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Mark Schuller

Mark Schuller

Posted: July 9, 2010 10:15 AM

Sowing Seeds of Hope or Seeds of Dependence?

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Monday it will be six months since Haiti's devastating earthquake.

Haiti is entering another phase, medium-term stabilization in hopes for beginning long-term reconstruction. The CIRH -- Interim Commission for Haiti's Reconstruction -- co-chaired by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive and comprised of mostly foreigners is looking for a director for the 18-month group that replaced Haiti's Parliament, collecting some $30 million so far to begin the work.

For those looking for signs of hope in Haiti, there are a few since my last visit in April.

Most striking is the procession of uniformed schoolchildren once again walking to and from school. Many schools have been destroyed; some of the larger, more expensive ones like Canado and St. Louis de Gonzague, are operating under tents provided by UNICEF and other temporary structures. This procession is made more possible because more of the roads are being cleared. There are more teams of yellow t-shirt-clad men and women hauling the rubble away on dump trucks. Each is getting a hot meal and paid for their day labor in a "cash-for-work" program that is being run jointly with donors, the Haitian government, and NGOs.

Music is being played on the taptap, at restaurants, and makeshift nightclubs; when there is a match, the World Cup is on almost every television -- including some that have been installed in the displaced persons camps. While many people still show signs of trauma, there are more pick-up games of dominoes, soccer, basketball... but not yet the ti sourit (night-time block parties). Slowly, timidly, people are beginning to move back into their houses, some retrofitted with iron beams or replacing concrete with wood and tin. Many renters such as myself are in a tug-of-war with our landlords about repairs. Many houses that require only minor repairs, and even those that are structurally sound, remain empty.

CAMEP, the public water utility, has been distributing water every other day, more than I had ever remembered, even in the "good" times. And the quantity of water is more than enough to fill my 400-gallon tank on the roof of the house. Where the PVC has been broken by the earthquake people line up to fill their buckets.

The clearing of some of the rubble has made it possible for more electricity. Where the lines are still broken, people in the neighborhood pool their resources and buy a wire and pay a "boss" to install it. With a little financial resources from some of my friends and the leadership and hard work of the neighborhood group, neighbors built a couple of water tanks, just in time for the end of the "free water" (some business owners complained that it was "destroying the economy"). And a community leader, who works with a small outfit called Solidarité (Solidarity) has been working diligently with people in the neighborhood to build latrines.

The spirit of tèt ansanm (staying united and keeping our heads together) and the konbit (collective work groups) is alive and well, implanted from an "heirloom" seed saved from the pre-earthquake Haiti.

This is the Haiti for those who have secure housing.

From what I can tell from my own observations, life in the camps has -- unbelievably -- gotten worse. The first named hurricane is now hovering over the giant oil spill BP created, with the U.S. government's enabling. Three days and nights in a row, it has rained very heavily. We're in the middle of the summer rainy season, with heavy rains and winds buffeting the deforested mountains and washing away the mounds of rubble not picked up for lack of dump trucks (these large piles are also the cause of random and severe blokis -- traffic jams). The vast majority of the fallen buildings remain a monument to that day six months ago, with little change to the landscape. Just this week, excavators began work clearing the five-story Caribbean Market, now a mass gravesite for some 300 people.

At one particular camp, St. Louis de Gonzague, half of the people were forced out in April, to accommodate the school's reopening. The school penned in a smaller area with an eight-foot chain link fence so it was still crowded. The air was thick and heavy, smelling of mud and swarming with flies. There was simply no way not to get your shoes full of mud. Large pools of water forced people to wait for people to pass by. This was on the main corridor, some two meters wide. By the tents the mud was everywhere. The heavy rain and wind have clearly taken their toll on many of the tents. Many of them were ripped from the bottom up, held together by a patchwork of tape. Others were stained halfway up or more with mud. Some had fallen so far into the mud that they were no longer usable.

Also since April, the government decreed the end of emergency food aid. So what little people received has vanished. Consequently, there were paltry signs of economic activity. A few timachann lined the central alleyway in the camp, but they were selling the cheapest items imaginable: crackers, cookies, hard candy, etc.

