1 Feb 2010

Oxfam blog: arriving in the Haitian puzzle

Alexandros Yiannopoulos is Oxfam’s coordinator of food security and livelihood in Haiti. 

To find out more about Oxfam in Haiti visit their website here.

This is the first time I have tried to keep anything like a blog or diary, even though many of my friends have asked me to keep them up-to-date with my travels and adventures.

This time is different: I feel it is important to give a picture of what is going on in Haiti from both a personnel and professional perspective so that readers can have a slightly better picture of life as a working humanitarian and how Haitians are trying to get their country back to normal without help.

As an introduction, I have been working in humanitarian aid and development since 1999 working in may trouble spots such as Kosovo, DR Congo, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and now Haiti.

In January 2009 I joined Oxfam’s humanitarian team specialising in food security and livelihoods.

My role is to provide support to Oxfam’s country programme, to set up an emergency programme to respond various crises such as natural disasters or conflict, and giving advice on the best programmes to help people improve their ability to access food or to re-establish businesses such as small traders or farmers.

When Oxfam asked me to and set up their food security and livelihood activities in Haiti I was both excited at being given such a large responsibility and nervous at whether I was up to the job.


At that time I was on holiday in Thailand and getting only the media reports on the TV, painting a quite a horrific picture of dead bodies being pulled out of the rubble, looting and aid agencies being too slow.

This did not help my nerves or my parents who left a large note in red asking me to be careful next to a front page article on looting and shooting in Port-au-Prince – the place I was leaving for the same day!

Arriving in Haiti was not exactly what I imagined.

The suburbs of Port-au-Prince appeared to be undamaged; people were going about their day-to-day lives, and all seemed to be normal.

As we slowly wound our way towards Oxfam near the centre of town, the picture I saw on the TV became real except this time there were the smells, dust, as well as flattened buildings. 

The atmosphere in the car changed from good humour to subdued, especially seeing one of our offices partly destroyed.

It was a smaller area than I expected but the destruction was awesome and it is hard to explain how people are managing to keep going after loosing so much.

Credit for the courage and sprit of the Haitian people. 

As usual when arriving in a new country in an emergency, I had enough time to get a drink and then we rushed into a planning meeting, which went on until 11pm, followed by an early start (6am).

These working hours, I am sure, are to stay for the next few months.

I was well prepared with a sleeping bag and mosquito net and was able to find a small space (we have almost 45 people in one house with three bathrooms) to set up my bed – on the 1st floor veranda, near the staircase, just in case. 

The first day at work was more like starting a new jigsaw puzzle – with pieces all over the place and you have to bring them all together with a time limit.

In my next blog, I will talk more about how our activities are going and whether the puzzle is coming together.