Last week actors and human rights advocates Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, along with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sent a letter to Congress and the Obama Administration calling attention to "serious mistakes that have unnecessarily delayed the delivery of medical supplies, water and other life-saving materials" to Haiti. The letter was also signed by some 90 scholars and Haiti advocates. (Disclosure: I was also a signer).
The letter asked for, among other things, "A public announcement as to what measures our government will take going forward to make sure that the mistakes of the first two weeks are not repeated."
Although the aid delivery situation has since improved, there are still major deficiencies and it is not clear what our government’s plan is to prepare for the rainy season, which can begin as early as the end of February, and the hurricane season, which begins in June.
The Washington Post reported on Feb. 2 that there are "hundreds of thousands of desperate people who apparently have not received food and shelter." The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders reports "increased cases of diarrhea and skin rashes from the poor sanitary conditions of living outside" and warns that "rains could bring more serious diseases like typhoid, measles or dengue."
"Measles is the leading killer of children," says UNICEF spokesman Kent Page. "In the conditions of these makeshift camps, if there was to be a measles outbreak it would spread like wildfire."
The United Nations is calling for donations to a $700 million agricultural investment fund, since the March planting season is approaching and farmers will need tools, seed, fertilizers and other inputs. Irrigation and riverbanks have also been damaged. The majority of Haiti’s population still lives in the countryside, and many grow food for subsistence and local markets. An estimated 482,000 people have migrated from Port-au-Prince to rural areas since the earthquake, which will put further strain on the countryside.
On the positive side, the Haitian government, in collaboration with the UN, has begun a program of immunization "including rubella and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccines for children under seven and diphtheria and tetanus for older children and adults;" although press reports indicate that these fall far short of needs and will have to be expanded quickly. USAID reports about 70,000 households have received tents or other shelter material, out of about 260,000 needed.
Shelter for the hundreds of thousands of homeless is a most urgent need as the rainy season approaches, and sanitation is also important to avoid the spread of water-borne diseases. USAID is arguing that we should "think outside the tent" and begin to build more permanent structures, but the Haitian government says they need tents first. Since there are recurring aftershocks that could persist for months, anything but earthquake-resistant structures would appear dangerous, especially to shell-shocked survivors of a devastating earthquake. On the other hand, tents will be problematic for the rainy and especially hurricane season, depending on the level of flooding.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that 33 cents of each U.S. government dollar to Haiti goes to the military. There are already 6,000 US troops in Haiti, in addition to the 12,500 UN troops, and Washington has talked about deploying 20,000. This is clearly overkill. The AP reports just one cent of each U.S. dollar is going to the Haitian government. This is also a serious problem. Haiti needs a government, and years of U.S. and private efforts have destroyed most of it. Haitian government revenues, not including grants, are just 10 percent of GDP, more than 50 percent lower than most poorer countries in Africa, such as Rwanda, Mozambique, Niger and Burundi.
USAID is currently funneling millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars into questionable organizations such as Chemonics, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), and its own Office of Transition Initiatives, which has been involved in shady political activities in various countries where the United States was opposing democratically elected governments.
It must be recalled that Washington, in collaboration with Canada and France, destroyed the Haitian government and wrecked the economy by cutting off international aid from 2000-2004, in order to overthrow the elected government. Thousands of supporters of that government were killed after the 2004 coup, and many imprisoned, including officials of the elected government. All this happened while UN forces were occupying the country. There was little outcry from Washington-based human rights organizations.
So human rights will also be an issue in the months and years ahead, as Haitians organize to have a voice in the reconstruction efforts and the future of their own country. This is especially true given that the country’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, was excluded from the last national elections in April – leading to an 89 percent boycott according to the official count – and from the (now rescheduled) elections that were planned for this month.
For all of these reasons, the U.S. Congress and civil society will have to play a watchdog role. However, it will be difficult to get people to disturb the public relations efforts of the Obama Administration with regard to Haiti. The Washington Post reports today that the administration’s Haiti operation "could advance U.S. diplomacy in a region long suspicious of U.S. intentions."
"I think that the United States will look very magnanimous," says Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras and now a senior adviser at the National Defense University’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington.
"Haiti is good for the United States, to show its humanitarian side," he said. "It’s perfect for this administration, which is Democratic and liberal."