At the two-year anniversary of the earthquake, I am finding myself with a case of insomnia. Here I am, enjoying the perfect Haitian winter, lying awake with my head filled with thoughts I can’t escape. Sure, it’s natural to reflect on what has happened as another year ends, yet what I can’t seem to get away from is all the things that haven’t happened.
The hundreds of thousands who haven’t moved out of the camps they set up after the earthquake, two years ago. The permanent homes that haven’t been constructed, hell even the temporary shelters that haven’t been built. The tarps that only last a couple of months yet haven’t been replaced after two years. The jobs that haven’t been created, the billions that haven’t been spent, the building back better that apparently will never happen.
I am still moved to tears when I watch footage of the camps, and I bite the insides of my cheeks when I walk through those twisting paths of mud, those tiny corridors that separate families sleeping in tents two years after the earthquake.
I am heartbroken by the small children who have spent their entire lives in the subhuman conditions of Haiti’s IDP camps.
This is a reflection, not a news article or an analysis. It is simply my thoughts written down. When I lie awake at night I feel shame and I feel the weight of not doing more. I work with people who live in camps, and my partners spend their days holding trainings, mobilizing, encouraging those living in the camps and working in factories. We do what we can, but it is not enough.
I can’t help but dwell on a decision that was made in the first days after the earthquake, a terrible, criminal, perhaps even evil decision. Because the catastrophe had struck an urban area, human rights “experts” who had flown in to oversee the emergency response declared that it would not be possible to apply Sphere Standards in Haiti. Sphere Standards are the minimum humanitarian response that people can expect after a disaster:
The Sphere Handbook “puts the right of disaster-affected populations to life with dignity, and to protection and assistance at the centre of humanitarian action. It promotes the active participation of affected populations as well as of local and national authorities, and is used to negotiate humanitarian space and resources with authorities in disaster-preparedness work.”
The minimum standards laid out by the Handbook covers these four essential facets of humanitarian aid: water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion; food security and nutrition; shelter, settlement and non-food items; and health action.
This was certainly not the first time that Haitians were given a different standard, and I’m sure it won't be the last. But I can't understand why, despite the billions in the pipeline for Haiti’s recovery and the existence of a set of humanitarian standards developed to be universal – created specifically to define the response to any disaster in the world – why these standards were simply tossed aside.
Are Haitian lives less valuable than the lives of people from other nationalities? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. To decide that they were less valuable would be racist, at least. It would even be evil, wouldn’t it?
Yet Haitians were declared to be unworthy of applying the universal minimum standards for relief after a disaster. I’ve heard the arguments. I was in the room at several meetings of the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
(OCHA) clusters where well-meaning humanitarians explained why they couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, be applying Sphere Standards. It was an urban disaster, there wasn’t enough space, the NGOs and agencies didn’t have the experience necessary… the list went on. But the underlying theme should have been clear to any observer: the will, the effort required to give Haitians minimum standards of relief after the quake, simply didn’t exist.
Much has been said about this but in my opinion not nearly enough. Why aren’t we angrier, why aren’t we outraged? I wonder why the Haitian-American community isn’t more pissed off that Haitians were given a different standard than the international
minimum. I wonder why all of the NGOs that have a mission to serve the most vulnerable haven’t gotten together and overthrown the system that decided the most vulnerable Haitians weren’t deserving of what the most vulnerable people from other countries would get in a similar situation.
Adhering to Sphere Standards in Haiti would have required innovation and creativity, but the result would have been the thing everyone claimed to be doing: building back better. Port-au-Prince didn’t make sense before the quake. Even if it wasn’t built on a powerfully dangerous fault line, Port-au-Prince was initially built for about 15% of the population it had before the earthquake. There wasn’t adequate sanitation, drainage, infrastructure.
The overpopulation was a result of a ruinous trend of centralization that had been put into motion during an early 20th Century occupation of Haiti by the U.S. military. This centralization of government, education, market and investment over decades had left the rural majority with barely the means to survive. Despite some pockets of fertile land and abundance, most of rural Haiti became overworked and the land exhausted. Trees cut down for fuel and income, children malnourished, public services nearly non-existent.
The experts, both Haitian and foreign, had no difficulty in identifying these problems after the earthquake. The centralization, the struggle for survival for the majority of Haitians who were marginalized outside the capital – these themes were repeated throughout the post-disaster needs assessment and rebuilding plans.
Yet the humanitarian complex, the same one that declared Haitians would not be getting the minimum standards of disaster relief, also decided to ignore the obvious need to move people out of Port-au-Prince and invest some of the millions and billions they had in changing the warped and unbalanced ways of the last century. Indeed, had the NGOs and agencies done what was necessary to meet the Sphere Standards they would have been forced to also do what Haiti has needed for the longest time – decentralization.
Of course Sphere Standards couldn’t be met in the parks and empty lots where people fled in the hours after the quake. Of course you would have to move them into safer spaces, less likely to flood, large enough for families to have basic minimum space requirements met. And yes, these relocation camps would have cost money – to set up community spaces, recreation and education and market spaces. But the money was there, hundreds of millions of those dollars are still there, two years later. And the Haitians who were left homeless by the quake? They are still there, too, in squalid, dangerous camps in the parks and once-empty lots of Port-au-Prince and its suburbs.
I watched an interview with a foreign aid worker the other day that made me cringe. He spoke of the need foreign aid workers have to eat at nice restaurants and have their other “basic” needs met. I wondered if this was the reason the humanitarian aid complex came in and centralized the relief efforts. Was it because you can’t find a decent supermarket filled with imported goods outside the capital city? You can’t find a high end Italian restaurant, or good Chinese food if you leave Port-au-Prince, can’t find the nightlife of $80-a-ticket concerts headlined by foreign acts or the lovely swimming pools with swim up bars at the fancy hotels. Is this why the aid community based itself in the upscale suburbs of Port-au-Prince?
I have used the phrase criminal negligence more than once when describing the conditions in the IDP camps. While NGO workers claimed people had other places to go and chose to stay in camps for services while simultaneously removing those services, while they seemed to hardly skip a beat while transitioning from a conversation that justified two tarps per family as adequate emergency shelter to ordering a $20 US lunch at a sweet little café, I had to wonder how so many people could so blindly repeat the errors that history and an earthquake had laid bare for us all to learn from.
And I wonder, too, why there isn’t more anger to see these mistakes repeated. Where is the outrage?
Melinda Miles is the director of Let Haiti Live, a project of TransAfrica.