UN’s Muñoz Misses the Point

January 17, 2013

In the face of headlines such as “3 years after Haiti’s quake, lives still in upheaval” and “Haiti: the graveyard of hope,” Heraldo Muñoz,  U.N. assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Latin America & the Caribbean at UNDP, had a defensive piece in Foreign Policy Tuesday titled “Haiti’s Recovery is Real.” It may be true that some media coverage and commentary has been unfairly focused on the negative to the exclusion of any mention of progress.  But, while overwhelmingly negative coverage of Haiti fits into tired stereotypes, there is a real danger in exaggerating what has been accomplished when so many emergencies remain.

The UNDP deserves credit for accomplishments that have indeed made a difference, which Muñoz lists throughout his piece. But passages such as this one are troubling:

The UNDP has also helped train more than 7,000 people in home reconstruction, strengthened Haiti’s national disaster risk-management system, and launched environmental protection programs. The results have been significant and tangible — a direct outcome of the international support that followed the earthquake and that remains a critical lifeline. The government of Haiti is now building on these achievements and developing a longer-term development roadmap toward a truly inclusive, resilient society.

It is hard not to read this as propaganda,  considering the wasted resources (financial and human), wasted time, and perhaps most importantly, wasted opportunities that have been the focus of much other analysis and commentary on the state of affairs after three years. Truly inclusive society? Tell that to the tens of thousands [PDF] of camp residents who have been forcibly evicted, the many others who lack clean water [PDF] or toilets, or the garment factory workers who are paid below minimum wage.

Muñoz misses the point with the overall premise of his article. He writes:

With support from national and international partners, Haitians are rebuilding a better, more resilient country — a fact that has been repeatedly overlooked in the international press. Among Haitians, however, the sense of progress is unmistakable.

If Haitians are really at the center of the relief effort, as they should be, and UNDP sees this as a good thing, then one might wonder why Haitians – unaccompanied by foreigners – would be automatically barred from relief coordination cluster meetings (in which UNDP participates), or why such meetings would be conducted in English – or French – and not kreyol.

Muñoz notes that:

Gallup also found that an unprecedented 46 percent of Haitians expressed confidence in national government institutions. (In 2008, just 24 percent reported confidence in the government and by 2010 that number had fallen to 16 percent.)

One might then ponder why the international community continues to express so little confidence in the Haitian government, giving it less budget support in 2011 than it did the year before the earthquake, and just one dollar out of every $100 [PDF] spent in humanitarian relief.

Muñoz puts a happy face on things when he writes that “more than 1.1 million people who were displaced by the quake have been moved out of camps and into long-term housing, also with UNDP support.”

But he neglects to mention that some 66,566 of these people had been forcibly evicted [PDF] by the end of last April. Many others were encouraged to leave camps with payouts through the Martelly administration’s “16/6” plan, but the Under Tents campaign noted that “In the absence of work opportunities, families’ ability to pay rent one year from now is dubious. Advocates have also raised concerns that residents of the original six camps were not told about the plan or given input into how it would affect them.” Under Tents also expressed concern that “human rights advocates worry this ‘relocation’ has not ensured basic human rights such as access to water and sanitation services.”

Muñoz highlights that “Neighbourhoods, roads, and houses have been rehabilitated, creating thousands of jobs in the process.”

But according to the Shelter Cluster, only 18,725 houses have actually been repaired, and just 5,911 new houses have been built, while 1 million people were living in houses marked as either red (in need of demolition) or yellow (in need of repairs to make safe enough to live in) as of June 2011.

Muñoz writes that “Haiti’s remarkable recovery, moreover, has been largely driven by Haitians themselves. Within neighbourhoods, community members have set priorities for rebuilding homes and infrastructure, ensuring that the unique risks faced by city-dwellers are satisfactorily addressed.”

Despite their exclusion from decision making by international groups and NGO’s, many Haitians have of course worked together and accomplished much, beginning right after the earthquake when people removed rubble – by hand in many cases – to rescue trapped survivors. Many quake survivors quickly organized and got to work immediately after the quake had occurred, as independent journalist Ansel Herz reported at the time. They received little help from the U.S. military, which assumed the central role in the relief effort and which prioritized “security concerns” instead of the humanitarian emergency, while media outlets such as CNN described “a frenzy of looting” which in fact never took place.

The Haitian people – often normal, everyday people who are not paid by anyone to do the work they do – are responsible for much of the progress of the relief effort. This is why so many both within and outside of Haiti have clamored for three years for the international community to do more to provide these people with the resources and the support that they need. The numbers three years later – punctuated by egregious examples of waste – demonstrate how the international community has failed to do that, compounding the tragedy of how little has been achieved.

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