Are some Haiti relief groups helping or hurting recovery?

PORT-AU-PRINCE — In the weeks and months of desperation that came after the January quake in Haiti, hundreds of do-gooders — from emergency doctors and disaster specialists to animal lovers, movie stars, and even clowns — have poured into the flattened capital.

More than six months later, Haitians say the outpouring of charity in the relief effort from organizations both big and small was welcomed. It was critical to helping save lives and feeding the hungry.

Under debate, though, is who is best qualified to respond to natural disasters. Now, as Haiti enters the height of the hurricane season and its potential for flash floods and landslides, that question takes on more urgency. Last Tuesday, the precarious situation became evident once again when two children died after rain caused a wall to collapse on top of their tarp home in one of the 1,000-plus camps that still house many left homeless by the earthquake.

Small groups argue that their nimbleness allows them to move much more swiftly to the location of a disaster than some large, more established humanitarian groups. They count common sense and eagerness to pitch in as their best assets, and some of them have spent years here.

Global health experts counter that while the relief efforts of grass-roots charities are appreciated, sometimes these groups lack experience and get in the way.

"There's a lot of good that can be done, but there's also a great deal of harm that can be done," said Jeff Wright, a disaster response specialist with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. "Who should respond are those with competence."

Wright and other public health professionals found some do-gooder groups seeking to help — only to find they hampered urgent relief efforts and sometimes competed with Haitians for scarce resources.

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