In the ongoing humanitarian response in Haiti, 'dignity' is no mere watchword

In the immediate weeks following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, a number of Haitians said that recovering from the disaster signaled a new start for Haiti, a chance to rebuild the country as if from scratch.

People on the street in Haiti
People on the street in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Photo: Nils Carstensen/ACT

By Chris Herlinger and Nils Carstensen

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – In the immediate weeks following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, a number of Haitians said that recovering from the disaster signaled a new start for Haiti, a chance to rebuild the country as if from scratch.

But even those who expressed such hopes also acknowledged their own trauma – trauma they could feel in their own bodies.

"I close my eyes and see buildings collapsing within me," said one veteran Haitian humanitarian worker.

Some worried that, expressed on a wider scale, delayed trauma "could create a lot of anger later on, maybe even violence, because there will be a lot of frustration," this worker said.

To understand a bit of this frustration it helps to understand the context. When people’s homes came crashing down, survivors lost not only family members, friends and most material possessions, but also a sense of security.

In its place, came terrifying questions: When will I ever have a home again? How and where? When do I dare send my child back into a still-standing school building? When -- if ever -- can I return to work? Will there be work? What do I do for a living -- to feed the family right now -- and in ten months time? How will we find a proper shelter during the rainy season? Will I ever again be able to close a door behind me and say I’m home?

One of those asking such questions is teacher Marie Therese Mayard, 65, a resident of the city of Petit Goave, southwest of Port-au-Prince. One day recently Mayard said she was anxious as she and others at a displacement site had not yet eaten.

Though she later received a cash grant for food -- provided by the National Human Rights Defense Network, a Haitian partner of the CWS-supported ACT Alliance --worries have become part of Mayard's daily life. As she showed visitors around the primary school where she once taught, Mayard mentioned that "robbers are here sometimes."

"We're just asking for security," she said.

Another sense of frustration was palpable during a visit to the heavily hit area of downtown Port-au-Prince. Understandable irritation and suspicion hung in the air in what seemed like a post-apocalyptic scene of rubble and exhaustion, decay and gloom.

Weary residents waved away a group of journalists, suggesting they were tired of answering questions and having their photos taken; they had not seen any assistance themselves and were tired of being treated as objects of pity.

Now, weeks later, and having passed the two-month mark since the quake, is that frustration being mirrored throughout the country?

In some ways it seems so. Reports of crime are on the rise, as are the continuing and disturbing reports of rape and sexual assault against women and girls in the numerous displacement camps in and around Port-au-Prince.

Moreover, while billions of dollars have poured into Haiti, "millions of Haitians are still desperate for food, water, shelter and protection from abuse and exploitation," according to a recent report by the humanitarian group Refugees International.

Such concerns hit at the very foundation of humanitarian response: that the innate humanity and dignity of those who survive a disaster must be upheld and respected.

Indeed, one of the most striking things to outsiders visiting Haiti – aside from the obvious overwhelming devastation and considerable logistical problems in responding to the disaster – is the continued and repeated use of the word "dignity."

ACT Alliance General Secretary John Nduna recognized the importance of that word when he recently visited a displacement camp in Port-au-Prince and met with residents there. "I was very moved by the reality of their lives and the dignity they manage to maintain despite the conditions,” he said.

Dignity was also at the center of the three-day-long commemoration in Port-au-Prince's central Champs de Marcs a month after the earthquake – an event that represented not only a collective mourning service involving Catholics, Protestants and practitioners of indigenous religions. It became a dignified and orderly manifestation of grief beyond comprehension.

Haitians have stressed that "dignity" is no mere watchword. It must now undergird how immediate and long-term assistance, rehabilitation and recovery are fashioned in Haiti – something that will no doubt be discussed during a major March 31 donors meeting at the UN.

Specifically, say Haitians, ultimately the recovery and reconstruction of Haiti will need to be done by Haitians themselves. These are not just nice words. In a normal year Haitians living abroad send an estimated $1.5 billion back home, according to the UN. Judging by the lines in front of banks and Western Union offices in Port-au-Prince, this amount is only likely to increase.

Seen in that context, international contributions, such as the ACT Alliance appeal for some $31 million, are relatively modest.

Still, such aid is needed – though with a caveat.

"If Haitians themselves are not involved (in reconstruction efforts), it could be a waste of time and money," said Prospery Raymond, ACT/Christian Aid country manager, himself Haitian. "It would not be wise."

It would not be wise for a host of reasons – not least because of the extreme weight of history and the fraught legacy of Haiti's relations with outside powers like France and the United States.

But the most obvious reason is that Haitians know their local circumstances and conditions better than outsiders.

At times, this simple truism has been overlooked by outsiders during the past two months, as have numerous informal and local Haitian relief and self-help efforts. Most noticeable of these efforts is how an estimated 600,000 people from Port-au-Prince fled to the countryside after the earthquake and have since been surviving on the solidarity of family and friends in small, impoverished rural towns and villages.

In its recent report, Refugees International criticized the lack of coordination between the UN and local Haitian groups.

"The first step to improving humanitarian programs in Haiti is for the UN and international agencies to link into Haiti’s civil society network. There is a strong, organized civil society comprised of grassroots community-based organizations under umbrella networks, as well as larger, established development non-governmental organizations (NGOs)," the report said.

The ACT Alliance's response has upheld the need for, and value of, close ties between local organizations and ACT members, many of whom have a long history in Haiti despite being based in other countries.

While the cooperation and coordination are not seamless – they never are, particularly in a disaster the scale of Haiti's earthquake – the notion of a local response, supplemented by outside assistance, is nothing new to ACT Alliance members and their partners.

As one example, ACT/Church World Service and Service Chretien d'Haiti are working together to assist more than 1,200 Haitians with disabilities, with Service Chretien d'Haiti administrating the program. The program is being implemented in coordination with the government of Haiti's Secretary of State for Disabled People.

Will the ACT model work to ameliorate the problems, even terrors, Haiti faces? Not all certainly.

"We have to end the idea that 'we're the response,' " Martin Coria, Latin America/Caribbean coordinator for ACT Alliance member Church World Service, said of the perception that outsiders somehow have the power to single-handedly solve Haiti's problems.

"There's always been a 'fixer mentality' about Haiti: that single issue approaches – microfinance, food security, literacy -- will solve 'the problem' of Haiti," he said.

In fact, Haiti's problems have to be seen as closely linked and will not be solved quickly or easily, Coria said. Supporters of work by ACT Alliance members must be prepared to support long-term work with local groups – work that will require time, patience and an understanding and appreciation about the need for partnership, he said.

For the humanitarian community working in Haiti, Coria said, "there are no miracle approaches."

ACT Alliance Communicators Chris Herlinger of Church World Service and Nils Carstensen of DanChurchAid were recently on assignment in Haiti.

How to help

Contributions may be made at www.churchworldservice.org/haiti or by phoning 800-297-1516 or by mailing to Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515 (please indicate Haiti Earthquake). 

ACT Alliance Church World Service is member of the ACT Alliance, an international coalition of churches and related organizations responding to emergencies and collaborating in development work.

More stories, video and other resources on the CWS response in Haiti>>

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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