Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug

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The Haiti earthquake of 2010 has inspired rather a lot of books and articles describing  personal experiences of its extraordinarily destruction — or maybe it only appears that way to me as I do my own research on the effects of development aid and philanthropy in a nation that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next without much, if any, signs of progress.

Now author and activist Beverly Bell has added her voice to those of writers like Paul Farmer, Amy Wilentz, and Jonathan Katz with Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

But it would be a mistake to think she is simply giving us another version of the same horrific scenes and tragic stories of injury and loss.

There are verbal pictures of sidewalks replaced by “ground concrete that looked as if it had been through a blender, and rebar bent like bread-wrapper twist ties,” and anecdotes of people finally making it home only to find that their entire family was dead.  What makes Fault Lines unique is that it is the only book I have come across which grounds the earthquake and its aftermath in the points of view of people who have been largely missing from the rest, those of Haiti’s many, usually ignored, grassroots social movements.

It is thanks to Bell that we learn, for example, of the relief project set up by the Association  for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of Port au Prince to provide daily meals to people who had lost everything in the earthquake. With some international support money, APROSIFA contacted 60 neighbourhood street vendors and paid them to purchase food from Haitian farmers and cook meals for ten to fifteen specific homeless families. Officially, the project provided food for approximately 4800 people every day. In fact, that number was far higher, she writes, “because when the women finished serving those they were responsible for, they kept dishing out food to hungry folks who dropped by until their pots were empty.”

In Belair, another extremely poor part of the Haitian capital, an organization with a long history in the neighbourhood called Solidarite Ant Jen (Solidarity Among Youth) took over a damaged kindergarten and began offering shelter and meals to four hundred displaced, along with medical and psychological care.

And in the country’s Central Plateau, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay provided lodging, meals and clothing to several dozen of the estimated 600,000 earthquake victims that fled the damaged capital and thus received no international disaster aid at all. The movement took up a collection to help peasant families inundated by the sudden return of traumatized relatives and even slaughtered two cows so they could bring food to patients at the Partners in Health hospital in nearby Mirebalais.

It is not that international participation was entirely absent from these projects. In Belair, water was delivered by a Canadian non-profit and some funding came from a German company. But unlike the vast majority of well-meaning emergency aid efforts – often surrounded by foreign soldiers and in some cases throwing sacks of rice out of helicopters “as if we were dogs,” as many complain to Bell — these alternative programs were set up and directed by Haitians. In these few salient cases, our good intentions met their terms,  their requirements.

The difference is summed up by APROSIFA’s Rose Anne Auguste when she points out that local organizations like hers “have our own vision of reconstruction for our country. We have a philosophy that corresponds to our reality, not the reality of the international community. What we want is for the international community, the foundations and agencies, to hear our philosophy and our dream for our people, our country.”

But that indigenous vision was rarely taken into account as hundreds of international agencies, large and small, scrambled to deal with symptoms — the medical emergencies and the lack of housing, food and water. It was also largely ignored during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase as well. As the tide of cash that flowed into Haiti in the early months of 2010 receded again, what has been left littering the shore are hundreds of examples of foreign plans and initiatives that fail to meet the needs of Haiti’s vast majority of poor.

“Corporations with little or no knowledge  of Haiti,” Bell writes, “were brought in as volunteers to plan, kick off and even staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the actor with the single greatest operational influence over shaping the reconstruction model after the quake.”

Talk about Haiti with most people and they will inevitably ask what happened to all the money that was pledged and donated by governments, international lending institutions and regular folk like them. The short answer is: we just don’t know. A lot went back to donor governments, with the United States, for example, using half of its $1.3 billion relief funding to pay itself for its emergency efforts and security.

Of the just over $6 billion in financial aid from global donors, including Canada, almost 90 percent went to non-Haitian organizations. Less than ten percent — $580 million –went to the Haitian government, and less than  one percent — $36 million — to local Haitian NGOs and businesses. As a Canadian International Agency press release announcing an initial grant of $150 million put it, every dollar would go “to facilitate rapid action by trusted and experienced humanitarian agencies.”

But how those agencies spent, and on what, is considered proprietary information. While some of it may have been helpful, “the lack of transparency,” writes Bell, “has also empowered opportunists to disregard standards, quality and honesty.”

The justification used by the majority of big donors, many of which have been working in Haiti for decades, is that local institutions and government lack “absorptive capacity,”  the ability to use the money properly. Yet as Solidarity among Youth volunteer and psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois tells Bell, “what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the thirty-five seconds of the earthquake is finding themselves, from one day to the next, standing with bowls in their hands and waiting for someone to give them a sheet so they can sleep. This dependence is terrible for people’s identity. People need to know we can count on ourselves. We have the capacity.”

As Fault Lines so clearly shows, the 2010 earthquake response only mirrors the inadequacies of decades of top-down development aid, with impoverished Haitians obliged to take whatever they can get rather than designing and implementing their own ideas for social and economic progress, supported by our collective solidarity. Well-intentioned as many non-profits may be, what they cannot do, says Bell is “alter the structural nonaccountability between  their employer, the government of their host country, and the people with whom they work. The agencies’ foreign funding, largely foreign staff and political relationship with Haiti dictate much about their effects in Haiti.”

More heartening news however can be seen in the continued combative response of dozens of organizations, which may have lost their offices, their only computer and even their own members in those fateful thirty-five seconds of devastation. Fault Lines describes how they have demonstrated against donations of Monsanto seeds, and for proper housing. They have forced the courts to bring criminal cases against men who raped girls and women in the IDP camps. Their relentless campaigning may seem modest, even puny, compared to big, publicity-grabbing schemes like five-star hotels and the Caracol Industrial Park, like a shout in a hurricane. But they are the best hope there is for solutions to the vast inequality that lies at the intersection of Haiti’s social and economic tectonic plates.

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

(A slightly longer version of this review came out today in Rabble.ca)

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