Is Haiti Falling Through the Cracks?

Midnight was the deadline for candidates for president of Haiti to submit their materials to the CEP, the provisional electoral council. The Miami Herald reported that 34 candidates have submitted papers, including Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, who announced his candidacy on CNN’s Larry King Live and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

While there’s no shortage of political candidates there is still a huge shortage of aid arriving to Haiti’s most vulnerable, people living in makeshift camps. According to the latest database posted on the CCCM, the camp management coordinating cluster, there are more than 1.7 million people living in 1370 officially recognized camps. The website for the Haiti Reconstruction Fund – which only accounts for part of the pledges – shows just how little funds have actually materialized.

Mounds of concrete are also blocking Haiti’s reconstruction, causing severe traffic jams and preventing people from being able to return to their home and rebuild. Despite the Sisyphian yellow-shirt teams toiling in the hot sun for $5 a day, the rubble can’t be collected and removed because the government doesn’t have nearly enough trucks, a symptom of the lack of funds. At this pace people will still be wheelbarrowing crumbled houses well into 2015, Haiti’s next presidential election.

Another serious road block is the issue of sorting out land ownership. Even before the national registry fell under the rubble, land tenure has always been a complex and contentious issue in Haiti. Many areas of Port-au-Prince were settled either by tonton makout – Duvalier’s death squads – given land for their service or by squatters. In many cases land ownership was never officially registered. Even if this logistical logjam were cleared, the vast majority of Port-au-Prince residents, up to 85%, did not own their homes before the earthquake. According to some UN sources, rents for “green houses” (those that passed inspection) have gone up 300% in several areas.

So despite the best efforts on the ground, things are far from perfect, with no end in sight. Despite the almost 400,000 families living in the camps, only 5,000 temporary shelters have been supplied to date. In Caradeux, one of the planned relocation sites, officially managed by an NGO, the situation is grim. Elvire Constant, one of the members of the central committee, pointed out what should be obvious: tents offer no protection against wind, rain, and tropical sun, to say the least about security issues. On my last visit, she recalled, “the wind is crazy. Last night the wind blew for more than three hours straight. I woke up, got up on my knees and held the tent up, left and right so that the tent wouldn’t blow away with me. What’s more serious is the afternoon sun.” Elvire had to leave her tent because it was destroyed. She pointed to another, where we were standing right by the entrance to the camp, just recently shredded by that night’s winds. The tent was on the ground not more than ten days.

If, like UN Special Representative Edmond Mulet who had paid a visit the previous day, one doesn’t walk inside the camp, it appears to be well serviced. There are several buildings and shelters with various NGOs’ and government agencies’ names on them. At the entrance is a tent provided by UNICEF with “stop AIDS” written on it. “I’m a nurse,” Elvire began. “But we don’t have the means to serve the population. I spoke on TV and radio, telling the minister of public health that there are nurses available, and the population is vast [24,161, according to the latest information]. … UNICEF knows the tent is here, but they have never come by, not even one day, to negotiate with us, to tell us whether it could be a mobile clinic or a health center.” Inside the camp a ways, a tent from Save the Children whose purpose eluded everyone I asked was empty and ripped past the point of providing any shelter.

And this is in an officially managed camp, meaning that an NGO takes charge of making sure people’s minimal needs are met. My student assistant who visited this camp gave it a score of “3,” meaning that the conditions were all in all not that bad, on a scale from 1 to 10, with ten being the worst.

Unfortunately there are people living in much, much more dire situations.

My eight student assistants have been visiting over 100 camps, out of the 861 officially recognized in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. The camps were selected at random, one in eight. I myself followed up on invitations from camp residents, visiting more than 20. While the data is still being entered, so I can’t offer any statistics, far too many camps lack even the most basic services, seven months into the earthquake.

Given a persistent belief that people are only pretending to stay in the camps to get services, aid agencies are particularly loath to service small camps. Everyone’s top goal – especially people having to keep all their belongings in a tent that can rip or be ripped, offering only the most minimal protection from the hot Caribbean sun and the tropical rain storms that have been battering the island – is to be moved into their old house, or a permanent house. That’s why people choose to stay in a small, “spontaneous” shelter close by their old home, where their social ties, friends, families, churches, school, business, street commerce, etc. remain. One donor representative was quite blunt: “if we keep giving them services people will never move back into their homes.”

