11 February 2013

Core Failures of Haiti Relief Effort

Haiti is not back to where it was three years prior, agreed a panel at Harvard University last week. The post-earthquake relief and recovery effort is no different than the way that aid and development were conducted in the years leading up to the natural disaster.

Journalist Jonathan Katz used the story of the UN’s role in the cholera outbreak as evidence of the continuing problems. The overwhelming evidence points towards the UN peacekeepers from Nepal as the source of the outbreak. Despite the fact that fecal waste from the camp was making its way into the Latem River, the outbreak followed a path downstream from the camp and the epidemiological research determined the cholera came from Nepal, the UN has yet to claim responsibility for the outbreak.

“It demonstrates an astounding example of a lack of accountability,” said Katz. He said that due diligence was done to prove that the UN was not responsible and all information overwhelmingly showed that the source of the outbreak was the peacekeeping camp. Katz appeared at the event to talk about his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, which covers his experiences during and after the earthquake while reporting for the Associated Press.

For Dr. Rishi Rattan the problems in Haiti go much deeper. He immediately dismissed the idea that good intentions were even OK. “Well meaning is harmful,” said Rattan. “Development and aid are a form of neo-colonialism...they reinforce helplessness.” He argued that NGOs are inherently political because of their funding structures. NGOs must answer to donors first. By moving from grant to grant, NGOs are unable to secure rights for a person, he continued.

In analyzing the UN-backed plan to rid cholera from Haiti, Dr Rattan said that it fails on two levels. First, it takes the approach to the problem that interventions, such as vaccines, must be undertaken to eliminate cholera. Second, the plan itself is led by outsiders rather than the Haitian people.

“The issue here is not cholera, it is a lack of human rights,” said Dr Rattan arguing that access to clean water is a right. The outbreak is the result of a failed government that is unable to secure clean water for its people. The plan to rid cholera that will cost over $2 billion does nothing to address this problem in Dr Rattan’s eyes.

The arguments laid out by Dr Rattan and Katz met little resistance from Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, Nancy Dorsinville. A Haitian, she admitted to take a ‘schizophrenic’ approach to her position that vacillates between radicalism and diplomacy. She spoke slowly and carefully, citing asthma problems, on some of the problems that she has faced in her position.

On the day of the earthquake, she wanted to travel to the main hospital in order to better understand the problem at hand. It happened to be a day that the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) peacekeepers were not supposed to travel to the area where the hospital is located. It was not until she began walking to the hospital that the driver agreed to give her a ride.

For her, one of the greatest problems is one of coordination. “There is a knowledge management gap on needs, priorities, and allocation of resources within the government,” she remarked. It becomes harder because the NGOs have their own ‘compartmentalized views.’ Like Dr Rattan, Dorsinville noted that NGOs were political and politicized because they do not produce their own money and are funded by governments with their own goals and ideologies.

As the conversation continued, the audience wanted to know what actions can be taken to rectify the problems. The panel members were again in agreement that the problem is accountability and the status quo perspective on how to help Haiti.

“Our role is not on the ground in Haiti,” said Dr Rattan. “I am not a savior. My power lies at the UN level.” He and Katz agreed that accountability must mean that the people who are considered beneficiaries must have the ability to hold the groups that affect their lives accountable. A part of that is allowing the government in Haiti to not only grow on its own, but fail on its own.

Author Patrick Sylvain served as the moderator for the discussion and interjected that the answers cannot be determined by the diaspora. They are people with different stakes in the country. “The Haitian people have not had rights since 1802,” he said. They must take on their own rights and gain ownership of their Haitian identity. Dorsinville concurred saying, “We have to be allowed to govern and determine the outcomes of our country.”