Interview with Kim Bolduc, Deputy Special Representative in Haiti and UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator

Kim Bolduc, Deputy Special Representative for the UN Mission in Haiti, and Humanitarian Coordinator

25 February 2010 – Kim Bolduc arrived in Haiti shortly before the 12 January earthquake, a horrific tragedy for the small Caribbean nation and the single worst disaster in the UN’s history. The role for which she was appointed in November 2009 – as Deputy Special Representative for the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator – changed radically, as she temporarily took over leadership of the mission. The Canadian national has previously served as UN Resident Coordinator and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Brazil and Special Adviser to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, as well as Area Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Iraq.

UN News Centre: You arrived in Haiti right before the earthquake and the situation changed drastically. What has this experience been like?

Kim Bolduc: I came to carry out a recovery and development programme within a stabilization mission. A month and a half later we were hit by the earthquake. Obviously all the priorities changed overnight, and because the earthquake was so massive it has changed the lives of the people in Haiti and our lives as well.

The earthquake hit a country that was already struggling to make ends meet. It destroyed the capital and affected the population in such a way that we were not able to regroup faI think everyone wants the same thing for Haiti – a strong Haiti, a sustainable Haiti and a Haiti that has a future for its children.st enough to get the support going right away. It hit the UN system. The Government was very much affected by the earthquake as well. So all in all, we’re talking about a fragile country that was destroyed at the centre of its capacity in the capital.

After that happened, we had to simultaneously take care of search and rescue operations, fairly large ones because a lot of people were buried in the rubble and caught in collapsed buildings. Additionally, we had to help the Government in collecting the dead bodies out in the streets, and also to immediately try to organize relief support to provide food, water and medical care for all the people who were devastated by the earthquake.

The continuation of that is still very difficult because as you know aftershocks are still coming on a daily basis in Haiti and we are under very difficult living and working conditions for UN staff and the whole international community.

UN News Centre: You were with the UN in Iraq during the 2003 bombing. Are there similarities between the situations in Iraq and Haiti? How have you been able to carry over your experiences?

Kim Bolduc: Although the situations are very different, the similarities probably reside in the fact that both UN headquarters were located in a hotel. We are talking about the Canal Hotel and now the Christopher Hotel, where we lost a lot of colleagues inside.  Although in the Canal Hotel it was a bomb explosion. People were caught inside the building, in the rubble, and the hours following the bombing were very difficult. The same happened for the Christopher Hotel. The building collapsed on hundreds of people working inside.

It’s different, at least in my own case in that in Iraq I was in a fairly bad shape after the bombing. I was among the evacuated injured staff members.

Here in Haiti I came out unharmed and I was able to start working right away to gather the capacity that was left to try to carry on the humanitarian work. I remained Officer-in-Charge of the mission during the first 48 hours because the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Hedi Annabi, and the Principal Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Luiz Carlos da Costa, were missing.

UN News Centre: There had not been a disaster of this magnitude in UN history. Can you talk a bit about how this has changed MINUSTAH?

Kim Bolduc: I think that the mission had in the past years been successful in stabilizing the country after the conflict and it was starting to see progress in the country. The economy was slowly picking up again, people were getting their lives reorganized, and the earthquake put a hold on all of this. The mission had to reorient its first priorities towards humanitarian assistance to the affected population. The mission has had to try to get up – after losing so many of its own – to try to reorganize fast enough and get replacements in, evacuate those who needed to leave the duty station and simultaneously carry out the huge emergency and humanitarian programme. I think that in this sense it was very good that the mission was already on the ground and had military and civilian capacity left to tackle these huge challenges. We relied very much on what still existed to convert all the capacity towards helping the affected population and the Government.

UN News Centre: What do the roles of Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Resident Representative of the UNDP and Humanitarian Coordinator consist of and how does your position fit in the overall recovery effort?

Kim Bolduc: I think it is a very interesting function because it entails wearing four hats at the same time. On the DSRSG side, I take care of the various sections and outposts where MINUSTAH is present to provide humanitarian and relief support, while also overseeing MINUSTAH sections responsible, for example, for rule of law, protection or elections. All of these areas are very important in terms of recovery in a country emerging from conflict.

Right now the big challenge is to tackle problems in an environment that is both a post-conflict and a post-disaster situation. As the Humanitarian Coordinator, I very much lean on the humanitarian capacity of the UN system, mainly the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the other UN agencies involved in providing relief support.

As the Resident Coordinator of UNDP, it is making sure that the areas not directly involved in humanitarian work are also starting to regroup. So it is indeed a very wide umbrella that allows us to pull together all the resources and the efforts, while at the same time a very difficult challenge in how to make all these functions and coordination mechanisms work simultaneously so as to optimize results.

