Three Years Later: Three Answers to Haiti's Predicament

January 12, 2013

Freelance journalist Ansel Herz survived the earthquake and reported from Haiti for two years. His work has been published by ABC News, the New York Daily News and Al Jazeera English, among other media outlets. Ansel is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism. Below, in a guest post for Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch, Herz answers three key questions about Haiti three years after the earthquake.

1.  How would you describe the situation in Haiti today?

“Peyi a vin kraze.” As Haiti enters a new year, I’ve heard this phrase several times from different Haitians over the past week. It’s usually said with a resigned, slight shake of the head.

In English, this means “The country has completely crashed.”

Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard repatriated 168 people fleeing Haiti by boat. At least 360,000 people displaced by the earthquake live in appalling conditions in tent camps throughout the capital city, three years after the earthquake. The cholera epidemic killed 27 more people in the first week of January, bringing the total number of casualties to nearly 8,000.

So the situation is dire. And while I don’t want to add to Haiti’s bad press, this really should not be understated. It’s hard to take the government’s ubiquitous new slogan, “Haiti is Open for Business,” seriously.

At the same time, it’s important to point out that in the minds of outsiders, Haiti often comes packaged with a set of spurious assumptions.

Haiti is simultaneously romanticized and demeaned as so unique, poor and chaotic that it becomes a category unto itself. It’s the land of zombies and vodou (usually this word is spelled pejoratively as voodoo). Haitians are amazingly “resilient” – code for inhuman, able to go on suffering indignities that others could not.

In fact, Haiti is more like the United States than one might think. The country is afflicted with vast wealth inequality and an influential power elite. Many young people can’t find jobs. The healthcare system is a mess. Farmers are struggling to maintain their livelihoods amidst environmental destruction.

Of course, Haiti suffers from all of this to a more extreme degree, along with other crises.

More on this below.

2.   What’s been the biggest success in terms of the aid response? The biggest failure?

As I search my memory, I’m looking out on a restaurant parking lot full of SUVs belonging to wealthy Haitians and aid workers.

The only meaningful success that comes to mind is the construction and opening of a government-run sewage treatment plant outside Port-au-Prince. There is an urgent need for improved sanitation in Haiti.

Aid groups have long since left most of the tent camps, leaving clogged and overflowing latrines in their wake. Before, the toilets were desludged by trucks that would empty the contents on a massive, unregulated dump site not far from where people live.

The foul stink in the camps and the bubbling shit ponds are a vivid example of an aid response that has proved to be fleeting, haphazard, negligent and disrespectful to Haiti and her people.

I never thought that the understated, utilitarian look of a sewage treatment plant could be attractive. But in the dust of a barren area called Titanyen, gleaming in the sun, it looks rather beautiful. Not far away are mass graves of the quake dead.

For months after the temblor, one of the country’s wealthiest families claimed to own the land and held up construction of the plant. Finally, the government seized the land. With direct financing from the Spanish government and other donors, the structures went up.

“This was a pioneering step,” one Haitian official told me. “It’s the first time the country has ever had a plant like this. In terms of sanitation, this is revolutionary for Haiti.”

The Titanyen sewage treatment plant represents a planned, durable, and modern solution to a serious humanitarian issue. It’s a triumph of Haitian political will. It’s everything that the aid response should have been.

Some might point out that rubble from the quake throughout Port-au-Prince has been cleared. This was done inefficiently and at high cost by a for-profit company contracted by USAID, however.

A bunch of the SUVs are leaving now, probably to make their way up the hill to Petionville, the well-off part of the capital city where most aid workers live. Traffic will be bad.

The fact that despite $10 billion was pledged to Haiti’s reconstruction effort and I can think of no other big successes, says enough about the endless litany of failures, don’t you think?

But one failure that stands out is the CIRH, a reconstruction commission co-chaired by Bill Clinton and the Haitian Prime Minister. Representatives from all the big donor countries (and a few tokenized Haitians) sat around a table trying to decide where to spend money. The body was stunningly slow and ineffective, until the Haitian legislature unceremoniously declined to renew its mandate, having protested its creation in the first place.

This is to say nothing of the cholera, which was brought to Haiti by the United Nations, according to scientific studies.

3.   What should the humanitarian community do differently? What have we learned?

I mentioned that Haiti is more like other countries, including our own, than commonly thought. Across the board, we face a similar set of issues.

But in the U.S., the idea is to solve these problems through political discussion and negotiation among ourselves. Elected officials listen to the citizenry, take action and implement programs. At least, that’s what we expect.

Now imagine something else. Imagine that in our midst, we have a foreign humanitarian community trying to help us solve our problems. Imagine that their combined budget dwarfs that of our government at every level.

Imagine that members of this community – Canadians, Venezuelans, Jordanians, the French, or Nigerians from hundreds of separate organizations – drive the best cars and occupy the largest houses. They eat at the most expensive restaurants because they are afraid to eat what the rest of us buy in the market. Most of them don’t speak English. They mainly hire American staff from the tiny, most educated and privileged sector of society.

And imagine that all of these groups claim they are supporting, rather than exercising any undue influence, over our government.

On top of all that, imagine that a foreign “peacekeeping” army larger than our own police force patrols the streets. Imagine that President Obama had asked the army to trade its tanks for bulldozers and its guns for shovels, but that his call had been completely ignored.

This is Haiti today, shed of its sovereignty. This has been the situation ever since it earned the nickname “The Republic of NGOs,” amidst a set of neoliberal economic reforms foisted upon it in the late 1980s.

What should the humanitarian community do differently? Two things:

In the short-term, be more inclusive of Haitians at every level. This point was urgently made by Refugees International shortly after the earthquake, when, to take one of many examples, a Haitian mayor could not access the military base where aid workers held meetings, often in English.

Over the medium- and long-term, the humanitarian community should transition all of its resources into Haitian hands. Frankly, it smacks of racism to pretend that the Haitian government is more prone to corruption than outside aid groups. In many ways, we’ve simply legalized it.

As U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton asked a conference of development workers after the quake, “Are we serious about working ourselves out of a job?”

If the humanitarians can’t do that, then they are not actually humanitarians. And they should leave.

There’s another option: Haitians have kicked out exploitative foreigners before. They can surely do it again.

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