So these very people in the small camps trying desperately to do just that are in a second tier of camps that don’t offer any services. One committee leader, Carline Cherline, decried that the only time they got help was from a private citizen, who happened to have two tents to give. “After that, nothing at all. No one has come to offer aid.” The other ten shelters crowding the lakou (yard) of a private home, people had to buy. As if predicting a concern from visiting officials, “they should come by at night and see how many people are sleeping here. During the day, people are out in the market, out at school, out trying to make a living.”

For those – particularly policymakers who justify inaction by worrying about a handful of cases of people scamming the system – who do not have time or the means to spend the night in a camp, there are other ways to get this information: a blog containing firsthand accounts from inside the camps by Social Sciences student Carine Exantus and reporting from journalist / activist Etant Dupain.

Carine’s neighbors connected a wire so they could have two plugs, one for a radio and another to charge people’s cell phones. To go to the bathroom people have to ask a neighbor whose house is still standing. Carline explains, “it’s embarrassing. And even though they are neighbors, it’s starting to strain our relationship.” They have to buy water and carry it back into the camp.

Unfortunately Carline’s camp is far from unique. Reports from the field have detailed the lack of water and sanitation services.

For example, in Bobin, a camp where 2775 people live, in a ravine outside of Petion-Ville, there is only one latrine. Words don’t do justice to the odor. Some residents prefer to use plastic bags. In addition, there is no access to treated drinking water. A single PVC pipe that had cracked offers some people a couple of buckets whenever the government turns on the tap for paying clients. Many people use the rainwater in the trash-filled ravine. Residents mentioned that NGOs had talked about installing a water system but up to now, almost seven months after the earthquake, it’s still not here. According to Valerie Kaussen who investigated the situation, most of the problem lies in the fact that two NGOs, Solidarité and World Vision International, had begun “WASH” projects (water and sanitation), and so World Vision got out of the camp. Despite this, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Camp Management Officer (CMO, the official representative and responsible party for the city) in Petion-Ville, referred Dr. Kaussen to World Vision as the Camp Management Agency. As a result, the latrines and water has not been installed.

On the other side of the metropolitan area, at least two hours away by public transit, on top of a small hill abutting the national highway in the neighborhood of Paloma in Carrefour, lies an informal settlement, with tarp compounds sitting next to the remains of houses. This “camp,” recently discovered and catalogued by the IOM, is named after the committee: CAJIT, on Impasse Jean Thomas. Around 2500 people live in this camp.

The first words from Olga Ulysse, an international commercial importer or “Madam Sara” whose business was totally destroyed with her house, were gratitude that we even showed up. “People make appointments and they don’t come. I don’t know if it’s too far or if people are afraid of the mountain.” Before we ascended, her colleague Mme. Odrigue, an elected member of the local government council, asked if we too were afraid of the mountain. It was an embarrassing moment. No. Of course not. It was a six minute hike to the community center, a structure made of wood and two tarps, with random assortments of donated chairs rescued from the rubble of people’s homes. A child was sleeping on a table, just having been given medicine. CAJIT operates a makeshift clinic for the most needy. “We have some trained first aid givers, even a nurse. But we have to buy our own medicines.” In addition to the clinic, CAJIT organizes a twelve-person night watch, collecting funds to offer the six-men teams a hot plate of food before their watch. “All of this is without a penny,” Olga lamented.

Once in a while CAJIT organizes a clean up – and indeed the walkways were clear of trash when we visited last Monday. But there is not a single latrine for the entire camp. Olga explained, “We have to use plastic bags and throw them away in the convent next door.” Drinking water is even more serious. “Carrefour is blessed with many little springs. But the problem is that they are running under the destroyed houses and the decomposing bodies. It’s very unhealthy, yes. But we don’t have any choice at all.” The other choice is to walk downhill to the adjacent camp, pay for a bucket of water, and carry it back up the hill.”

Olga and Mme. Odrigue have made frequent visits to NGO and local government offices. Finally after all their efforts, in April, three months after the earthquake, Save the Children distributed 244 tarps for 427 families. Before that they were sleeping under bedsheets. And nothing has arrived since. “Nou bouke pale!” We’re tired of talking!