In order to make a little money, people need to participate in a cash-for-work program. A representative of an agency that used to participate in the program said that she had to pull out because it was impossible to keep up with the demands of the program, which requires a visit every two weeks and several periods of long lines: in government agencies, NGO agencies, and banks. People have recalled stories of being in line for 6 hours in the bank, which is the norm unless you 'have someone inside,' a moun pa, one of 'your people.'

Multiply this by 1.5 million homeless looking for work and this moun pa is much, much worse. The deep wrinkles etched on people's faces and the exposed cheekbones betray a life of stress and famine. And these are the people who are the komite -- the committees, in charge of managing the camp as recognized by the International Migration Organization (OIM, in French). Some of them work for a little "gratification," "satisfaction," or simply "encouragement," since they are technically volunteers.

Activities at St. Louis de Gonzague have begun slowly, some sporting games with children and a weekly volunteer cleanup. And the Red Cross has installed some water facilities. But people's basic needs are far, far from being met.

An hour and two taptaps and a good walk up the hill is Karade (Caradeux), the camp called Jake Toto where half of St. Louis' displaced have been relocated.

The camp was at the top of a mountain, mostly rock and barely any trees. Said Elvire Constant, "There is no end to the heat! No escape whatsoever!" The tents -- housing carefully arranged and displayed baby pictures, marriage certificates, plastic flowers, makeup kits, random pots and pans and every other worldly possession managed to be rescued from the old house -- are like ovens with no shade in sight.

While there was no mud since the camp was made of rock, when the rain comes, some tents just wash away. Elvire pointed to three tents that were simply laying on the ground, useless to anyone, especially to the family who lost their home. People have taken to digging ditches around their tents to prevent them from filling up with water. The rain was so powerful that it knocked out a portion of the exterior wall.

Compared to St. Louis, the Jake Toto camp is bursting with external assistance. When I visited, two other groups came: a team from CRS who drove in their car and a couple of people from the Ministry of Health organizing a vaccination campaign. A volunteer clinic in a UNICEF tent is open from 9 in the morning until 7 at night, with two shifts.

There are eight pods in the camp, each of them with their own closed-in center wired with electricity. These centers, predictably, were the site for the World Cup. This camp has a "psycho-social" center for children, as well as an office from the Ministry of Women's Condition and Rights for a campaign about violence against women. The First Lady was interested in building a professional school for the kids in a space outside the camp, fenced in, across from four portable toilets that were being washed out when I was there. The wash bins were decorated by a graffiti artist with slogans reminding people to wash their hands daily.

But even with these amenities, the camp is far from ideal. In addition to the lack of shade:

...it is too far to go to school. Many parents simply don't have the money to spend on four kous (bus routes) to get there and four to get back. Those who do take their kids to school basically have to pase mize (suffer) in the city while waiting for school to get out. By the time the parent gets back to the camp, she has to turn around to pick her child up again, because it's an hour and a half, two hours, to get to school.

The conditions in the camps vary quite widely, depending on a range of factors I am just beginning to understand as I begin this summer's research. None the least of which is the centrality of 10,000 -- private -- NGOs. This is the present-day Haiti, the "republic of NGOs." The center of power has shifted to the U.N.'s "Log Base" -- a military base inside the international airport, where the twelve "clusters" coordinating various sectors' activities meet (up until a few weeks ago, meetings were held in English). Already the political / economic center of gravity had shifted to laplèn -- the Cul-de-Sac Plain where the new U.S. Embassy was built, also the future site of several textile factories according to the plan submitted to the World Bank. NGOs are everywhere -- twenty-something white foreigners in the stores, restaurants, and night clubs, graffiti on the walls, or conversations in the camps, taptap, street corners, or ti resto (small restaurants).

What I am hearing, what I'm afraid of, what I'm here to research, is whether the NGO aid distribution has destroyed the "heirloom" seed of youn ede lòt -- of one helping the other, replacing it with hybrid or Genetically Modified Organizations, of sa ou fè pou mwen? (what are you doing for me?) The solidarity that I and many other first responders were privileged to witness that saved Haiti, the spontaneous organization inside these IDP camps that prolonged people's survival and ensured that people had their necessities met, might be in the process of being choked out by these new, foreign crops. And civic activity -- not to mention people's morale -- seems to be low.

