On May 3, the Boston based organization Physicians for Haiti released a report card titled Protecting Peacekeepers and their Public which evaluates the status of the United Nations' efforts to eradicate cholera in Haiti. It has been nearly three years since cholera first appeared in Haiti, taking the lives of 8,289 people and infecting over 670,000. However, through effective management, cholera does not pose a deadly threat if the proper precautions are made. This is where the recently released Physicians for Haiti report card gives the UN a failing grade in regard to their inability to implement practical, attainable, and cost effective reforms. What makes the matter worse is that the new report does not critique the UN for failing to implement idealistic projects, but rather for failing to implement their own recommendations.
Two years ago in May 2011, at the behest of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the UN put together an independent group of international experts who released a report on the cholera epidemic, the Final Report of the Independent Panel of Experts on the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti. The report highlights that “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination of the Meye Tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of current South Asian type Vibrio cholera as a result of human activity.”
While sounding promising that the UN would trace the source of cholera back to their Nepalese staffed UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) base located on the Artibonite, this was not the case. Instead the report sought to divert attention from any discussion of accountability, stating that “The Independent Panel concludes that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual. The source of cholera in Haiti is no longer relevant to controlling the outbreak. What are needed at this time are measures to prevent the disease from becoming endemic.” It would later be confirmed by the International Vaccine Institute that the cholera strain found in Haiti was an “exact match” to the Nepalese epidemic earlier in the summer.
As the Physicians for Haiti report card reiterates, the 2011 UN report also included seven recommendations to ensure that an outbreak would not be repeated in Haiti or anywhere else in the world. Two years after the publication of the report, the majority of the recommendations have not been fully implemented.
It would be reasonable to expect that a lack of financial resources would be the primary obstacle to the implementation of the recommendations; however, this is not the case. As highlighted in the report, the UN has not changed the medical screening protocol for potential peacekeepers, mandated an immunization policy, or even attempted to eliminate cholera pathogens by placing waste water in barrels and treating them with bleach. These recommendations come at either no cost to the UN or can be implemented at an extremely low cost.
While there have been important actions taken to attempt to address the systemic issues of water security and sanitation infrastructure, they remain severely underfunded, scattered, and largely non-operational. For example, in December 2012, Ban Ki Moon announced a $2.27 billion cholera eradication plan, but it has failed to get off the ground due to lack of funding.
Troublingly, there have been no meaningful procedural reforms taken to ensure that an outbreak like this will never happen again. Furthermore, the UN has yet to release a statement of accountability, choosing to travel down the path of impunity.
While the Physicians for Haiti report card provides a detailed account of the action taken related to each recommendation, it does not directly provide a final grade for the UN when it comes to the handling of cholera in Haiti. Yet it only takes a quick read to infer that the UN has indeed failed Haiti when it comes to cholera. Whether this is due to a lack of political will or inept leadership—the outcome is that cholera still remains a threat to the Haitian people.
When reading the report card, it becomes apparent that the disconnect between policy creation and implementation is a major problem for the UN in Haiti. The fact that three of the most achievable and cost effective recommendations have not been undertaken remains extremely problematic. If MINUSTAH bases cannot store and treat waste water in a simple manner it speaks volumes about the political will of the mission to ensure the immediate and long term safety of the Haitian people. After all, on paper this is what they are supposed to be there for.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.