Elections in the Time of Cholera, Part I
Leading up to the elections on Sunday we will be posting updates and commentary from CEPR's Alex Main, who is in Haiti this week. The following is the first installment:
It is a sunny Monday afternoon in Port-au-Prince and we are bouncing through a maze of small streets in a bruised Daihatsu SUV. Since rubble continues to clog many of the main arteries of the city, we are taking bumpy, unpaved backroads through dusty neighborhoods rendered temporarily colorful by the multitude of campaign posters and signs that plaster nearly every available wall. Everywhere we turn we see the faces and broad smiles of legislative and presidential candidates like popular compa musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martely, the pearly white businessman – and 2004 coup supporter – Charles Baker and, most of all, public works minister Jude Celestin, the INITE party candidate endorsed by outgoing president Preval, among others. Nearly as ubiquitous are tent camps clinging to hills or lining the roadway, bursting with thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) made homeless by the January 12 earthquake, or tranbleman deté in Haitian Creole. Along with frequent piles of rubble mixed with layers of trash, these camps are a constant reminder of the quake’s tragic aftermath and the glaring failure of both Haiti’s authorities and well-endowed relief organizations to respond effectively to the human and material devastation.
We are here – a small group of us from the Washington NGO and think tank community – to get a better picture of the situation in Haiti and, in particular, of the electoral process that will unfold on November 26th. As Haitians struggle to cope with the quake’s aftermath as well as the recent onset of a major cholera epidemic that has already killed at least 1400, they are also being called on to participate in legislative and presidential elections that many observers consider to be unfair and uninclusive. Our goal is to meet with representatives of a wide array of sectors – from the burgeoning grassroots movements in IDP camps to international organizations tasked with administering the multibillion dollar relief and reconstruction efforts – and try to assess the potential impact of these elections and why, over ten months after the earthquake, the human emergency in Haiti seems to be worsening.
Our first meeting is at the epicenter of the international relief mission: the United Nations Logistics (or Log) base just outside of Port-au-Prince which lodges both the MINUSTAH “peacekeeper” headquarters and various international relief agencies. One of these agencies is the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is tasked with assessing the needs of IDPs, providing non-food emergency assistance to the camps in coordination with the Haitian government and shifting IDPs, when possible, to more sustainable, long-term shelter.
Our interlocutor is the public information officer for IOM’s Haiti mission, Leonard Doyle. As an official spokesperson of an organization handling an increasingly sensitive and awkward problem – that of 1.3 to 1.5 million IDPs who continue to live in shocking, squalid conditions – Doyle manages his words like an experienced diplomat and is careful to avoid saying anything that could offend any of the key international and national actors he is dealing with. Interpreting his statements requires some amount of reading between the lines, although, as the conversation progresses, he appears to become more frank about where he thinks much of the responsibility for the current mess lies.
IOM’s number one concern, he says, is cholera and he is personally coordinating a major information campaign in the IDP camps with, for instance, the distribution of 200,000 broadsheet pamphlets with cartoon illustrations that provide advice, in Creole, on preventing the propagation of the disease and how to react in the event of infection. These measures, along with the increased distribution of soap and basic cholera treatments, are positive, but we can’t help but wonder why so many Haitians are still living in temporary camps where conditions are rife for the rapid spread of infectious diseases. In short, what has IOM done and what is it doing to accelerate the relocation of all of the IDPs in – at the very least – more sustainable and better equipped transitional housing?
One fundamental problem – that Doyle seems hesitant to evoke at first – is that of land tenure and the refusal of both Haitian authorities and powerful landowners to allow for even temporary access to adequately situated land upon which a large number of transitional or long-term shelters can be built. It is a problem, though “that can only be solved by Haitians”, says Doyle. “Until the Haitians sit down between the landowners, the landless, the government… and make a decision about what they’re going to do, then they’re going to be where they are…”
Is IOM helping this conversation move forward? Doyle makes it clear that that’s not his organization’s mandate. What they do is: 1) help “keep people safe, help them get into better shelter; and 2) help foster a “communications platform” – e.g., through radio and other media – to “help get these people a dignified platform to reveal themselves to be more than a mob of opportunists”, as this is the image of IDPs that apparently exists within certain sectors in Haiti.
Puzzlingly, Doyle’s next comment doesn’t do much to dispel this negative image. “It’s hard to move 80,000 people who have come from probably much grimmer environments to be there” he says, speaking of the big official IDP camp Corail, and the many informal camps that surround it. “It’s tough, it’s hot, it’s windy, it’s flyblown [but] it’s still better for many of them.”
The discussion turns to the historical factors contributing to the current morass in which the relief efforts are wallowing, not least of which are the years of neoliberal policies which progressively carved away the public sector. To the extent that international financial institutions (IFIs) and foreign governments imposed these destructive policies upon the weak and indebted Haitian government, should the international community, in particular the U.S., not assume a significant part of the blame for the evident inability of the national authorities to provide effective assistance to earthquake victims? Doyle appeared to take exception at this analysis: “Why don’t we talk about Haitian society? It’s not just about the international community.”
“A big part of the problem is the lack of engagement with those who effectively are powerful in so many ways… I don’t think you guys look nearly enough at the people who really run the country. I don’t think you go to Florida nearly enough. I think you’d get a lot more improvement if that conversation were held.”
A final question for Doyle: what does he think the situation will be one year from now? Surely there is some hope that the IDP population will have diminished? “There’ll probably be another natural disaster”, he says with a shrug and a bitter smile.
In the evening, we drive into an upper middle-class neighborhood where we’ve been invited to have dinner with a few young lawyers from the U.S. They have been here for a few months, assisting the Haitian human rights group Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in its work to prevent forced evictions of camp dwellers who have nowhere else to go. The smooth, paved streets of their neighborhood are quieter than other parts of the city, and lush palm and mango trees tower above tall walls that surround manor-like residences, similar to those found throughout the tropics, from Caracas to San José to Kingston.
Aside from wealthy Haitians, the neighborhood is home to some of the large relief organizations that have ramped up their operations since the earthquake. A number of displaced families whose homes crumbled during the quake have also set up camp here, in tiny tent towns jammed into the few available spaces that they could find. Some of the large relief organizations have also established their headquarters in the zone, leading to some ironic juxtapositions such as one that we encountered walking towards the home we were visiting.
Literally a few paces from the grand entrance of the majestic building that houses the Haiti HQ of American Red Cross – which had raised over $464 million in private donations six months after the earthquake, and millions more in government funding– is a small tent community in which a cluster of families struggle to keep clean and dignified underneath battered tents and with no access to basic services. We are told that involuntary pairings of this sort can be found elsewhere and that in some places, IDPs have occupied terrain belonging to the relief organizations. We have also been told that more often than not, the organizations have done nothing to assist their ill-fated neighbors. Even more disturbing allegations have been mentioned, but we will wait for further verification before printing them here.
Next: The Cluster System, Part II