In cases like these, IOM acts as “camp manager of last resort,” and is supposed to conduct monthly visits to the camps. The problem, according to IOM staff, is a lack of resources. “We’re basically the go-between. All we can do is ask NGOs to adopt a site, make referrals.” To this end, IOM has invested a significant amount of time and funds to the “DTM” databases and “Yellow Pages,” listing the NGO camp management agency, the camp committees, and the NGOs offering services. What is done with this information, especially outlining gaps in services? “It’s up to the Haitian state, the local governments and the NGOs to provide necessary services.” How do they find out about problems? People are supposed to call the CMOs, or these CMOs will find out in the monthly site visits.

Clearly, the system hasn’t been working very well for Olga and her 2500 neighbors. When I gave these officially registered groups the local CMO’s number, they were met with suspicion and defensiveness.

The “WASH” cluster has adopted a more hands-on approach, more actively engaging the local authorities and the NGOs. Their “cluster” (one of twelve) meetings are held in the municipal government offices, to be more accessible to camp committees and local governments. Tellingly this is one of two clusters that are organized by the Haitian government and not the international community (the Minister of Women’s Condition and Rights co-organizes the gender-based violence cluster). According to WASH cluster staff, the issue is about NGOs’ willingness to work in a given area. Cité Soleil is far underserved because NGOs are afraid to, or don’t want to, work there. WASH and the IOM have a close collaboration in Cité Soleil, “but we can’t do more than push. The NGOs would rather work in the less badly hit, wealthier suburb of Petion-Ville (also close to their offices) rather than where the greatest need is,” decried the Cité Soleil IOM officer, who predicted that my data would show a much lower rate of coverage in his area.

The situation of duplication in Bobin, which in the end meant that both NGOs dropped it, would never have occurred in Cité Soleil. “I can barely get the NGOs to come visit Cité Soleil, Delmas 2, Bel-Air, etc. Some say that they can’t. Some say that their car rental insurance won’t cover it. Some say they are legally prevented. In any case, these are the areas of greatest need.” Feast or famine, the problem is the same: lack of NGO coordination and the Haitian government’s inability to mandate coverage.

As, of course, is the result.

In addition to these problems faced by officially-represented camp resident committees who are working to bring services to their neighbors, the committees themselves – and their relationship with NGOs – represent obstacles to many. According to the IOM, 95% of camps have resident committees. NGOs are officially encouraged to work with the committees, as one agency staff put it, “to check off the box for local participation.” Some NGOs give committees the power to distribute the aid, either from a belief in local empowerment or efficiency. But according to the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) – who any day now will be releasing their report on resident committees – NGOs know very little about them. In a presentation to the CCCM cluster meeting a couple of weeks ago, HAP reported that in the camp they studied, the camp committee actively excluded other local organizations, failed to include the population and certainly the most vulnerable (handicapped people and women with infants), and distributed aid in a non-transparent manner. At the cluster meeting, many NGO camp managers shared similar stories of non-accountable committees.

Missing from NGO staff analyses was their role in the problem.

True, immediately following the earthquake, many organizations did spring up organically as a means for survival and an expression of solidarity and unity. Some like CAJIT and several women’s organization camps in Léogâne clearly do have some impact with little outside resources and a true, bottom-up structure. But in far too many cases, the committees were formed, to put it bluntly in the words of a committee itself, “to get aid from the NGOs.”

Such is the case in Delmas 2, in a very large public plaza – ironically named, “Peace Plaza.” A grassroots organization, Men Nan Men (hand in hand), was founded on December 15 1990, the day before the election of Aristide. They have more than 2000 members, a formal leadership structure, an elected committee that meets weekly and a monthly tèt ansanm – roundtable – to discuss neighborhood problems. When the earthquake struck they were poised to offer leadership, and they did help neighbors assemble and share their limited means to ensure people’s survival. So it was a big surprise to Men Nan Men to find out that when a big foreign NGO came into the area, another group of people had been selected as the official camp committee, one that was just started after the earthquake instead of they who had been around for 20 years. “You have to accept it,” president Marie Berthe Israel sighed. “You have no choice. That’s who the NGOs contact with.”

All the same, Men Nan Men continues to advocate for the neighborhood, since they have deep ties and still have their regular meetings. They wrote a series of letters to NGOs asking for particular aid to arrive: to USAID, Concern, Viva Rio, etc. Berthe showed me a rejection letter – it was a form letter – from Concern stating that they were unable to finance the project. “We have people we are accountable to,” she said. “Every time we write a letter, people in the camp think that means the aid is arriving. When it doesn’t, people ask us where it went. People are counting on us.”

