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Haiti Relief Is Not Charity: A Rights-Based Approach to Aid

Posted: 07/20/10 03:47 PM ET

Haiti's January 2010 earthquake left more than 230,000 dead, 300,000-plus injured, 1.5 million homeless and physically leveled 28 of 29 government ministries. In response, the international community pledged 5.5 billion dollars in aid to rebuild Haiti. Today, only 10 percent of the promised funding has reached its shores.

Haitians are understandably skeptical. Nearly $1.5 billion was pledged during the last two donor conferences in 2004 and 2009, the latter after the food crisis and hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike devastated their nation. Much of that money was never delivered and impacted Haitians had little say over how those dollars were spent.

The international community too often regards procurement and distribution of basic supplies as charity, but it is wrong. Access to food, water, shelter, education and healthcare are basic human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For too long, the international community has also failed to involve local communities in the planning process or open their books so local stakeholders could see what was to be spent on which projects.

For the past eight years, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights has been at the forefront of advocating for a rights-based approach to aid, which mandates transparency, accountability and local participation.

This week, RFK staff traveled to Haiti to assess the situation six months after the earthquake. We joined Wyclef Jean as his group, Yele Haiti, distributed water to 300 people who live in a packed tent city. Jean received our 2009 RFK Ripple of Hope Award for his bold humanitarian work that strengthens and inspires change in his native Haiti. He introduced us to community leaders, who talked passionately about the need for more food, shelter, medical care, and jobs.

We hiked to a mountaintop slum in Grand Ravine run by infamous child gangsters, a place where neither police nor UN peacekeepers dare tread. Teenagers and young men took it upon themselves to scavenge enough plywood to construct a five-room schoolhouse. There, nine unpaid and undeterred teachers tutored 500+ students in two shifts without such basic supplies as books, paper and pencils. An old shelf substituted as a makeshift chalkboard. The youth pleaded that funds be made available for school supplies, as well as a health clinic and a park for recreation.

Later, our 2002 RFK Human Rights Award laureate Loune Viaud and her team from Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health) demonstrated the difference that committed individuals can make in ensuring the right to health is accessible to all. At the Port-au-Prince General Hospital, thanks to her intervention and in partnership with the Ministry of Health, much has improved since the chaotic days after the earthquake when the main building was uninhabitable and thousands of victims flooded the grounds and surrounding streets. Although many patients have returned to permanent structures, we still witnessed scores of kids languishing from the heat inside the pediatric tent and watched as a doctor held an X-ray up to the sun to make a reading.

Six months after the quake, the people of Haiti have a right to know who promised aid, when delivery can be expected, and what recourse they have if deadlines are not met or projects are ineffective or not delivered at all.

The international community has a duty to respect Haitians' rights and be accountable. While the RFK Center lauds Haiti's Interim Reconstruction Commission, the Ministry of Planning, and the UN Development Program for creating global websites that, for the first time track funds and projects to Haiti, this is only a start. These same websites must be kept current and be user friendly, with a feedback mechanism so donors can hear directly from the people whose lives are impacted. This information should be disseminated through popular media, such as radio, to let Haitians themselves know how much money has come in and how it is being spent.

Making this information available would also counter widespread criticism of the slow pace of aid delivery. For example, USAID has spent more than $1 billion in immediate humanitarian assistance over the past six months, providing potable water, high-nutrition bars and other food stuffs, tents, latrines, security and rubble removal for camps. Yet few outside USAID can monitor where that money has gone and what future projects are planned. Consequently, USAID receives little credit for its contributions. Without transparency, it can neither be praised for its successes nor held accountable for its failures.

Global leaders such as President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and USAID Administrator Shah have spoken eloquently about the need for the United States to work with the people of Haiti to build their lives and their country back better. If these words are to have true meaning six months from now, funding and transparency mechanisms will need to transform today.

Kerry Kennedy is the President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights; Monika Kalra Varma is the director of the RFK Center for Human Rights