Has the Dust Even Settled? Haiti’s Earthquake: Three Years Later
January 12, 2013 Mark Snyder
Three years after the devastating earthquake and the series of aftershocks that followed, visitors to Port au Prince, Haiti could feel that the situation is improving as they travel the main roads and pass the now cleared public square where victims of the earthquake were displaced to when their city crumbled around them.
If these visitors were to read the numerous reports and program updates of the United Nations and international organizations that were flooded with donated funds for the humanitarian response, for the most part, they would find them teeming with self-congratulatory antidotes blaring the success of programs. If the visitors dug a bit, they may even find the counter-reports to the critics who say these institutations have largely wasted their funding; a sentiment very often expressed in the displacement camps and on ‘Radyo djol”(word of mouth) in the street markets and tap taps.
To answer their questions of how families were ‘raised’ out of the camps that are no longer in view, they wouldn’t have to look far to read about the 16/6 program, which proclaimed it would repair 16 neighborhoods and relocate 6 of the most visible camps to these “revilatized” neighborhoods. These camps are now gone, as well as other camps whose relocation programs were funded by organizations that determined imitating this model would be the best means to close the camps.
To walk in Champ de Mars, the extensive park around the empty lot that held the National Palace, the visitor would no longer need to navigate the maze of emergency shelters made of tarp, wood, and scrap plastics and fabric, thanks to a Canadian Government now claiming it has halted all future humanitarian aid projects with Haiti.
The visitors could view the declaration of Haiti being “Open for Business” by the current Haitian administration as positive progress; further integrating Haiti into the international market. To witness real evidence of this, they could visit the Caracol Industrial Park in the north, a tax free haven for assembly plants. Traveling on a newly paved road that leads directly to the park, and ends abruptly after, the new pavement failing to reach the small town of Caracol, the visitors would be led to the largely empty park with only one tenant that sits on fertile land once utilized by peasant families but which is now cleared and ready for the foreign investment.
Progress could appear to have taken place.
But has the dust of the earthquake even begun to settle?
Vanishing Camps With Threats, Then Bribes
Vanishing camps with only twenty-five percent benefiting from relocation programs; a near empty industrial park with national economic growth barely twenty-five percent what it was projected to be. On both accounts the poor majority had to be paid off to implement these elaborate plans, and on neither were the removed populations, the most vulnerable stake holders in the operations, along with the workers who will be paid less than a living wage, given a real opportunity to participate in the decision making process. They were simply presented the projects designed by others and told their decision was to accept the meager offer tossed under the table, or recieve what amounted to a forceful eviction.
To hear these stories, the visitor would have to dig deep for the reports and statements from the vibrant Haitian civil society and the displaced earthquake survivors that have been all but screaming to be heard since the first weeks following the January 12, 2010 earthquake, largely to no avail.
Democracy Vanishing Faster then the Camps
Rarely a conversation passes with these Haitian groups that does not reference this loss of sovereignty. The participating international community could have listened and sounded the sirens of concern immediately in January 2010 when Haitians were all but barred from the coordination meetings held on the United Nations Logistics base in Port au Prince. Those deterred from entering included some of the most involved figures within civil society, those who had access to the opinions of large numbers of the potential beneficiaries of the humanitarian aid. One could question what an inclusive disaster response would have looked like had civil society been not only allowed, but sought after and encouraged to participate.
Can we imagine a response that would have been directed to ignore the minimal standards of humanitarian aid in disaster response (SPHERE), as the actual response was by the highest ranking officials of United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)?
Would the population of peasant farmers working the land that effectively became a vacant tax-free haven, chosen to exchange their family’s livelihood for what amounted to two months earnings, as the best course of action?
Would the displaced living in the camps included in the 16/6 program and the replication of this model that followed have chosen to use the millions in available funds to pay a low rental subsidy that would ensure the slums swell in population? Would they have chosen to leave the camps before any of the sixteen neighborhoods had been rehabilitated? If the displaced were present when the 16/6 program was largely referred to as a failure during internal meetings of the very organization (International Organization for Migration, IOM) that was funded to implement the plan, would they have chosen to then replicate the program again and again with other organizations such as the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services?
Would the IDPs have chosen to have the Red Cross deliver non-potable water to the camps? Of the vast resources available, would they have voted to provide one toilet for three hundred people or for the definition of “shelter” to include a single tarp per family?