The camp – housing 6901 families – was indeed lacking in very many services. More than six months following the earthquake, the vast majority of families sleep under tarps, not tents. There were only a handful of tents in the camp, nestled underneath the tarps. So there isn’t even an illusion of security or privacy that tents provide. Worse, there were only a dozen toilets installed in the camp, alongside the road. They were overtaxed to the point of smelling very foul. There was no escaping the smell. In addition to the human feces and urine was the pungent mix of mud and trash. According to Men Nan Men leaders there were no trash receptacles to manage the waste, so it just collected on the perimeter of the camp where the toilets, the first aid station provided by Concern, and the water was located. Water was just being distributed in the camp as I arrived, so there was a very long line of people waiting with their 5-gallon buckets. It was crowded and noisy. People in the back of the line looked very worried, as if they seemed sure that the water would run out by the time it was their turn. The health situation is also bad; it’s a several kilometer walk to the nearest hospital. A volunteer “ajan sante” staffed the tent provided by Concern, unable to do more than dress wounds or give out aspirin.

People said over and again that NGOs need to sit down with the community – the whole community, when it meets – and listen to their concerns.

Berthe and the other Men Nan Men members are discouraged: NGOs appear to them to lack the will to help. Said one frustrated youth, “NGOs know the problems to resolve, but they want you to be in misery before they give you, make you suffer.” And another, “They have the means to help. If they don’t help, ONGs wouldn’t exist, and it’s because of these problems that they exist. If all problems were resolved there would never be NGOs.”

It seems the NGOs want to keep people in the situation of constantly needing them, of constantly having to ask for aid, of selling their dignity for a little help. That’s why some at Men Nan Men felt they were pushed aside in favor of this group that was just created the moment the NGO showed up. To them and other residents I’ve spoken with, NGOs don’t want people who are educated, who are organized, who can demand their rights are respected. They prefer committees who are tèt bese, with their heads down, waiting and happy to receive whatever gifts the NGOs give.

This issue of formal representation has other, more serious consequences. In Soeurs Salessiens, a large Catholic school in Carrefour, the officially recognized committee is the school administration and its representative one of the nuns who run the school.

This means that the NGOs offering services only hear from the school administration. Said Mura St. Badette, president of OVS, the Organization of Victims of the January 12th Earthquake, “We know there are NGOs outside. But [the school administration] doesn’t give us space to meet with any agency. In other words, when an NGO comes, we can never see them. It’s not that NGOs don’t want to talk with us, but they never have the opportunity to meet with the population. And the nuns would tell you that everything’s going well. Ok?”

Not everything is going well.

One issue is regarding the religious orders’ means of security. Badette explained, “From 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, they lock the gates. In other words, we’re in a prison.” What if you’re sick? I asked. “No, you just have to die! They won’t authorize you to leave.” School officials rebuilt the wall that was destroyed in the quake, but much higher.

The most pressing issue for Badette and others also involves security. Agents acting as security for the school have been pressuring people out. According to the OIM database 5169 families lived in the camp. But school officials have designs to close the camp. Said Badette, “from time to time you hear some pressure that they’re going to force us out. And recently they just said, ‘tomorrow, you have to leave.'” By the time of our first visit last Monday, over 2,000 people had already been moved. Several of the tents were ripped. Others were still standing in place, emptied of the people. “But several of us have had our tents ripped up,” recalled Badette. “And we have nowhere to go. We’re forced to stay here. Some people just left their things because they have nowhere to go with them.”

School officials had taken fingerprints and asked for copies of all official documents, asking people what amount of loan they would need to move. People became afraid that with all the official documentation they would be held legally to the loan, despite the fact that people didn’t get that amount. According to Badette, the IOM was surprised to find out that people only got 2500 gourdes, about $63, because school and NGO officials told them residents were getting much, much more. Badette summoned people who had been moved to offer proof.

The school has issued a deadline of next Sunday, August 15, for the rest of the people to move. But despite the offer of 2500 gourdes (Badette argued that not everyone received it), there has been no resettlement. So OVS began their efforts to negotiate with the church and the mayor’s office to find suitable relocation quarters.

