As the death toll from Hurricane Ike was over 70 in the U.S., but the storm’s aftermath in Haiti was much worse. Four tropical storms in a month killed between 500 and 1,000 Haitians, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), up to 800,000 people – almost 10 percent of Haiti’s population – are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
President Rene Préval told The Miami Herald, “This is Katrina in the entire country, but without the means that Louisiana had.”
I spoke to Matt Marek, head of programs for the American Red Cross in Haiti, who told me “the damage is immense.” Marek has been traveling in isolated communities to facilitate aid deliveries. He described a number of areas that had bridges washed out, creating logistical challenges for aid delivery. He stressed that Haiti’s government being so resource-strapped makes it much harder to get food and clean water to people in need, and noted that the damage to Haiti’s already limited ability to grow its own food will create enormous long-term challenges.
The San Francisco Bay Area-based Haiti Emergency Relief Fund sent out an appeal in mid-September which noted, “For the last two years, we have heard from the international mainstream press that Haiti was moving slowly towards democratic government, security and economic progress. Supposedly, the United Nations occupation and the 2006 election of President Rene Preval had allowed Haitians to move on, to somehow forget that its democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been overthrown in a violent coup in which thousands had been killed, displaced, imprisoned and exiled.”
The Relief Fund appeal continued, “The United Nations occupation forces have a budget of over $535 million this year, and the Preval government has received international aid denied to the former government of President Aristide. Even with these resources, the authorities have not come close to reinstating the disaster relief programs that had been in place under Aristide.”
Indeed, when Hurricane Jeanne devastated the northern city of Gonaives in September 2004, Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti pointed out that in 2003, “twenty-three local civil protection committees were formed, and over 5,000 people were trained in disaster awareness. The Civil Protection Office had plans to warn communities of approaching storms and to provide emergency assistance.”
Unfortunately, that office, its network and committees were attacked and its officials killed, arrested or driven into hiding during the 2004 US-backed coup against the democratically-elected Aristide government.
When I was in Haiti in late August of this year, numerous people told me that the price of rice had doubled since the April food riots. One activist I spoke to bitterly said it had gotten to the point where food was a “luxury.” Many people expressed fear that there would soon be more riots.
UN officials and blue helmets in Haiti live in a higher economic strata than the vast majority of Haitians. Their presence has had an inflationary impact in many sectors, including housing.
In his inaugural speech in 2006, Préval called on the UN mission to switch its focus from violent military operations to building up the country’s infrastructure: “We will ask it to help us with more tractors, bulldozers, loaders, trucks to build roads, to make canals to water our lands. These are the materials that are necessary today to stabilize the country. There is no longer any need for tanks.”
But in a Port-au-Prince interview this August, UN spokesperson Sophie Boutaud de la Combe told me that MINUSTAH’s mandate is for “stabilization” and does not include development work. She stressed that the UN’s emphasis on security was intended to help create a climate in which renewed investment would create new jobs.
The same week, I interviewed grassroots Lavalas activist Rene Civil, who criticized the UN for “protecting the interests of the minority, rather than the majority” of Hait i’s population. Civil stressed “it has to be clear that Lavalas is not against the UN, just against UN occupation in Haiti.” Civil told me “the UN could have a different policy” focusing on development, “where Haiti benefits agriculturally.”
OCHA reports that in the wake of the past month’s storms in Haiti, almost all agricultural land in the country has been flooded. The entire harvest for the current agricultural season has been severely damaged or destroyed.
The effectiveness of relief efforts so far was called into question by a strongly worded October 14 statement from Doctors Without Borders. The organization, which usually eschews such strong public proclamations, stated:
“International food aid reaching the community is clearly insufficient in quantity, unsuitable for the nutritional needs of young children, and it is being distributed in a way that excludes single women with children. There is still no clear strategy to identify the needs, nor implement a proper nutritional response.
“Despite the significant presence of international organizations – with plenty of experts and publications to show for it – the people of Gonaïves have yet to see much benefit. Hurricane season ends in late November. If another one were to strike the region with more heavy rains, inhabitants here would once again pay a heavy price.
“MSF urges international organizations and the Haitian government to immediately re-examine their emergency aid response, and to prioritize housing and nutritional support for the youngest of the flood victims.”
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org