Faultlines in Haiti: Who is Listening on the Ground?

By Michelle Chen Feb 09, 2010

Haiti’s devastation is metastasized into a roiling homelessness crisis, and aid groups warn of another potential mass displacement as the government considers shifting people to supposedly more organized encampments outside the capital. What do Haitian survivors think of the emerging plans? Many might not even have heard about them yet. It’s impossible to gauge exactly what the earthquake refugees are thinking now, but you can imagine that after experiencing total dispossession, getting ripped away again from what’s left of their communities is not a matter they take lightly. Oxfam recently conducted a survey that suggest a wide information gap as survivors try to anchor themselves amid chaos. In a survey of about 100 camp residents, Oxfam reports:

Less than a third of people living in one of the largest camps in Port au Prince say that they are willing to move to camps sited outside the city… If the new improved camps are established close to where they used to live then the proportion willing to move leaps to nearly three quarters. The survey also revealed that there is little official public information available about plans to move people to new camps. Whilst 63 per cent had heard of the Government plans to resettle people, none had heard it directly from the Government and none had been consulted. Some 13 per cent of people had heard of the plans from friends, 10 percent from the local radio and just one per cent had heard it from non-governmental organizations. People surveyed said that any new camp would have to provide the very basics of housing, food, water and medical services as well as employment and schools.

Oxfam’s Head of Emergency in Haiti Marcel Stoessel said, "If new camps are set-up then people should be not be forced to go. The camps should be safe to reduce criminality and protect vulnerable groups such as women and children. They should also be seen as temporary solutions not end up as long term slums outside the city limits." Some of this may seem obvious, but it’s important that this kind of public sentiment, however rough, be documented. The U.S. and international bodies, as well as some Haitian officials, now wield extremely broad (if fractious) power to literally rearrange Haiti from the top down. And as we’ve seen with Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian Tsunami, state-orchestrated displacement–even as an emergency stopgap measure–can condemn the worst-off, most invisible survivors to a permanent economic and political no man’s land. The fact that many people appear to have been neither informed nor consulted by the government reveals the distance between the most devastated communities and the authorities charged rebuilding their futures. The survey also reflects OxFam’s position as a player in the politics behind the relief effort, and perhaps the group’s concerns that that certain organizations will have more clout in dictating recovery policies. There’s room for another layer of scrutiny to be applied to the prominent NGOs stepping into the logistical and political vacuum in Port au Prince. The racially charged turmoil that has marred the initial weeks of the recovery sheds light on the tangled lines of accountability, and how a flood of well-intentioned efforts can strain such a brittle humanitarian apparatus. If NGOs are reaching just a tiny fraction of survey respondents with information about the plans, that too raises questions about the type of communications infrastructure needed to facilitate a democratic, or at least equitable, process for refugee resettlement. Activists working with grassroots and indigenous organizations have complained of being shut out of the aid effort, when they are eager to contribute unique expertise and hard-earned trust they have cultivated in the years spent on the ground before Port au Prince was toppled. At the same time, the weaknesses in the pre-quake NGO infrastructure should prompt more vigilant debate about the appropriate role of national and foreign governments in marshaling and coordinating relief resources. Always, the search for solutions to the immediate crisis circles back to the long-term rebuilding picture. OxFam and other groups have laid out a blueprint for recovery that includes debt cancellation, progressive taxation that channels some of the excesses of global finance toward rebuilding, and rich countries’ commitment to grant-based aid in order to seed the self-sufficiency that has eluded Haiti since it began its revolution. With the stroke of a pen, or at the barrel of a gun, people can be moved, neighborhoods reconfigured, local economies restructured–but without respect for the people who cannot flee, write legislation or strike deals with international financial institutions, social engineering provides no escape for a nation long overdue for deliverance. Image: Emergency hospital relief (Gwenn Goodale Mangine / Konbit Pou Ayiti)