Not only were OVS’ efforts in vain, they met with retaliation. On Thursday, when I was meeting with Badette and other leaders to attend a meeting that had been scheduled on the camp with the mayor’s office, an individual known to be working with the official security guards came to Badette’s tent with a knife. Badette said that he received death threats, and presumed this was an assassination attempt. Not finding Badette, the assailant ripped all the surrounding tents.

The following day, Badette went to the municipal court to offer a deposition, where I met him. Hopefully not because of the presence of foreigners, the judge, Franz Guillou saw Badette right away and we drove with him back to Soeurs Salessiens, where judge Guillou assessed the damage to the tent and took three people’s testimony. During the 15 minutes we were there, this same assailant locked the gate, keeping us from our scheduled 11:00 appointment with Mayor Yvon Jerome and his two assistant mayors in City Hall. Enraged, Judge Guillou demanded that the door be opened. Finally, after 10 minutes, his attendant police officer arrested the assailant and the uniformed security guards opened the gates. Within minutes, Judge Guillou issued a warrant and protection order.

While the situation just described made us forty minutes late, we did end up meeting with Mayor Jerome, Assistant Mayor Blake, and staff, during which time Jerome called the school administration to invite them to meet with OVS. They agreed.

Mayor Jerome has made a reputation for negotiating with land owners. Many in the international community look to him as a model, crediting the success of unblocking land tenure by holding community meetings and building houses in Diquini, where ADRA has worked for years, to his active engagement (additionally, the traffic jams are caused not by piles of rubble waiting to be carted away but by teams rebuilding the national highway). He reiterated to Badette and others that regrettably the city has no developable land to resettle the people remaining at Soeurs Salessiens.

Breaking their promise to OVS and Mayor Jerome, the school administration failed to show up to the meeting, so Jerome issued Badette a police officer as security detail (according to Badette, the assailant was released from jail). So while his life is no longer in immediate danger, Badette’s fate is far from settled. He and his neighbors have a week left to find a solution.

And he is far from alone.

While the physical threats may be extreme, Badette’s situation is unfortunately quite common. In Carrefour alone, seven other camps are also in the same situation. IOM’s May database included 42 camps, or 5% of the metro area, that were officially closed. In the next two months, 19 of my random selection of 104, or 18%, had closed. Student assistants have uncovered several other cases of imminent camp closure. International Action Ties is also following the cases of several other forced closures, yesterday meeting with three groups in Ruelle Figaro, in Petion-Ville, including former residents of Camp Immaculée, evacuated because of unchecked physical violence. All faced similar issues of the private land owners icing people out by withholding necessary life-saving services, like water.

This issue of forced eviction is greater than is generally known, and shows signs of heating up with the political campaign. Just like Carline’s neighbors, land owners are losing their patience.

Mayor Jerome put the matter most succinctly: “the issue is that it’s private property. And we the government don’t have any public land we can make available to you.”

This is undoubtedly going to be the biggest political challenge facing the candidates: what to do when the rights of 1.7 million people to protection and housing clash with the right to private property.

To some, the answer is clear. Article 22 of Haiti’s constitution specifies the right to safe housing. Representing other residents facing similar eviction threat, at a recent Bureaux des Avocats Internationaux (BAI, international lawyers’ office) press conference, Mario Joseph argued, “the state has the right to declare private property for social and housing purposes under the 8th of July 1921 Decree on the Recognition of Public Interest.”

How can this dilemma be solved? Unfortunately it might come down to, whose rights matter more, the 1.7 million homeless or the hundreds of private landowners?

Badette has been in touch with two groups, BAI and Fòs Refleksyon ak Aksyon pou Koze Kay (FRAKKA, the reflection and action force for housing), who have offered legal, technical, tactical, organizational, and moral support. Both groups have been involved in defending rights of internally displaced people, IDPs, particularly the right to decent housing. Recently the two groups teamed up with Batay Ouvriye to organize a sit-in this coming Thursday, the 12th, seven months after the earthquake, in front of the National Palace, at 10:00.

Unfortunately Badette, Olga, Berthe, and Carline are not alone in their struggles for daily necessities. Like the thousands who are contemplating moving back into their damaged homes, we need to ask, are they just falling through the cracks, or is the foundation itself unsound?

Prudence – not to mention justice – demands that we not wait til the next disaster to find out.

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. Having researched NGOs in Haiti since 2001, he is studying the impact of aid on conditions and governance in the IDP camps this summer. He can be reached at:




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.