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Rained Out? Opportunities in Haiti Washing Away

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It's about 7:30 local time as I write this. We'll see if I can connect to the internet and post.

I just got off the phone with Leslie, a friend and leader in Asanble Vwazen Solino (the Solino Neighborhood Assembly). Knowing the answer, he asked me, "is it raining over where you are?"

"Of course it is. But you know I have a house."

"We are all wet!" he intoned. "We won't get to sleep tonight."

I doubt if I will either. It's been raining -- hard -- since the afternoon. There's a tropical storm brewing off the northeast coast of the island -- yes, on the Dominican side. But there's currently a sixty percent chance of several days of rain.

Now more than six months after the earthquake, the 1.5 million homeless that it created are still waiting for real change that has yet to come. True, some 28,000 people are living in 5,657 "T-shelters" (temporary shelters) constructed. But hundreds of thousands of families are at this very moment trying desperately to keep their most important documents, money, baby photos, or the babies themselves dry. I've been to camps where as much as half of the tents are now ripped.

Last Monday marked the six-month point following the earthquake. At the remains of the National Palace medals were given out to several people, including CNN journalist Anderson Cooper and Sean Penn, who has been managing a camp for internally displaced people. The French ambassador joked that it was important to acknowledge the powerful neighbor to the north, as no French citizen or group - or for that matter, Cuban or Venezuelan - received a medal.

That afternoon a rainstorm wreaked havoc on the camp of Corail, held up as the model for relocation. hundreds of tents were instantly destroyed, and a couple thousand people rushed under the shelter of the tent donated by the Cirque du Soleil. People were moved from the camp where Penn is now working because of the "environmental" risks -- to wit, flooding following a rain storm.

True, Corail boasted many services that many (if not most -- still conducting research) other camps lack -- like latrines, showers, wash water stations, a medical clinic, and even a "Krik Krak" library donated by Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat. But the failure of Corail as the Haitian government knighted foreigners is emblematic of deeper issues that require urgent and sustained attention. Most notable is its isolation. On public transportation, it takes an hour and a half to get to town, using three or four buses, depending on routes. There is no economic activity at all outside the camp, no market, no stores, no schools, not even a church. The camp itself is built near Titanyen, the mass burial ground used by paramilitaries in the past and by the current government to bury the unmarked, unnamed, dead from the earthquake.

Not just bereft of economic activity, the area around Corail lacks vegetation. It is a desert, built against a bare mountain. There is no shade whatsoever, no trees to hold the soil, so the gusty winds often carry the white dust into the tents and into people's nostrils. The white dust reflects the Caribbean sun. "There really is nothing to do," said a resident who was either afraid or tired of giving her name, given the score of journalists who visited. "You can't stay in your tent because of the heat. You can't go outside because of the dust. And you can't leave the camp because there's nothing to do." What is worse, she - let's call her "Mildred" - and her seven thousand new neighbors may be forced out yet again to accommodate a new industrial park.

Last week's rain destroying -- yet again -- hundreds of people's homes should serve as a wake-up call. According to CNN, only 2 percent of the 5.3 billion in aid that was promised for the next 18 months at the March 31st donors' conference (see the Reconstruction website for pledges) has actually materialized. Most other reports say 10 percent -- but there is not, to my knowledge or internet access, a site that details the actual disbursement of pledges. Such a site would be welcome and go far to alleviate tension and rumors. France, for example, hasn't paid up - and it vehemently denied a prank reported by the AFP as news that it would pay restitution for the 90 million francs Haiti paid its former colonizer from 1825 to 1947 as indemnity. The U.S. has still to pay its 1.15 billion in pledged aid.

Making matters worse, the foreign-led Haiti Interim Reconstruction Commission co-chaired by UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive that is replacing Haiti's elected government now that Parliament has expired, postponed its second meeting scheduled for Thursday by a month.

