if stories like this small charitable shipment are an indication, a chunk of that money will not reach those most in need.
The Haiti News project, made up of veteran journalists, knew what it was getting into and won't be discouraged from pushing forward. If anything, the story shows why the journalistic spotlight this project will enable is more important than ever in tracking Haiti's recovery.