“You get up in the morning and it’s the fight for food and wood and water.” This is how a young widow, mother of four children, describes the struggle of everyday life in Haiti. She was speaking several years before the recent earthquake. For even before the disaster that hit the capital a month ago, the scale of economic and social rights deprivation in the country was already catastrophic.
One in five children under five was severely malnourished. Almost half the population did not have access to safe drinking water. Three quarters of the population lived on less than US$2 a day. More than two million people – 86 percent of the urban population – lived in inhuman conditions in squalid slums such as Cité Soleil.
As has been amply commented, it was these chronic levels of poverty and deprivation that made the impact of the earthquake all the more devastating. The devastation was far from random: the greatest casualties were among the poorest communities living in the most precarious housing conditions. The risk of hunger, disease, violence and death in the immediate aftermath continues to fall disproportionately on the most disadvantaged people, especially women and girls.
In one of the most incisive accounts of the “structural violence” of poverty, Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power shows how the impact of previous catastrophes in Haiti - such as AIDS, malnutrition or political violence – has never been random or accidental, but structured by economic and social inequalities, and by the policies and politics which reinforce them – policies which have been shaped and determined largely by the international community in Haiti’s recent history.
The devastation wrought by the earthquake, and the faltering responses to it, should call into question the effectiveness of development policy in Haiti, and the extent to which it has tackled the structural factors which have made economic and social rights such an elusive promise for most Haitians.
While the international community is understandably focused on immediate recovery efforts, voices within Haiti are calling for a critical rethink of the model of development assistance which has been pursued by external actors in the country. Haitian human rights and development organizations are advocating for an alternative humanitarian aid effort which marks a break with past practices, which have often failed to respect the dignity and agency of beneficiaries, in turn reinforcing dependency on international actors.
These voices are calling for humanitarian efforts to be respectful of the forms of economic solidarity that grassroots organizations have struggled to put in place over the decades. Their vision is of a new partnership for reconstruction with economic and social rights at its core.
As a recent joint statement by Haitian organizations urged: “We would hope to see the emergence of international brigades working together with our organizations in the struggle to carry out agrarian reform and an integrated urban land reform programme, the struggle against illiteracy and for reforestation, and for the construction of new modern, decentralised and universal systems of education and public health.”
The cancellation of part of Haiti’s external debt and the promised commitment of massive humanitarian aid are to be welcomed given the scale of the disaster. In the United States alone non-governmental donations have so far exceeded $600 million. As Haitian civil society organizations argue, however, this unprecedented level of aid must be deployed with a much greater sense of accountability – accountability both to the Haitian people and to the principles of human rights which must guide future reconstruction and development policy in Haiti.
Haitian civil society voices have too often gone unheard or unheeded in international policy debates on rebuilding Haiti. If indeed a new Haiti is to be built from the rubble, the reconstruction process should be informed by their vision. Future development efforts must remedy the structural inequities of the past, rather than reproducing or reinforcing them. They must be firmly grounded on the basic standards and principles of human rights – including economic and social rights. And they must be led by Haitians themselves.
“After the catastrophe: our country can rise again,” claim 14 Haitian organizations that make up the Plateforme des Organisations Haïtiennes de Droits Humains (POHDH) and Plateforme haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), on 27 January 2010. The international community should support their aspirations and vision for change.