Passing the "Riot Test" in Haiti

It is finally official; Haiti’s earthquake is the most expensive in recent memory, even more than the 2004 tsunami. Conservative estimates are $16 billion. This is no surprise given the human causes, the vulnerability, of this earthquake. Meanwhile there is a more urgent reality, this time another “act of God.” Any day now, it’s going to rain, and not all the survivors have a warm, dry, safe, sleeping place.

How Haiti rebuilds is of extreme importance. More importantly, what particular plan will be used, what will be done, and who will be included in the discussions and what would count as “participation” are very important questions. Last Friday, Al Jazeera English aired a story about the politics of reconstruction by filmmaker Avi Lewis, in collaboration with Haitian filmmakers Eton and Jeremy Dupin, which included analysis from Haitian activists Camille Chalmers and Patrick Elie.

I do not ever like to be the bearer of bad news, but as absolutely important as this discussion of Haiti’s future is, there is a more urgent situation that must be addressed right now. Any day now, it is going to rain. Unfortunately, too many people do not have a tent to stay dry. Communications have been down, and this is particularly frustrating for those of us who have friends, colleagues, and loved ones who are poor, many of whom are temporarily residing in “tent cities” that are sadly sites of rape against women. “Tent cities” is a misnomer since most families have only a single bedsheet as cover, tied to wooden posts like my friend Hélène who is living with her family – all alive, thank goodness – a hundred yards from the “tent city” of Solino. Other people whom I’ve been able to connect with in Nazon and Delmas – and many others that journalist Reed Lindsay and his Haitian collaborators like those mentioned above have been able to contact – have said the same story: “no one has contacted us. No one has come by to see us.” And this is troubling. One commentator warned that Port-au-Prince was “about to explode.”

This certainly isn’t true of everyone. For example, the Hospice St. Joseph in my neighborhood of Christ-Roi distributed 300 tents to local residents. There are literally dozens of NGOs, most of them large multi-service agencies headquartered in the U.S. like CARE, World Vision, and CRS or Europe like Save the Children, who are in Port-au-Prince operating food distribution. The U.N. recently posted a map of all the food distribution sites.

Unfortunately the aid isn’t working as it should and many survivors’ patience is wearing thin. With good reason. Big U.S. NGOs who used to deliver food aid to the countryside are poised to do the same in Port-au-Prince. My friends used to call it “cutting the cake” – wherein segments of the country were given over to large U.S. NGOs like CARE, CRS, Save the Children, World Vision, etc. The old plan – P.L. 480 – not only didn’t work, it actually hurt the peasant economy. In the 1990’s, responding to humanitarian crises following the violent 1991-4 coup period, USAID gave millions of dollars in direct food aid. The implementation of this aid weakened Haiti’s economy, with free or heavily subsidized United States rice underselling the local peasantry; with the grains and the food-for-work programs arriving during the peak of harvest season, when farmers sold their crops and needed hired help the most; and with conditionalities such as still lower tariffs and further trade advantages for United States businesses.

While it can be argued that Haitian governments can choose to refuse this aid, the majority of their funding comes from international institutions – from 90 percent in the 1990s down to 70 percent in recent years. People in Haiti call this dependency on foreign aid a “politics of the stomach” (e.g., Fatton 2004). Not surprisingly, United States assistance to Haiti is still laced with conditionalities that benefit United States corporate interests.

It is worth pointing out that U.S. aid – unlike most other members of the OECD, developed countries in Western Europe and the Pacific Rim – is part of our State Department. In other words, the aid we give out is a tool to advance our foreign policy agenda. Britain, for example, has its own separate ministry for development. It’s also worth noting that 93 percent of our aid comes back to the U.S. This isn’t just some academic critique, but very real. It’s actively getting in the way of our doing good. And we need to learn these lessons fast. Three lessons in particular about aid delivery are urgent if the short term situation is to be stabilized:

1. Food aid distribution tends to be highly centralized, with large warehouses that have to be protected by armed guard (in recent years, U.N. troops), tempting people who don’t receive aid to loot.

2. Often (perhaps usually), one local person is selected as the gwo nèg (“chief”) as the distributor. In shantytowns like Cité Soleil, often this person is a member of a gang. Or, the local gwo nèg is the only English-speaker, an evangelical missionary pastor, etc.

