Learning From Shattered Haiti’s Year of Struggle

Michelle Chen Jan 4, 2011

A year ago this month, Haiti was flattened by a seismic catastrophe. It was hardly the only tragedy that the tiny nation has faced in its 220-year history as the first republic born of a slave revolt. Arguably, Haiti has always been an epicenter of struggle and resistance. But the earthquake—and the morass of bureaucratic corruption that continues to frustrate recovery efforts—has drawn the world’s attention, and the hopes of activists around the globe, more powerfully than it has in generations.

Haiti’s plight has drifted in and out of the media spotlight, but the society persists, as it always has, through natural disasters, political conflict, disease and destitution. Haitians’ constant struggle to survive underscores the systemic failures of government and international bodies alike. Yet, resilient grassroots activism in Haitian communities has carved out new space for re-imagining development models, global solidarity, and the definition of “humanitarian aid.”

Post-Colonial Purse Strings

With the recovery barely off the ground, Haiti is still grappling with basic material needs. Though donors have pledged about $10 billion, the actual deployment of program funding has been agonizingly slow and haphazard. Talk of permanent, sustainable rebuilding of infrastructure and housing is suspended in political limbo, with hundreds of thousands still warehoused in tents. Not even the majority of the earthquake rubble has been cleared, according to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the Clinton-led international donor coalition.

In an analysis of Haiti’s post-disaster progress, the Brookings Institution cautioned:

[P]articular difficulties in four areas are impeding Haiti’s recovery: governance, displacement, housing and violence. Problems in these four areas didn’t suddenly emerge after the earthquake—rather they are rooted in Haiti’s history. … The four challenges are all inter-related—when people are displaced, it makes it harder for them to vote; poor housing contributes to violence, etc.

Yet the patterns of poverty and displacement extend far past Haiti’s shores, tracing back to a legacy of imperialism. Institutions like the International Monetary Fund have long used the pretext of economic “rescue” to shackle Haiti to predatory “development” policies.

Economist Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic Policy and Research recently remarked in The Guardian, “Is it because Haitians are poor and black that their most fundamental human and democratic rights can be trampled upon?”

Haiti’s most recent wave of crisis suggests a troubling answer. When still reeling from the quake, Haitians were then battered by a virulent cholera outbreak and further insulted with a discredited election.

The spread of cholera is the culmination of overlapping health disasters. With estimates of as many as 400,000 cholera cases this year, the outbreak exposed structural flaws in humanitarian health care and understandable public distrust of the aid regime. Following reports connecting the disease to contamination caused by U.N. troops, local anger exploded. Sadly, mounting resentment against foreign intervention in Haiti has reportedly spilled over into backlash against voodoo practitioners, reflecting the flailing desperation of a disenfranchised populace.

The haywire international medical response, meanwhile, hasn’t even come close to confronting the underlying causes of the outbreak, including chronically deficient, underfunded water systems.

After the fraud-stained election that advanced the establishment candidate Jude Célestin, protests and post-election violence cast further doubt upon local capacity for managing the recovery. But perhaps more threatening was the talk in Washington of holding humanitarian assistance hostage to penalize Haiti’s government. Whatever the international response, the fallout from the election will again fall on the most vulnerable.

Yet some say Haiti’s social service system has actually improved since the earthquake; there are at least new doctors and sorely needed supplies on the ground. On the other hand, once aid workers pull out, no one knows what shape Haiti will be left in.

The Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter outlined the moral ambiguities of foreign-sponsored aid:

[H]ealth-care spending has almost doubled from 2008, with donors pouring $460 million into health services. … The problem is leadership. Traditionally, Haiti’s health ministry has been a junior partner of the big international donors. The result is a patchwork, incoherent health-care system. Foreign-funded programs for patients with HIV and AIDS flourished, while public hospitals slumped with neglect.

Whose Recovery Is it?

Small, community-based humanitarian groups have been marginalized by both government and international institutions. In a May 2010 interview published by the UK-based Progressio, Colette Lespinasse of the NGO Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatriés & Réfugiés expressed disillusionment at being shut out of the process of drafting the officially-endorsed recovery plans:

If the reconstruction process is carried out in the same exclusionary manner, and without consensus and respect, we will not be eliminating poverty in Haiti. On the contrary, we will be building more fragmentation and divisions in a process that requires building consensus.

