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Haiti's "unnatural disaster''

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  January 11, 2012 04:06 PM

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Jan. 12 marks two years since Haiti’s devastating earthquake. Though the tragedy was billed a “natural disaster,” an earthquake is not enough to explain the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and the destruction of millions of homes. It isn’t enough to explain the acute food shortage immediately following the quake or the humanitarian crisis that continues today, with more than half a million Haitian people tented in over-crowded, sweltering IDP camps without access to basic services, and the cholera epidemic that has infected more than 500,000 people in the past 15 months. What has happened in Haiti is better termed an “unnatural disaster.”

To place blame solely on the earthquake is to miss the political and historical underpinnings of poverty in Haiti.. The damage was far worse than it should have been because Port-au-Prince was home to hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers whose fragile shanty homes folded like cards. The slums existed in part because the collapse of the farming sector led rural poor to the city in search of nonexistent jobs. The farming sector collapse, in turn, was caused by factors including U.S. free trade and food aid policies that flooded Haiti’s market with cheap imported food for decades. And all of these problems were compounded by the fact that the institution charged with confronting and solving these challenges – the government – lacked the infrastructure and ability to respond and itself was decimated by the earthquake.

A country this fragile, whose citizens largely lived on less than $2 per day, lacked the resources to ride out a natural disaster. Unfortunately, the kind of aid Haiti has received in response to an acute problem didn’t address the country’s chronically underfunded sectors of health, education, and agriculture.

Haiti doesn’t only need short-term aid. Every aspect of Haiti’s recovery – from acquiring food security to providing health care – requires long-term support grounded in a rights-based approach to development. Only this approach can fix systemic inequalities in order to create a stronger and more self-sufficient society. American Jewish World Service and Partners In Health have used the rights-based approach for decades by empowering community groups and government institutions to build local capacity.

Haitian community groups like AJWS grantee Lambi Fund are at the helm of creating long-term, sustainable change. The Fund supports projects on rural development, crop diversification, grain storage and agricultural processing as well as organizational development. Over the past two years, Lambi Fund has helped rural women and peasant groups respond to the post-quake out-migration from cities to the countryside with food and essentials while also providing seeds, tools and equipment to plant crops to feed these communities into the future. It supports rebuilding of community enterprises central to the economic livelihoods of these areas that were lost in the earthquake such as grain mills, sugar cane mills and rainwater cisterns for safe drinking water. Additionally, Lambi Fund is recapitalizing micro-credit funds run by grassroots organizations so that people can replenish and continue their small businesses.

But community groups cannot change the country on their own. They need capable, accountable government institutions as partners in this work. For Lambi Fund, that means a functional Ministry of Agriculture. For Partners in Health, it means working with the Haitian Ministry of Health in 12 health centers and hospitals for over a decade to improve infrastructure and train and support Ministry staff. This year, the doors will open to a national reference and teaching hospital in Mirebalais. PIH supported the Ministry in its development and construction because the hospital represents a long-term investment in access to state-of-the-art care in Haiti and in providing hands-on training for future generations of Haitian doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

From the outset, grassroots organizations have been marginalized and excluded from the most important decisions about Haiti’s future, with key meetings held almost exclusively in the capital or outside the country entirely and in English or French instead of Kreyol. Capacity building for Haitian institutions has been ignored by donors who have thrown up their hands at the idea of creating a robust, functional government. Instead, they prefer aid projects with outcomes measured in days or weeks, not months and years. This might be the easy choice for donors, but it’s not the right choice for Haiti.

International actors in Haiti including foreign governments and organizations like ours must not forget that our role is to support the aspirations of the Haitian people and help build the backbone for a sustainable society. Haitians are the true experts and leaders who should be charting the nation’s future. They are the ones who will need to hold their government accountable for its promises long after the international spotlight is gone.

Two years after the earthquake, Haiti’s needs remain acute but the resilience of the Haitian people remains unshakable. It is up to us to demand that international policy makers invest in Haiti for the long term. Haiti deserves an independent, bright future.

Dr. Joia Mukherjee is chief medical officer at Partners in Health, an associate professor at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School and an associate physician at the Division of Global Health Equity, Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

Ruth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.


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