Until the summer of 2008, Orlande Noel supported his family of eight by operating a trucking business in Gonaives, Haiti, a town of around two hundred thousand people.
Then four huge tropical storms and hurricanes slammed into Haiti in 30 days. Massive mudslides and flooding roared down the deforested mountains into Gonaives. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and people were trapped on rooftops for days.
When the waters receded, over two million cubic meters of mud remained. Severe clean water and food shortages, malnutrition and serious illness plagued the country. Eight hundred people died, hundreds of thousands were homeless, and overall damage was estimated at one billion dollars.
One year later, Noel’s two big trucks remain overturned in front of his mud-caked house. His pick-up truck is stuck in his front yard. High mounds of mud–that citizens have had to shovel out of their own homes without assistance– have been piled everywhere outside, transforming residential streets into an uneven terrain of dirt mounds, overgrown with weeds. Now, no vehicles can move. It is even difficult to walk. Noel stands next to his demolished vehicles and explains the obvious: his business is ruined. Asked what he does now, he states, "I do nothing. There’s no work here."
A year later, only 30% of the mud that covered the city of Gonaives has been removed.
A year later, people still have no free, clean water; it must be bought from vendors on the street.
A year later, people are still going hungry in Gonaives. The local economy remains too weak to enable people to meet their basic needs. According to Felix, a motorcycle driver who did not give his last name, a full day’s work as a driver brings in, on average, 50 or 60 Haitian gourdes, (between $1.25 to $1.50 dollars US) which only affords him and his pregnant girlfriend one meal a day. Felix’s story is the story of the average Haitian as the U.N. reports 78 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 a day.
Journalist Wadner Pierre visited Gonaives last month. "Entering the city I was overwhelmed by images of filth and destruction, of people wading through or leaping around puddles of water….The most galling images were of UN vehicles that quite uselessly patrolled the wreckage of Gonaives." Pierre writes that the Haitian government agency in charge of reconstruction "has made no obvious impact in the months that it has been operating – much like the countless foreign NGOs who have hovered around Gonaives for years."
Extreme poverty has created a vicious cycle. Years of cheaply imported food under U.S. trade deals undercut Haitian farmers who have since left their lands to go to the cities. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports Haiti now grows only 40 percent of the food it needs. Impoverished families seeking wood for charcoal have driven the deforestation of the mountains. Haiti, where three quarters of families use charcoal for cooking, now has only 4% of its land in forest, compared to 33% of the U.S. The U.N. agency for disaster reduction says that, world-wide, as more and more poor people live in urban areas, environmental degradation accelerates, which in turn leaves poor communities more and more vulnerable to natural disasters. Together, these vulnerabilities mean the number of victims of natural disasters is, on average, 40 times higher in poor countries than in rich countries.
A recent Guardian article blames Haiti’s inability to withstand and recover from tropical storms on "a constellation of factors – crushing poverty and environmental degradation, political instability and bad governance, ill-conceived international aid efforts and sheer geographical bad luck."
Nearly every international charitable organization in the world works in Haiti. Their new cars and trucks can be seen in every part of the country. Though perhaps well-intended, these agencies often bypass the public sector and create their own individual financial kingdoms dispensing money and jobs as they see fit. These efforts result in a further weakening of the role of the Haitian government, which has been continuously undermined by foreign interference since its founding 200 years ago.
Meanwhile, the universal human rights to food, work, education, health and water remain woefully unfulfilled for the people of Gonaives and most of Haiti’s other 9 million people.
What to do?
A small network of U.S. human rights and social justice groups working with Haiti insists that future international assistance must increase the ability of the Haitian government to fulfill its human rights responsibilities. Dysfunction or corruption by the government must be challenged and rooted out. But bypassing the government entirely to create private parallel institutions robs the people of their ability to monitor and hold accountable those who distribute the relief they seek.
International civil society must also challenge government prioritization of the interests of foreign corporations and investors over the basic needs of Haitian citizens. For example, Haiti President Rene Preval recently opposed minimum wage increases from $1.25 to $5.00 a day in order not to scare off foreign investors.
With such an approach, there must be mechanisms for engagement and accountability to better plan, implement and track internationally-funded projects in Haiti. Transparency must be part of international assistance. That means answering the questions of how much has been raised for hurricane relief, from whom, and where has it gone?
A rights-based approach means that the people of Haiti are entitled to the resources needed to provide a life of human dignity for themselves. This means not charity but justice. The Haitian people are not objects of charity nor are their rights something they have to apply for or stand in line to secure. A rights-based approach means that the people of Haiti have the same right to opportunity as the people of any other country.
A rights-based approach to assistance from foreign governments and international organizations means the people of Haiti are empowered to be agents of their own development. Empowerment seems like a wonderful word, except that it implies that current power arrangements must be shifted. Those who have the power in Haiti but who are not taking direction from the people of Haiti have that power unjustly and must give that power back to the people. This applies both to governments and it applies to non-governmental organizations.
A year later, Gonaives and other Haitian communities remain wracked by the storms of the summer of 2008. The people of Haiti need the solidarity of people and organizations that will work them not as objects of charity but as partners in human rights solidarity. Those who look upon the people of Haiti as objects of charity do well to remember the demand of the indigenous people of Australia who warned outsiders: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us struggle together."
Let those of us who do not live in Gonaives join with Haitians to struggle together in a human rights approach that will offer opportunities, not just hand-outs, to people like Orlande Noel and Felix. Collectively, we have the creativity, the resources and the organizational potential to effectively channel the strong determination so apparent in Gonaives into positive new models of human rights work in the spirit of making this world better for all of us.
Laura Raymond and Bill Quigley both work on global human rights at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Laura recently returned from Gonaives. Those who want to financially contribute to hurricane relief can support the social justice-oriented hurricane relief work of Partners in Health by visiting www.pih.org. Contact Laura Raymond at email@example.com. Contact Bill Quigley at firstname.lastname@example.org.