The same complaints recur in the private sector as embattled Haitian businesses struggle to seize precious rebuilding contracts. The AP reports, “Out of every US$100 of US contracts now paid out to rebuild Haiti, Haitian firms have successfully won US$1.60.” That’s less than 2 percent of contracted rebuilding funds going to local entrepreneurs.

The Haitian diaspora, long an integral part of Haiti’s economy, also remains on the sidelines of the political dialogue on recovery. The Obama administration hasn’t even spared the burgeoning Haitian immigrant community from its most draconian immigration policies. Rights groups recently urged the White House to postpone plans to deport Haitians who have completed criminal sentences. Such a move would not only threaten to split up families here, but also turn America’s “unwanted” migrants into internal refugees in their ravaged homeland.

Subtle paternalism comes through in the language used to describe the disaster’s aftermath. Porter, for instance, calls the destruction of Port-au-Prince’s primary hospital a “mercy killing” that could facilitate rebuilding the system from scratch.

Similar sentiment surfaced after Hurricane Katrina. In an email exchange with me, human-rights activist Beverly Bell, who works on Haiti initiatives with Other Worlds, described the parallels between New Orleans and Haiti:

The disasters brought racism—and in Haiti, neo-colonialism—into full display. … Both media and governmental portrayals cast Black people as savages who needed to be policed, and falsely reported looting and violence in what were actually largely calm situations. In Louisiana, the governor issued a shoot-to-kill order, and only recently have the untold numbers of police murders—largely of African-American men—begun to be brought to justice. In Haiti, one of the first international responses was to send in military forces [including tens of thousands of U.S. and U.N. soldiers]. …  In both places, much of the money for repair and reconstruction has gone to outside ‘experts,’ in part because the local communities are perceived to be too corrupt to manage it.

While the international community loses its trust in Haiti, Haitians are losing faith even more rapidly. On the cusp of the New Year, in the midst of a brutal police crackdown on protesters, 28-year old Aliodor Pierre told AP reporter Jonathan Katz, “God is the only one we have hope in.”

Pushing History Forward

Foreign NGOs, Haitian officials and civil society groups could all find reasons to blame each other for the ongoing crisis. Like it or not, though, sustainable recovery demands cooperation. What’s that look like? A global-scale fundraising effort, accountability from both Haitian government and donor countries, and the engagement of marginalized communities on their own terms.

NGOs must also make humanitarian assistance more nimble and less bureaucratic. The key is “decentralizing” aid systems so communities have the autonomy and resources to respond flexibly to local needs. The cholera response highlighted the point. Noting that thousands of preventable deaths occurred, Unni Karunakara of International Council of Médecins Sans Frontières criticized the “cluster” system that ropes together different organizations under U.N. authority. “Co-ordination of aid organisations may sound good to government donors seeking political influence,” he writes. “In Haiti, though, the system is legitimising NGOs that claim responsibility for health, sanitation or other areas in a specific zone, but then do not have the capacity or know-how to carry out the necessary work. As a result, people’s needs go unmet.”

All Hands Volunteers, a U.S.-based group that I worked with briefly last summer, has begun etching a blueprint for a more sustainable Haiti in Leogane, a small city near Port-au-Prince. Though their project in Haiti was designed to be temporary, in recent months they’ve laid some serious groundwork. The group has set up innovative bio-sand water filtration systems (“eventually a sustainable small business,” says International Operations Director Marc Young), installed simple composting toilets to deal with rampant sanitation problems, and constructed several transitional schoolhouses.

Their biggest achievement to date may be the clearing of mountains of debris—an often neglected stumbling block to recovery—in order to help families begin rebuilding their homes. More importantly, unlike the many organizations that parachute into disaster zones, All Hands makes a point of training local youth in order to create a skilled, sustainable, local humanitarian workforce.

Other Worlds likewise helps Haitian activists take the lead in campaigns on issues ranging from sustainable agriculture to sexual violence. They offer technical assistance, political support and international solidarity with other people’s movements. Yet their conscientious partnership, says Beverly Bell, is founded on a “recognition that, as outsiders, there is much that we don’t know.”

In fact, no one knows where Haiti is headed, but the nation has survived other shock waves. The quake opened the next chapter in a tempestuous national history, which began over two centuries ago when the black resistance made European empires tremble. Tomorrow, when the descendants of those first revolutionaries stream into a makeshift schoolhouse, they’ll pen another page in a long story of emancipation, always to be continued.

This article was originally posted on ColorLines.

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