"One official evoked the racist hypothesis that Haitians were "genetically strong" given the "horrendous conditions" such as "slavery and torture" they had endured over centuries. "You or I would not survive one month in one of those camps," she said."
L'une des employés (des ONG) a évoqué l'hypothèse raciste que les Haïtiens étaient "génétiquemet solides", compte tenu des "conditions horribles", telles que "l'esclavage et la torture" qu'ils ont subis pendant des siècles.
"Vous, ou moi-même, serions dans l'incapacité de survivre pendant un seul mois dans ces camps ", a- t-elle dit.
"Where you stand," goes an old Haitian proverb, "depends on where you sit." This article, the second in a series, will examine aid workers' stereotypes and prejudices about residents of displacement camps in post-earthquake Haiti, stemming from acute disconnect between NGOs and the people they are there to work with. We explore how these misperceptions have perpetuated deliberate decisions to deny water and sanitation services to desperate survivors.
The context is complicated by the transnational flow of both bacteria and aid dollars. Scientists have shown that the cholera pathogen came to Haiti in the bodies of foreign UN troops whose military base was dumping its sewage into a nearby river. The imported disease has claimed more than 7,000 lives and continues to ravage communities across Haiti. Two and a half years since the 2010 earthquake, the country still faces a severe dearth of water and sanitation services, further fueling the epidemic. The crisis is playing out among the nearly 400,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) still living in makeshift camps under tarps or torn tents, an ideal environment for cholera. The situation raises serious questions: why, with billions of dollars in post-earthquake aid and hundreds of humanitarian NGOs in the country, do so many people still lack the most basic of services? What factors are guiding NGOs' decisions to provide or withhold them?
The first article of this series described how NGOs in Haiti decided to relax humanitarian standards for provision of water and sanitation and to deliberately withhold these essential services in IDP camps, in the middle of the epidemic. By spring of 2011, the WASH cluster (the UN-run group of NGOs coordinating water and sanitation response) had decided to terminate water provision. It had also decided to abandon the international minimum requirement of 20 people per toilet, instead setting a goal of 100 people per toilet. Predictably, cholera surged, as it has done again in the rainy season of 2012. What were NGO officials' underlying perceptions and attitudes that could lead them to such decisions? Here, we describe more results from a study I conducted in 2011, based on 52 interviews with officials from NGOs and residents of displacement camps.
"Everyone Stopped Waiting for Aid"
Stopping in the middle of an interview, one camp resident and mother of three looked me squarely in the eye and asked: "Who would like to live under a tent for one year with the heat, sun, and rain falling, water passing under your tent soaking all your clothes? ...Do you think anybody would like to live this kind of life?"
People in camp after camp used nearly the same words in describing day-to-day life. While IDP camps have been the main locale for earthquake-affected Haitians to rebuild their lives and communities, this rebuilding has been fraught with suffering. The majority of camp residents I interviewed said they were skeptical they'd ever receive more services from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but they stayed in the camps because the scraps of tents and the fragile communities of interdependence that had emerged were their last resort – their only option for survival. "As of six months ago people stopped waiting for aid and left," said one camp resident in early 2011. "Those that are here are those who can't return home, who don't have anything."
During the rainy season, most of the homes I sat in leaked water through the makeshift roof and gushed water through muddy gaps between ground and plastic. Many had to be re-hoisted, re-tied, re-sewed, re-hammered after every storm. Although families kept the areas outside their homes tidy, nearby drainage ditches brought all manners of trash and debris as daily gifts. In the majority of camps, respondents stated they had nowhere else to go, and an International Organization for Migration (IOM, a coordinating agency) survey of more than 15,000 camp dwellers concluded the same, stating "94 per cent of people living in camps would leave if they had alternative accommodation." Part of the difficulty is that 80% of camp residents were renting homes before the earthquake, which made return extremely difficult given the massive post-earthquake surge in rental prices and the bleak job market.[i]
But how did NGO officials perceive the situation?
"Waiting for Houses, Cars, Helicopters"
In their interviews, foreign officials from NGOs and IOM expressed the belief that Haitians could handle the camp conditions and were simply waiting for handouts. Many officials stated that they viewed signs of day-to-day survival in the camps – such as women selling coffee on the street and families scrounging up building materials from friends – as proof that life was back to normal. Where these efforts may have provided the coffee vendor with enough money to purchase some water for her kids or bought the family an extra week before their shelter collapsed for the fourth time, many NGO officials touted them as "coping mechanisms" which indicated that camp residents were doing fine on their own. One official evoked the racist hypothesis that Haitians were "genetically strong" given the "horrendous conditions" such as "slavery and torture" they had endured over centuries. "You or I would not survive one month in one of those camps," she said.
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