3. This is the seed of corruption, and as a result, food aid tends not to be delivered to the most vulnerable people (e.g., single mothers).

So this “cutting-the-cake” plan has to learn the lessons of the past and not repeat the mistakes of hoarding, corruption, high overhead, and creating “big men.” One of the major NGOs delivering food aid to Port-au-Prince, Food for the Poor, was censured for mismanagement in 2006.

One specific example of aid workers misunderstanding and imposing the wrong solution is how to provide security, a stated concern for both Haitian survivors and aid agencies. The international community’s response is to have low-flying choppers that wake people up and shake the earth. People yell “amwe” (help!) as they are traumatized by the very people who are there trying to help. A quite different attempt to provide security comes from the survivors themselves. Using what little resources they were able to commandeer combined with what little I had to offer, people in my street – remember now divided into three communities – were able to have lights. That is what makes them – particularly the women – feel a little more secure.

The urgent need at the moment is a warm, dry bed. This rain coming up in the next couple of days will be the first test of the aid system. People I have thankfully been able to get through to say that no one has came to see them. When it does rain – it will eventually, even if not tomorrow – and people don’t have a warm, dry place to sleep, these people who are already survivors and already traumatized and already food and water depleted will catch a cold, maybe more. If people do, this will have meant that the donor agencies and NGOs delivering aid will have failed, and survivors’ patience may yet break into street demonstrations – they will likely be called “riots” – which in turn will feed racist propaganda that in turn stokes apathy.

Part of the problem is coordination. Haitian Americans are doing an admirable job volunteering to rebuild their home, to translate, to provide auxiliary services. Many are contributing cash that may be arriving. I have worked with four people for over 30 hours just setting up the logistics of sending money to nine grassroots organizations in the documentary film I co-directed. In the mean time, the overland route through the Dominican Republic has opened up. Some are bringing needed dry goods like tarps (if there are any left in South Florida stripmalls and convenience stores they should find their way on the nearest boat to Haiti). Despite the tens of millions of dollars that concerned citizens have generously donated to dozens of relief efforts, unless there is a clear plan for delivery and coordination people will still be suffering.

Coordination among NGOs, and even between NGOs and their donor groups, has been a longstanding problem. Part of the issue is that NGOs are structurally competing with one another for scarce resources. Another part is that NGOs own self-interest is in raising money, from governments or private citizens. Some choose to do this by exaggerating the need and their own impact, blurring the life-saving details about where the money actually goes. Others stay on the government dole. Some people in development agencies in Washington call the large NGOs whose budgets are at least 80 percent furnished by the U.S. government “Beltway Bandits.” The incentive structure has sadly only increased the top-heavy, bureaucratic, red-tape, overhead while further distancing them from the people they are meant to serve. I’m not saying this now to shame any particular NGO but if there’s ever a time to not repeat the mistakes of the past, now is it. I even hold out hope that both aid agencies and Beltway Bandits are not only fast learners but they will also learn and apply these lessons elsewhere. We are after all, still in a financial crisis, and the U.S. government is deeply in debt. Simply put, again, we do not have time to fail.

One simple solution is a website that the U.N. Office of Special Envoy for Haiti will be launching within days. I sincerely hope that other donors will choose to put their need to hold the umbrella away and let the U.N. do what it is mandated to. I also sincerely hope that this effort includes the grassroots, and will include elements of a wiki that the grassroots has already begun working on, so that NGOs and grassroots groups alike can communicate needs and available aid themselves, without the need for paying for a staff and the inevitable time lag.

After this next test of the rains will come the test of providing the means for Haitian survivors, particularly in quake-impacted areas and especially Port-au-Prince, to take care of their needs. The “riot test” won’t be over until people can have trust and patience that the aid system is working because their needs – and those of their loved ones and neighbors – are met. Until this happens, stabilization of quake-impacted areas, especially Port-au-Prince, remains an urgent priority.

I am not Chicken Little, and the sky isn’t yet falling – at least the rains have not yet fallen. Again, I am not shaming NGOs but hoping they will pass this test. I just love Haiti and dozens of particular people in Port-au-Prince that are needlessly suffering. I hope this warning – and others like it – will wake people up and Port-au-Prince does not erupt in disorder when the rains fall because everyone will be covered.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a test but very real.

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 is completing a book about foreign aid and NGOs in Haiti.

Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.