Haiti had a couple of very promising opportunities following the earthquake. First was a general goodwill and unity. In the first days following the earthquake, people worked across extreme class and political divisions to survive. And they did. As the urgency wore off, the old divisions came back with a vengeance. Yesterday the CEP, the Provisional Elections Commission, reiterated a decision made in 2009 to exclude Fanmi Lavalas, the party of exiled president Aristide, from this year's legislative elections that were originally scheduled earlier this year but postponed (they have until the 27th to participate in the presidential elections, according to numerous radio accounts). Although not to the extent of giving out medals, the UN proclaimed last year's elections that also excluded Fanmi Lavalas and where almost no one voted, a success.

Haiti's economic divisions fare little better. Hundreds of thousands of homeless are begging for a 180-goud ($4.50 down from the legal minimum wage of 200 goud, or $5) cash-for-work job, mostly to clear the rubble with sledgehammers and wheelbarrows while Haiti's educated middle class, Diaspora, and foreign consultant zoom by in new air-conditioned cars, some making as much as $1000 per day. Some foreign aid workers even stayed at the "Love Boat" - a U.N. ship costing $112,500 per day, or the price of 100 "T-shelters."

Another opportunity squandered is decentralization and rural development. 600,000 people like Frisline and Marie-Jeanne, two women in the film Poto Mitan, left the city to go to the provinces. Haiti's crumbling rural infrastructure could have been rebuilt by employing tens of thousands. With no jobs, no aid, no prospects of rural development, nothing to keep people in the provinces, the bulk of this reverse migration was undone, and Port-au-Prince is once again a magnet for those seeking jobs. This time, it's food-for-work, even more temporary than offshore apparel factory jobs. If and when the reconstruction aid ever arrives, much of it should go towards a real national development plan, building factories to transform and keep the value of Haitian agricultural produce in the country. For example, yesterday I bought three mangoes for 10 goud (25 cents). At a Whole Foods in New York last month, these same mangoes sold for $2.50 apiece. This "value added" and job creation should stay in Haiti, in the peasant, rural sector. But the current development blueprint, the Collier Report - highlighted on the UN Special Envoy page - prioritizes export.

In addition to the rain, people like Leslie and thousands of others are fighting for the right guaranteed by the United Nations and Haitian constitution to sleep on concrete blocks, in wet, muddy, ripping tents. Frisline, who is living in her second camp since moving back to Port-au-Prince, lamented, "You never know what's happening. One day they could ask you to leave. We never know anything. Nothing is secure." As if to illustrate her lack of security, someone stole her bag with most of her remaining belongings on Monday (since she lives in a tent, there's no way to lock up anything). Some owners have even taken to send armed gangs to terrorize people so they will go away. Less extreme tactics such as freezing people out of services so they will leave on their own are far more common. Three of eight camps that my research assistants visited so far this week are facing forced removal. International Action Ties has also released a report detailing a disturbing pattern of private land owners forcing people off the camps.

The rain just stopped, three and a half hours after it began. My phone isn't ringing. I know I will see and hear more of the damage tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I am honoring a promise to Leslie, Frisline, and other people that I would do what I can to spread the following messages:

  1. Despite the dip in news (except for the coverage at the sixth-month mark), the majority of Haiti's people are doing very badly. The situation is still quite urgent.
  2. The aid needs to be released. Now. The U.S. Congress should vote on this without delay.
  3. People need shelter. The short-term T-Shelters may do for now but people have a right to housing granted by the UN and the Haitian Constitution. And need it desperately as this weekend's storm is likely to do more damage. The hurricane season is on for several more months.
  4. The UN and Haitian government need to protect the 425,000 or so families that are living in camps from forced removal. The best policy is to build permanent housing and provide jobs and services that will give people reasons to willingly leave, and create incentives for private homes to be quickly rehabbed.
  5. Have a more fair and inclusive election. Not even counting the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas, serious steps need to be made in ensuring that the 1.5 million homeless will have access to electoral cards.

Haiti's 1.5 million homeless -- like Leslie -- can't afford this reconstruction to be postponed, to be rained out, any longer.


Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. Having researched NGOs in Haiti since 2001, he is studying the impact of aid on conditions and governance in the IDP camps this summer. He is the co-editor of
Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction.