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Haiti: where’s the outrage?

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Two Years Later, Where Is The Outrage?* 

By Melinda Miles, Let Haiti Live Founder and Direc­tor, Lethaitilive.org*

There is not enough anger for my anger,

there is not enough grief for my grief.

haiti_blog1As the two-year anniver­sary of the earth­quake approaches, I am find­ing myself with a case of insom­nia. Here I am, enjoy­ing the per­fect Hait­ian win­ter, lying awake with my head filled with thoughts I can’t escape. Sure, it’s nat­ural to reflect on what has hap­pened as another year ends, yet what I can’t seem to get away from is all the things that haven’t happened.

The hun­dreds of thou­sands who haven’t moved out of the camps they set up after the earth­quake, two years ago. The per­ma­nent homes that haven’t been con­structed, hell even the tem­po­rary shel­ters that haven’t been built. The tarps that only last a cou­ple of months yet haven’t been replaced after two years. The jobs that haven’t been cre­ated, the bil­lions that haven’t been spent, the build­ing back bet­ter that appar­ently will never happen.

I am still oved to tears when I watch footage of the camps, and I bite the insides of my cheeks when I walk through those twist­ing paths of mud, those tiny cor­ri­dors that sep­a­rate fam­i­lies sleep­ing in tents two years after the earth­quake. I am heart­bro­ken by the small chil­dren who have spent their entire lives in the sub­hu­man con­di­tions of Haiti’s IDP camps.

This is a reflec­tion, not a news arti­cle or an analy­sis. It is sim­ply my thoughts writ­ten down. When I lie awake at night I feel shame and I feel the weight of not doing more. I work with peo­ple who live in camps, and my part­ners spend their days hold­ing train­ings, mobi­liz­ing, encour­ag­ing those liv­ing in the camps and work­ing in fac­to­ries. We do what we can, but it is not enough.

haiti_blog2I can’t help but dwell on a deci­sion that was made in the first days after the earth­quake, a ter­ri­ble, crim­i­nal, per­haps even evil deci­sion. Because the cat­a­stro­phe had struck an urban area, human rights “experts” who had flown in to over­see the emer­gency response declared that it would not be pos­si­ble to apply Sphere Stan­dards in Haiti. Sphere Stan­dards are the min­i­mum human­i­tar­ian response that peo­ple can expect after a disaster: “The Hand­book puts the right of disaster-affected pop­u­la­tions to life with dig­nity, and to pro­tec­tion and assis­tance at the cen­tre of human­i­tar­ian action. It pro­motes the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of affected pop­u­la­tions as well as of local and national author­i­ties, and is used to nego­ti­ate human­i­tar­ian space and resources with author­i­ties in disaster-preparedness work. The min­i­mum stan­dards cover four pri­mary life-saving areas of human­i­tar­ian aid: water sup­ply, san­i­ta­tion and hygiene pro­mo­tion; food secu­rity and nutri­tion; shel­ter, set­tle­ment and non-food items; and health action.” (Read more here www.sphereproject.org/handbook). This was cer­tainly not the first time that Haitians were given a dif­fer­ent stan­dard, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I can’t under­stand why, despite the bil­lions in the pipeline for Haiti’s recov­ery and the exis­tence of a set of human­i­tar­ian stan­dards devel­oped to be uni­ver­sal – cre­ated specif­i­cally to define the response to any dis­as­ter in the world – why these stan­dards were sim­ply tossed aside.

Are Hait­ian lives less valu­able than the lives of peo­ple from other nation­al­i­ties? Of course not, that’s ridicu­lous. To decide that they were less valu­able would be racist, at least. It would even be evil, wouldn’t it?

Yet Haitians were declared to be unwor­thy of apply­ing the uni­ver­sal min­i­mum stan­dards for relief after a dis­as­ter. I’ve heard the argu­ments. I was in the room at sev­eral meet­ings of the United Nations’ Office for the Coor­di­na­tion of Human­i­tar­ian Affairs (OCHA) clus­ters where well-meaning human­i­tar­i­ans explained why they couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, be apply­ing Sphere Stan­dards. It was an urban dis­as­ter, there wasn’t enough space, the NGOs and agen­cies didn’t have the expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary… the list went on. But the under­ly­ing theme should have been clear to any observer: the will, the effort required to give Haitians min­i­mum stan­dards of relief after the quake, sim­ply didn’t exist.

