Two Years Later, Where is the Outrage?

Kafou Ayopo camp: May 23 Destruction of the Camp at the Airport Road Intersection: Mayor Wilson Jeudy of Delmas was the first local official in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area to begin illegally dismantling the camps of internally displaced people.Kafou Ayopo camp: May 23 Destruction of the Camp at the Airport Road Intersection: Mayor Wilson Jeudy of Delmas was the first local official in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area to begin illegally dismantling the camps of internally displaced people.There is not enough anger for my anger, there is not enough grief  for my grief.

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.