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Stories from the field

Nothing is easy in Haiti

Port-au-Prince, 14 April 2011

My job is to report and explain how the Red Cross in Haiti uses the donations it has received from donors like you to help the victims of the earthquake. The Red Cross, the world largest humanitarian organization, is committed to being transparent with regard to the use of the donations received and that is precisely why I am here. To me, what is most difficult is not to report the number of injured persons whom we have treated, the number of cholera victims who have been cared for by us, the number of families who again have a sturdy roof over their heads in order to protect them from bad weather and who now have access to toilets and drinking water, or reporting that communities are better prepared to cope with disasters in the future. The difficulty is to explain how complex any intervention is in Haiti, especially to people who have never set foot in the country. The reality is that nothing is easy in Haiti.

The simple action of buying something is a puzzle. Let me explain. In Haiti, all the prices are given in Haitian dollars and 8 Haitian dollars are needed for 1 dollar US, but the Haitian dollar does not exist. The currencies used in Haiti are the US dollar and the Haitian gourde and 40 gourdes are needed for 1 dollar US. However, if you pay in US dollars, you will receive the change in gourdes. Now, I must remind you that all prices are given in Haitian dollars and I must stress once again that this currency does not exist. Are you following me so far? I hope so, because it gets even more difficult now.

Letís say, for instance, that I want to buy an avocado at the market and the seller will ask me to pay 10 dollars for it. Each time this startles me but I must remember that price is given in Haitian dollars. Therefore 10 Haitian dollars, which is much more than the price Haitians would pay for the same avocado, is fine with me as I am happy to help the economy keep rolling. I begin calculating as follows: 10 Haitian dollars divided by 8 equals $1.25 US. I forgot to add that the US currency is accepted everywhere, but only the banknotes and not the coins. Also the banknotes cannot have any tears, not even the slightest one; otherwise it will not be accepted. Let us suppose that on that day I do not have either a 1 dollar US note in my pockets or gourdes in notes of small denomination and as a result I pay with a 5 dollar US note. Thus $5 US minus $1.25 US equals $3.75 US, multiplied by 40 or 38 (conversion rate in gourdes), depending on the mood of the person who is selling me the avocado. Based on the dayís conversion rate, the avocado would cost me 150 gourdes or 142 gourdes in change. Obviously, as people do not have always the exact change, the price is rounded and it would cost me theoretically 150 or 140 gourdes in change. My avocado has just cost me $1.50 US which is roughly the same price, if not more expensive, than if I had bought it from a grocery store in Canada where avocadoes are imported. I now have a headache after all these calculations.

Obviously, this example is simple as it involves one single avocado. You can imagine what it means when it comes to clearing materials through customs that have just arrived by ship, or to buying tons of materials for the reconstruction of tens of thousands of houses that were damaged or destroyed following the earthquake. Finance and logistics experts from the Red Cross are responsible for ensuring that the funds donated by Canadians are spent as effectively as possible, and that the most money benefits those in the highest need. All these issues need to be approached and resolved, all in the complex and imprecise context of Haiti. Nothing is simple here.



“On January 12, 2010, the earth shook violently Haiti. I sat in the newsroom of Radio-Canada in Montreal when I heard the news. The days and weeks that followed were full of extremely strong emotions when I saw, like you, the images of a country of rubble. I then made a decision. I didn’t just want to report the events, I wanted to be there. I then started a new journey as a delegate of the Red Cross.” – Sophie Chavanel, Canadian Red Cross delegate, Haiti.

Sophie Chavanel is the senior communications coordinator for the Canadian Red Cross in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Sophie is a former journalist and joined the Red Cross team in Haiti in August 2010, where she will remain for 12 months. Follow her activities through her field diary below or on twitter at