It has been nearly a year since Haiti was devastated by a major earthquake, but the conditions of the populations are still dramatic, to say the least. So far, the involvement of NGOs and international agencies has revealed to be all but effective and in many circumstances has further deteriorated the already catastrophic state of things. In this domain, those with experience on the ground can help deepen our awareness about the situation in Haiti. For this reason, l’Occidentale has interviewed Frederico Cavazzini, a Portuguese major expert on Anti-Corruption and Development Studies, who has been an eye-witness of the challenging environment in the “land forgotten by God”.
How is the situation in Haiti today, almost one year after the tragic earthquake occurred on 12th January 2010?
The situation is shocking. The country is as destroyed as it was soon after the earthquake and there are few signs of improvement. The population is hungry, with no water, no electricity, no sanitation, living in extremely difficult conditions. The earthquake destroyed 80% of the buildings in Port-au-Prince and left more than 1.5 million Haitians displaced. These people have, once again, become invisible. Because they are not seen or heard in mainstream media, most people assume things are getting better but they are not. The truth is that almost a year later, most of the people who lost their houses and their belongings, are still living in substandard conditions, despite the billions in aid pledged to Haiti. And as a result of the slow process of providing shelter and decent sanitation conditions to that homeless population, there is now a cholera outbreak that has killed 2000 people and sickened several other thousands.
Tell us more about your personal experience in Haiti.
I spent a week in Haiti volunteering with an amazing chilean NGO called Un Techo Para Mi Pais - UTPMP (A Roof For My Country). Together with my colleagues, I was operating in a village called Canaan, which looked like a refugee camp. We totally merged into the local community, sleeping in tents or in the same pre-fabricated houses that we were building for the families that lost everything they had, including a roof over their heads. Living with limited water and food for one week, no electricity nor toilets, and working around the clock to build as many houses as possible, from dusk till dawn, was very intense but very fulfilling. If one week was hard, I cannot imagine to live like that for almost one year. In spite of all the adverse conditions, we were able to build around 300 houses in one week with our bare hands and together with the local community, as they are participants of their own development. That, for me, is “development action”, that is what other major organizations should be doing but they are not.
So, what are they doing in Haiti?
They are wasting their time with endless negotiations and reconstruction plans, while a great percentage of the population is still living inside precarious shelters, with limited food and water, mostly provided by these other NGOs that are in the field, as Haiti, to add up to its long list of problems, has had a food crisis for many decades and imports most of what it consumes. Naturally, I agree that a concerted and long term plan is needed for the reconstruction of the country and for fostering its economic development but when we are dealing with humanitarian emergency, I think that all efforts should be put on saving lives before anything else.
What should be done to improve the situation?
It is a real emergency. The first thing is to take these people out of the streets and give them a roof. That is what UTPMP has successfully been doing in a short time frame and just with the means of a small NGO. For a more comprehensive approach, it is necessary the immediate release of pledged aid. Housing needs to be recognized as a human right with immediate steps to empower people to return to a safe home, and basic services must be made available to all. Without a roof, there are no conditions to raise a family, find a job, go to school, etc, it is the basis of a dignified human life.
How much did such an experience psychologically hit you?
While I was in Haiti, I dealt reasonably well with all the misery and poverty around me, probably because I was so busy working and tired, but when I got back home I had the chance to think it over. The awareness that there are so many people living in such bad conditions is really hard to stand, as well as all those stories of loss and the faded look in those children's eyes still shaken by all that tragedy. But the smiles on their faces when we gave them the houses, or medical supplies, or toys, made it all worthwhile.
What about the accusations at the white volunteers of spreading cholera?
Some local people have been spreading the rumor that the “white volunteers” are the cause of the cholera outbreak. Haiti is a country where witch craft and voodoo beliefs are very strong and rooted in the country's culture, so it is very easy for someone who is respected in their community to start a rumor like that. As a result, there has been an increase in violence against the volunteers that go to Haiti to help and provide emergency assistance so our next mission in January has, unfortunately, been postponed. There are no conditions, at the moment, to ensure the health safety and the physical integrity of the volunteers. But it will be a matter of time. Haiti will not be forgotten and still needs all the help it can get.
How is the government reacting?
I believe the government is not doing enough to control the cholera outbreak. For instance, they do not allow NGOs such as UTPMP to develop any kind of permanent infra-structure, waste management and sewers, because they want to have full control over the refugee camps for future larger investments. They don't recognize the new houses built in Canaan as permanent houses. And the lack of proper sanitiation is one the main reasons for the spread of an epidemic such as cholera. It is my impression that they also do not stand up to end these rumors that the “white volunteers” are bringing the diseases, as it deviates the people's attention and anger from them towards those that are actually there to help, especially in a time of presidential elections.