As hurricane Tomas unleashed its wrath on Haiti, hundreds of thousands of Haitians endured the storm under flimsy tents, tarps and bedsheets located on floodplains and perched on mudslide-prone slopes. Many Haitians lost what little they have left in the world in a completely foreseeable disaster.
Since the earthquake of January 12, there has been a lot of talk in the media about “disaster-prone Haiti” and the “ill-fated Haitian people.” First there was the worst earthquake in Haiti’s history, killing an estimated 300,000 people, seriously injuring even more and destroying much of Haiti’s capital. Just last month, cholera broke out north of Port-au-Prince. According to official numbers, the body count is over 500 and the number of people infected is over 7,000 – and these numbers are certain to rise. Then, last Friday, Hurricane Tomas assailed Haiti with major flooding, mudslides and winds.
One might lament mother nature’s seeming obsession with inflicting suffering on the Haitian people. This reaction, however, obscures the fact that while the events themselves might be natural, the devastating effects are anything but. Haiti’s extreme vulnerability to environmental stresses directly stems from policies implemented by the Haitian government and the international community, both before and after the earthquake of January 12.
International aid, trade, debt and governance policies over many decades made Haiti dependent on imported food and materials and crippled the domestic economy. These policies forced Haitian farmers off their land and into the low-lying cities and encouraged the deforestation of Haiti’s hillsides. The policies also severely curtailed the Haitian government’s ability to provide basic public services to its citizens, including healthcare, housing and sanitation services. The result is a country and a population that are acutely vulnerable to environmental stresses like earthquakes, diseases and storms.
Hurricane Tomas and the cholera outbreak have starkly exposed the failures of the international and domestic responses to the earthquake. Almost 10 months after the earthquake, the international community has failed to provide safe, weather-resistant shelter for even a fraction of the approximately 1.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in tent camps. Most camps lack proper sanitation, a shortcoming that leaves hundreds of thousands of people acutely vulnerable to disease.
Despite the generous pledges of billions of dollars in assistance by individuals and countries across the world, only a small percentage of promised funds has reached organizations in Haiti, and only a miniscule fraction of the money delivered has reached the Haitian people themselves. Many Haitians are living just as they were immediately after the earthquake with utterly inadequate access to sanitation, shelter, food and clean water.
The Haitian government has not made any significant land available for emergency or transitional housing, and the land it has made available is largely unacceptable. The Corail-Cesselesse camp north of Port-au-Prince was supposed to be an example of a planned and successful camp for IDPs who were relocated from dangerous areas. Yet even with hurricane season looming and the widespread knowledge that this area was a floodplain and prone to high winds, the Haitian government encouraged thousands of people to set up their homes there. As Hurricane Tomas neared, the Haitian government and the United Nations called for a “voluntary evacuation” of this camp and others. The tragic irony is clear: If these people had safer shelters to go to, they would have gone long ago.
Uniting all of these failures is the systematic exclusion of the vast majority of the Haitian people from all levels of decision-making. UN cluster meetings, meant to coordinate the government’s, NGOs’, and UN’s rebuilding of Haiti – and, in theory, open to the public – are conducted either in French or in English, not in Creole, the only language spoken by over 80 percent of Haitians. International NGOs have no accountability to the Haitian people and, apart from ubiquitous campaign posters, the Haitian government is completely absent from Haitians’ lives. The upcoming elections on November 28 promise to leave this pattern completely unchanged: turnout is expected to be extremely low due to the exclusion of popular parties and a widespread lack of faith in the government.
The Haitian people will continue to disproportionately suffer from natural and unnatural disasters until the policies and practices that make the country particularly vulnerable to environmental stresses are changed. These much-needed changes will not occur via the upcoming elections. Rather, they will only happen by empowering the disenfranchised majority of the Haitian people to take control of their country. The international community and Haitian government must privilege the voices of the Haitian people and allow true democratic participation at all levels to drive the rebuilding Haiti. It is the deliberate choices of the Haitian elite and the international community – not mother nature – that has failed Haiti.