Much has been said about this but in my opin­ion not nearly enough. Why aren’t we angrier, why aren’t we out­raged? I won­der why the Hait­ian Amer­i­can com­mu­nity isn’t more pissed off that Haitians were given a dif­fer­ent stan­dard than the inter­na­tional min­i­mum. I won­der why all of the NGOs that have a mis­sion to serve the most vul­ner­a­ble haven’t got­ten together and over­thrown the sys­tem that decided the most vul­ner­a­ble Haitians weren’t deserv­ing of what the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple from other coun­tries would get in a sim­i­lar situation.

haiti_blog3Adher­ing to Sphere Stan­dards in Haiti would have required inno­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity, but the result would have been the thing every­one claimed to be doing: build­ing back bet­ter. Port-au-Prince didn’t make sense before the quake. Even if it wasn’t built on a pow­er­fully dan­ger­ous fault line, Port-au-Prince was ini­tially built for about 15% of the pop­u­la­tion it had before the earth­quake. There wasn’t ade­quate san­i­ta­tion, drainage, infrastructure.

The over­pop­u­la­tion was a result of a ruinous trend of cen­tral­iza­tion that had been put into motion dur­ing an early 20th Cen­tury occu­pa­tion of Haiti by the U.S. mil­i­tary. This cen­tral­iza­tion of gov­ern­ment, edu­ca­tion, mar­ket and invest­ment over decades had left the rural major­ity with barely the means to sur­vive. Despite some pock­ets of fer­tile land and abun­dance, most of rural Haiti became over­worked and the land exhausted. Trees cut down for fuel and income, chil­dren mal­nour­ished, pub­lic ser­vices nearly non-existent.

The experts, both Hait­ian and for­eign, had no dif­fi­culty in iden­ti­fy­ing these prob­lems after the earth­quake. The cen­tral­iza­tion, the strug­gle for sur­vival for the major­ity of Haitians who were mar­gin­al­ized out­side the cap­i­tal – these themes were repeated through­out the post-disaster needs assess­ment and rebuild­ing plans.

Yet the human­i­tar­ian com­plex, the same one that declared Haitians would not be get­ting the min­i­mum stan­dards of dis­as­ter relief, also decided to ignore the obvi­ous need to move peo­ple out of Port-au-Prince and invest some of the mil­lions and bil­lions they had in chang­ing the warped and unbal­anced ways of the last cen­tury. Indeed, had the NGOs and agen­cies done what was nec­es­sary to meet the Sphere Stan­dards they would have been forced to also do what Haiti has needed for the longest time – decentralization.

Of course Sphere Stan­dards couldn’t be met in the parks and empty lots where peo­ple fled in the hours after the quake. Of course you would have to move them into safer spaces, less likely to flood, large enough for fam­i­lies to have basic min­i­mum space require­ments met. And yes, these relo­ca­tion camps would have cost money – to set up com­mu­nity spaces, recre­ation and edu­ca­tion and mar­ket spaces. But the money was there, hun­dreds of mil­lions of those dol­lars are still there, two years later. And the Haitians who were left home­less by the quake? They are still there, too, in squalid, dan­ger­ous camps in the parks and once-empty lots of Port-au-Prince and its suburbs.

haiti_blog4I watched an inter­view with a for­eign aid worker the other day that made me cringe. He spoke of the need for­eign aid work­ers have to eat at nice restau­rants and have their other “basic” needs met. I won­dered if this was the rea­son the human­i­tar­ian aid com­plex came in and cen­tral­ized the relief efforts. Was it because you can’t find a decent super­mar­ket filled with imported goods out­side the cap­i­tal city? You can’t find a high end Ital­ian restau­rant, or good Chi­nese food if you leave Port-au-Prince, can’t find the nightlife of $80-a-ticket con­certs head­lined by for­eign acts or the lovely swim­ming pools with swim up bars at the fancy hotels. Is this why the aid com­mu­nity based itself in the upscale sub­urbs of Port-au-Prince?

I have used the phrase crim­i­nal neg­li­gence more than once when describ­ing the con­di­tions in the IDP camps. While NGO work­ers claimed peo­ple had other places to go and chose to stay in camps for ser­vices while simul­ta­ne­ously remov­ing those ser­vices, while they seemed to hardly skip a beat while tran­si­tion­ing from a con­ver­sa­tion that jus­ti­fied two tarps per fam­ily as ade­quate emer­gency shel­ter to order­ing a $20 US lunch at a sweet lit­tle café, I had to won­der how so many peo­ple could so blindly repeat the errors that his­tory and an earth­quake had laid bare for us all to learn from. And I won­der, too, why there isn’t more anger to see these mis­takes repeated. Where is the outrage?


* This blog was first published in Let Hait Live