Would have the displacement environment that set the stage for acceptance of nearly any offer been set by the forced and often violent eviction of tens of thousands of displaced families while the large organizations and UN entities encouraged through their silence the government of Haiti and private to land owners to continue evicting?
The displaced and civil society identified evictions as a major problem that needed immediate attention soon after they first began, yet it fell on the def ear of coordination officials who already had their priorities of camp closure laid out. One can imagine the difference in the situation with forceful evictions of the displaced families had civil society and the displaced themselves been listened to and collaborated with to prevent these human rights violations.
The questions and examples of reality existing outside of the UN’s, institutions, and international organizations’ reports could continue for pages and pages, as they have continued for three years now; or five hundred and twenty years, depending on how one chooses to view reality. The true issue is that these questions even exist; that the majority of the population directly affected by the various projects and programs were very rarely ever given any opportunity to give input.
As one should expect, with the increased loss of Haiti’s sovereignty has come significant declines in democracy. The highly fraudulent elections which saw one of the lowest voter turnout in hemispheric history and a business oriented administration brought to office by foreign intrusion and threats are a most telling indication of this. The international stage that hosted the play did not even appear to care if Haitians were present in the crowd as spectators.
A visitor of Haiti may better understand the removal of sovereignty if they catch one of those opportunities that many Haitians, children included, have where they stare down the barrel of an automatic assault rifle hanging from MINUSTAH patrol passing on the street (the occupying United Nations Stabilization Mission to Haiti). They may hear a loud call from the crowd, “Minista, kolera!”, referencing the UN imported cholera epidemic that remains one of the most serious impediments to stabilization of the country. In hearing this the visitor could begin to ponder what a foreign occupying military force means to the Haitian people, and what their feelings are of the disaster response that is very much perceived to be tied to it, as, of course, it is.
Those that suffer the most from this lack of sovereignty are almost certain to be found displaced into slums, camps, and the mountainous country side, be it by the most recent disasters, or by the engineered economic disaster that has been ongoing for decades. To speak with them today, individually or in groups, their anger and frustration towards those forcing their decisions on them are not hidden. Discouraged again and again from participation, feeling their lives remaining highly out of their control, and struggling daily in precarious living conditions well outside of any humanitarian standards, many people are tired. Many express they don’t know how much longer they can continue living under these conditions, often this is stated through a face noticeably thinner than what it was only a year before.
Inclusion Not Yet in View
After three years, if the dust has begun to settle, we should look around to see what the reality is. The response still has an emergency on its hands. Of the reported 2.1 million displaced from the earthquake (of which 1.5 were displaced into camps), over 300 thousand remain in camps. Despite all the relocation programs, they are responsible for just 25 percent of the reduction in camp population. The Haitian housing rights movement have labeled these programs a “cosmetic fix.” Why did the other 75% leave and where did they go? An estimate one million people are believed to be living in houses deemed unsafe for human habitation or in need of repair. This in itself is an humanitarian emergency.
Plans to combat the UN imported Cholera epidemic are largely unfunded, despite the fact that the disease has infected over 600,000 and killed nearly 8,000. The UN refusal to accept responsibility is causing a level of distrust that is certain impede the success of any program that is associated with the UN or MINUSTAH. They need to be honest with the public if they desire to engage with the public in the meaningful manner required to eradicated the disease from the country and island.
The “Open for Business” slogan of the installed government is constantly being referred to as “Haiti for Sale” by many in civil society, and the Collier Plan of neoliberalism for Haiti (which is neither new or liberal) is being called the “death plan”. These plans largely exclude the population, both economically and politically.
Is it too late for the international community to respond in a more just manner? Can organizations and institutions that remain in Haiti begin to interact with those who have an actual right to make decisions in what is their homeland? That is to be seen. The historical record would suggest they will continue with business as usual; satisfying donors and statistical criteria over the expressed needs of the population.
The historical record would also suggest that Haitians will only stand for such intrusion on their rights to sovereignty for so long.
Mark Snyder is an independent human rights activist who has collaborated with Haitian civil society movements before and after the January 12, 2010 earthquake. As an active partner in a anti-forced eviction initiative developed with Haitian civil society groups and organizations, IDP groups, and international NGO partners, Mark has spent the majority of his time after Haiti’s earthquake working alongside the IDPs of Port au Prince, Haiti. Mark has written numerous articles and reports on post-earthquake conditions with a focus on illegal forced evictions and was a contributing author to ‘Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since The Earthquake’ (Kumarian Press, January 2012).