(On the topic of foreign crops, an international movement has confronted Monsanto for its Trojan horse gift of seeds that cannot be saved and replanted, requiring peasants to buy them again next year, and that require pesticides that Monsanto will not give but sell. Peasant activists in Haiti and solidarity groups through Via Campesina denounced this as a "second earthquake," exploiting the situation to force Haiti to become more dependent, not less. Some peasants burned seeds, and there was a big march at the beginning of last month, and a series of solidarity actions this month.)

Many people commented on the relative peace provided by the World Cup, patronizingly referred to as "therapy" by some mainstream news coverage. True enough, the street protests against the government and the NGO / donor nexus stopped. President Préval used the distraction of the World Cup to thumb his nose at Haiti's political parties (and a U.S. Senate resolution by Ranking Republican Dick Lugar) and keep the electoral council as it is. The council's leader was convicted of corruption and it excludes Fanmi Lavalas, the party of deposed President Aristide, Haiti's largest and most popular. The parties just announced a series of protests for next week. But the tension and frustration is just underneath the surface, finding opportunities such as Argentina's (who ousted favorite Brazil) loss, to express itself. We were trapped in a tent for 10 minutes as a fight broke out just following the game.

The security situation, particularly for women and girls, is indeed critical. KOFAVIV has been diligently documenting, supporting, accompanying to the doctor, and testifying too many women victims of sexual violence. In the first four months alone, they counseled 264 victims. The leaders themselves -- Malya Villard and Eramithe Delva --- have become targets. In addition to an attempt on Delva's daughter, the two were targeted last month for being kidnapped because of their fearlessness, their high visibility, and importantly, their association with foreigners (and hence, money), many of whom visited them in the camps. Fortunately last month's kidnapping scheme failed, but they had to leave their camp and stay at a human rights group's office where they are currently in hiding. They are looking for a full-time office and places to stay, receiving some emergency funds, including through MADRE, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and Other Worlds.

In addition to the courage and tenacity of women's activists, there cannot be a solution to this problem while people are living in tents that can be ripped open by a nail file or even simply zipped open. Stable, permanent housing is a dire, long overdue necessity. According to an aid worker, current plans to build shelter do not meet more than 60 percent of the need, using the U.N.'s estimate. And completion for the first group of houses is not expected until after the hurricane season. According to an aid worker the last of the houses aren't planned to be finished until five years from now. In other words, many people will be living in the camps for the next five years!

There are logistical hurdles such as clarifying Port-au-Prince's complex land tenure system, but many people here see this as a lack of urgency on the part of decision makers. True, Haiti has slipped from the headlines, and pledges made have not been disbursed. To some, however, it is because people making decisions are in comfortable, dry, houses. To many, this aid that is coming is primarily (some say only) benefiting the gran manjè -- the "big eaters." Julie Antoine, a community leader in the Canape-Vert camp, expressed the frustration of many: "I hear all this aid coming. Where is it when we're suffering in the camp? Can't people see that we're suffering?" NGOs are paying exorbitant rents to landlords lucky enough, those with their buildings intact. NGOs contract with the elites that monopolize trade to buy office supplies, gas-powered generators, drinking water, and foreign comfort food. Marie-Jeanne Dufort who lives in an un-marked camp in Delmas decried, "the aid just makes the rich even more rich. They are forgetting us." Pierre Rigaud, staying in the St. Pierre camp, said:

I appreciate people coming here to give us a little encouragement. I like the TV, but that's not our priority. We need jobs, we need food, we need school. Above all we need permanent housing.

The challenge during the rebuilding process is how to support the grassroots, natif-natal, the home-grown spirit of unity and solidarity, and how to ensure that the majority of the aid gets in the hands of those who most need it, who should be directing this process.

Some suggestions coming from the grassroots are:

  • Speed up the process for permanent shelter, and fully meet the needs

  • Speed up the disbursement of promised aid

  • Better coordination with the grassroots camp organizations, including them and the population on decisions, including cash-for-work and permanent shelter

  • More aid directed toward stated priorities of grassroots groups following a democratic process, requiring more flexibility

  • Fair, inclusive and constitutional elections process

  • Subsidize individual homeowners to use cash-for-work assistance to repair or rebuild their homes, which would reduce homelessness while providing more jobs

  • Simplify and more transparency for food-for-work programs, and more jobs

  • More heavy trucks to haul the trash, and a coordinated plan for removal

Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. He co-edited Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction and co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. He submitted a book about foreign aid and NGOs in Haiti for publication.