UN News Centre:  What are your main priorities for recovery in Haiti?

Kim Bolduc: It is amazing to see that after such a disastrous event the Haitian population has been extremely brave and resilient. After two weeks, more or less, they had started to gather their lives back to normal. They are trying to do what they can, such as selling things, opening up small markets. The banks have started to function. This has a lot to do with the support of the international community and MINUSTAH in protecting the banking system so it could go back to work.

I think that in terms of priorities, the top one remains the normalization of lives. Mostly that we get people involved in income-generating activities, while at the same time we carry out a very large food distribution scheme to attend to the needs of over 2 million people and shelter to more than a million displaced people.

We are now seeing many of the displaced moving in the country towards other departments [geographic regions in Haiti] and leaving the very congested Port-au-Prince.

I think that if we could get a very large scale of support to agriculture and to provide jobs to the population, we will be able to gradually downsize the scale of humanitarian distribution. It is very important that we are also able to get the Government back on its feet and provide officials with the support they need to run the country again.

The institutions were all destroyed. The Government lost most of its installations here and is currently operating out of a makeshift kind of house. While all of this is happening, the incoming volume of humanitarian support has been huge. While good, this has implied a lot of logistical challenges for distribution and storage at a time when most of the main buildings in Port-au-Prince have been destroyed.

UN News Centre: Are you satisfied with the recovery effort so far?

Kim Bolduc (far right) visits work site of UNDP cash-for-work project. Adam Rogers/UNDP

Kim Bolduc: I think that we have a hard time probably even accepting the magnitude of this disaster and the impact on the population. Recovery is starting slowly. We inside the UN system and with our non-governmental partners have been trying to do our best. We launched a very big cash-for-work programme and now we are negotiating with the World Food Programme (WFP) to have cash-and-food-for-work as a combined effort.

Many other partners understand that this is also a priority to give people back dignity and allow them to participate in the reconstruction efforts of their country, but by far I do not believe that any of that is enough. It has to be continued and scaled up very fast because we are now also threatened by the upcoming rainy season. As you know, Haiti is regularly affected by the hurricane seasons and the rain. This year, we might still have a million people living outside with some makeshift shelter. We are distributing plastic sheeting and some tents, but these are not enough to protect the people. I think that both the emergency relief and the recovery have been on a large scale, although we cannot say that they have been either satisfactory or sufficient to cover the requirements of the population that are currently in need of that kind of support. 

UN News Centre: What do you think about the criticism that humanitarian workers have received in terms of the response effort in Haiti?

Kim Bolduc: It is very important to understand the magnitude, the nature of the current crisis in Haiti. It is very easy for example to be interviewed and asked the difficult question “why aren’t you doing more?” I want to remind people of where Haiti was before the earthquake and what has happened during the earthquake. Over 200,000 people died, over 300,000 people were injured and the whole institution collapsed. The UN lost a lot of its colleagues and its headquarters. Everything that has been achieved has been achieved at great sacrifice for people who are still standing in the field and running the operations. It is important for everyone to recognize his or her contribution in this struggle and it is very important to remind everyone that seldom in our history have we seen such a sizeable operation set up within days of the emergency.

Every time we get good news about Haiti, it is a moment we all share here. If you think about the number of people affected – three million people in a country like Haiti where the centre of the capacity – the capital – has been destroyed, managing after five or six weeks to feed over two million people is an accomplishment.

In the first weeks, working with WFP, every day we tried to see how we were able to cover needs. At first we found out that only 10 per cent of the people were fed, and then 15, then 20, then 30, that sort of moment was very important. At the same time, we were being asked how come one month after the earthquake there are people who are saying they have not received food. So today, everyone has received food. We managed to cover the whole affected population during a two-week period of time. It has meant for WFP an incredible sacrifice and hard work to run the distribution system. The same is true with water and health care, shelter and sanitation, and other needs.

Now rains are starting and many people are still in the streets. People are not getting back into their houses because they collapsed and also because of the continuous movements of the earth. We have aftershocks every day. So within this very stressful situation, looking at the population that is very destitute and very much needing help but also very brave, resilient, remaining calm and helping with the relief effort, I think that this deserves better media coverage in terms of recognition for the people of Haiti and for the humanitarian workers and partners.

UN News Centre: You have worked on nearly all the continents. What are some of your personal lessons learned?

Kim Bolduc: Every time there is such a dramatic situation, it is happening in a different country, in a different culture, in a different context. What is common is the challenge to help people, to work with people and to see their lives change. If we have it right, if we manage to gather all the efforts ­­– they get the help they need.

I think that all in all people around the world are alike. They have the same dreams, the same needs, and they deserve the same kind of support. I think the UN system is the right platform because we are international and we are universal.

Normally, I measure the dimensions of the challenges and then look at the team we have as the main resources to achieve those challenges. After that, funding and all the resources and mechanisms have to be put in place. 

Our capacity to understand the national context to support the government and not try to replace the government is vital. To have everyone understand that our role is a support role and that we will do everything we can to make sure that the country recovers some sort of normality under a government that was selected by the people. Therefore, having a democratic system back in place as soon as we can and decision making that is very clear and showing also that the government is in the driver’s seat is important to guarantee that whatever we are helping to put in place is sustainable.

UN News Centre:  What has been your most challenging role so far with the UN?

Kim Bolduc: Probably this is the most complex post-disaster, post-conflict situation that I have had to handle because remember the context – before the earthquake Haiti was already struggling for a number of decades to come out of instability with 80 per cent of its population living below the poverty level and weak institutions.

The international community had been working in Haiti for a long time, but I have to say that collectively we must do better this time. Before the earthquake, Haiti was weak. After the earthquake Haiti is really in need of new opportunities. I think this is the right moment that we look at the way we support Haiti, that we gather efforts together, that we try to adopt a single agenda – an agenda of Haiti and of people in the government, so that we do not provide support that is fragmented, where the resolves do not add up and that we are not able to coordinate.

I think everyone wants the same thing for Haiti – a strong Haiti, a sustainable Haiti and a Haiti that has a future for its children. This is the dream of everyone that is currently struggling here on the ground and for others who are not here who are also supporting internationally.

I think Haiti deserves a much better response and much better support than it has received so far. This is a very painful moment for Haiti and for ourselves because we lost so many colleagues. I think it is also an opportunity for Haiti to build a new foundation and not build Haiti back as it was before the earthquake. That is a Haiti that nobody really wants, neither the people nor the Government, and certainly with this volume of solidarity that we are seeing from all over the world we will be able to do something much better this time.

UN News Centre: Are you saying that the international response to Haiti prior to the earthquake was too fragmented

Kim Bolduc: In the past, I would talk about international aid as a global concept which involved many partners and because we got involved in many things and scattered resources. For example, you would not have the roads in Haiti repaired although you would have 20 donors and partners engaged in repairing roads. We did not have a full commitment to repair those roads.

Also, if you think about the level of support that we have provided to Haiti in the past and you look at its education system which is run 85 per cent by the private sector. So to get an education, Haitian children would need to have money, which is not the case with most of the children in Haiti where education is neither compulsory nor free. You can see already that the preparation that the future generation has is fairly constrained by the fact that most of the education system is private.

The opportunity is that this time maybe the major donors would concentrate and have a commitment with a specific sector and concentrate the resources in such a way that the schools can be rebuilt, the roads can be repaired and that we would have investment in supporting the private sector so that tourism could flourish again. We should take advantage of training the Haitians and making sure that decent jobs are provided or organized for them. All of this has a lot to do in terms of how much we invest of our time, efforts and resources into a specific objective so that we can obtain the results instead of being involved in ten sectors and doing just a little bit in each of them so that the country does not fully recover.

News Centre: How are you incorporating these objectives into a longer-term plan for Haiti?

Kim Bolduc: I think that the recovery and the construction of a new foundation for Haiti is a huge task that will require the cooperation of everyone involved and it has a lot to do with getting the right level of support for Haiti.

It is a question of political will and how much all of us who are involved in getting Haiti back on track are able to trigger the right mechanisms so that the right things happen quickly. We have to be able to manage whatever difficulties and bureaucracies get in the way so that we can improve the support we provide to Haiti at a cost that is bearable for Haiti, as well.

It is very important that we accompany Haiti in the difficult road ahead because the emergency or the reconstruction of Haiti will be a long-term effort. We cannot forget Haiti because some other emergency will erupt in a short period of time.

UN News Centre: What drives you to keep going in your work?

Kim Bolduc: It is very difficult. Anyone who is here living and working in these conditions will tell you that it is exhausting. I think what keeps us going a lot in terms of humanitarian assistance is that whatever you do that is right is visible almost instantly before your eyes. You are able to help people, and you see them being supported and getting better. I think this is the greatest motivation one can have.

It is also an opportunity for developers or humanitarian workers to participate in a gigantic effort and be able to receive gratifying news – that we got more food out to people or that we were able to help the most vulnerable groups. We are seeing now that schools are getting back and getting organized, that children are better fed. We now have this sort dialogue with the population where we can understand them and where we can do even a little bit for each of them.

I think what has kept me going has always been the belief that if I struggled hard enough I would be able to help at least one person and that is not a chance that is given to everyone in all kinds of job. That is the beauty of being at the UN, I guess.



Read related news story:

NEWSMAKER: UN official counters negative media coverage of Haiti recovery effort