Shattered and Scattered: Haiti’s Quake Through the Lens of Human Rights

July 1, 2010

From March 29 to April 6, I was in Haiti with my colleague Valerie Kaussen, setting up the logistics to make the first donation coming from the documentary video Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. This involved meeting with the five women and nine grassroots organizations associated with the film. Since most people lost their homes, we followed them to the makeshift camps where they lived. We visited seven camps, and I also met with neighbors who had begun work on a couple of water projects with the funds we collected.

Both immediate relief efforts and medium-term reconstruction in Haiti after the devastating January 12 earthquake have been almost exclusively carried out by large, foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These groups have undertaken their tasks in a top-down, privatized manner, with NGO representatives or their chosen local committee—often an “Astroturf” organization created by the NGO itself—distributing aid among the populace without consulting the genuine, long-standing local leadership. The result is not only that the living conditions in the camps for internally displaced Haitians vary quite significantly, but that many people’s needs have simply been unmet.

We found that conditions in the camps—not to mention the process of aid delivery—leave much to be desired. Not merely inconveniences, these conditions often constitute violations of human rights. Earthquake survivors and the grassroots organizations that they are members of, or that work in solidarity with them, are using the language of human rights and imploring their allies to do the same. In doing so, they are challenging hegemonic understandings of human rights in many ways, expanding the category of whom we consider the bearers of these rights and whom the responsible parties are, as well as what counts as human rights in the first place.

In the makeshift camp in the Solino neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, now home to some 6,000 people in the soccer field outside the local Catholic church, no one seems to be in charge. To whom would people there demand necessities like latrines? No one could point to an agency. One survivor, 23-year-old Sylvie Paul, just remembered it was the occupying United Nations force, MINUSTAH, who forcibly put her in the camp. “They destroyed my house,” which had been on the perimeter of the soccer field, she said. “I would have rather stayed there where it was at least dry.” In other camps, groups or individuals in charge (reskonsab) offer some basic human needs.

The tents vary greatly in quality, size, material, and shape. Some are simply makeshift domes of repurposed plastic structured by PVC piping. In the Solino camp, the tents are made of a thick plastic that rips easily and traps in the tropical heat. One woman we interviewed, Nathalie Joseph, said she preferred sleeping under her makeshift shanty of bed sheets on wooden posts because it was too hot in her mud-splattered tent. “In addition, my tent is ripped, you see?” she said. The alleys between the tent rows are just wide enough for one person to pass, making it impossible to avoid trudging through the mud or jumping a puddle. Thus, even for those whose tent is structurally sound, mud seeps in.

In Solino there are no latrines inside the camp for the 6,000 residents, forcing them either to hold it and walk some 10 minutes away to an overused latrine across the ravine or to relieve themselves in a bag and throw it in the ravine. In other camps this basic necessity is not given but sold. Several Port-au-Prince camps, including Champs-de-Mars and St. Louis de Gonzague, have committees organized by the NGOs, the government, or the land owners, who charge as much as five gourdes (13 cents) per person to use the toilet. Eramithe Delva, the director of a women’s organization called KOFAVIV who lives in the Champs-de-Mars camp with 35,000 others, pointed out the obvious: “Who has the money to pay for that? A woman with three kids would have to pay 45 gourdes a day! What a story!” Elvire Constant, a leader with another women’s organization, OFAPRA, stationed in the St. Louis camp, had another concern with the system: “I wouldn’t mind so much, but there’s a long line,” said “You have to pray to God that you don’t wet yourself while waiting in the sun!”

Women, as the traditional caregivers and heads of household for almost 60% of Port-au-Prince families before the earthquake, bear the brunt of the lack of services, including having to pay for the latrines, the scarcity of clean drinking water, or the lack of education for their children. Said Delva, “You don’t have a choice. You are forced to resign yourself because you don’t know what you can do.” Making matters worse, women’s specific hygiene needs have been all but totally neglected. At least for the first three months after the disaster, not a single NGO distributed tampons or sanitary napkins to any of the camps we visited (although some women’s groups like MADRE and Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees had organized grassroots efforts to collect and distribute these needed goods). “Half of the population needs this!” exclaimed Murielle Dorismond, a community leader in the neighborhood of Christ-Roi. “It’s good that people are finally concerned about the public health concerns of human waste [latrines had begun to be built in some areas by this time]. But what about menstrual blood? Do we not count as people?”

The closeness of the tents to one another, the flies and mosquitoes buzzing around the mud puddles, and the human waste have joined forces to create yet another disaster. Public health auxiliaries have noted high instances of fever, and symptoms of malaria or dengue are on the rise. Yet this is only one problem among many facing camp residents. The NGOs’ top-down method of aid distribution has made possible all manner of abuse and coercion in the camps, given the wide difference in power between those who distribute aid and those who are meant to passively receive it.


The NGOs’ food aid system in many of the camps, including Solino, follows a model based on distributing ration cards. NGO representatives or their chosen local committee arrive in the evening and pass out cards to the women in the camp. The women typically begin lining up at two or three in the morning, and some stand all night, before passing through a UN checkpoint to access the World Vision International distribution site. Under armed UN guard, they receive bags of food from a truck before exiting through a second checkpoint to join their family members who are waiting for them. Josette Pérard, director of grassroots development foundation Lambi Fund, spoke for many: “It’s humiliating to stand in line in the hot sun all day long.”

When we visited Solino, the cards were handed out between 11 p.m. and midnight. Everyone we talked with was in the camp because they hadn’t received a card. “You can’t afford to sleep when you hear that there’s a card distribution,” said Nathalie Joseph, a 26-year-old mother of three. “You never know where and when they will give it out. You just have to follow the noise of the crowd and hope you will get yours.” Sylvie Paul, who has 14 people—including her infant daughter and her sister’s family—living in her ripped tent, said she never got a card because she doesn’t know the NGO representatives. For those handing out the cards, she said, “it’s all about your people getting the goods.”

Even getting food itself is a struggle, since the distribution site is a 20-minute walk away past foul-smelling corridors, ravines, and streets filled with garbage. And owing to the narrow corridors, nowhere in the Solino camp is there enough space to cook. “I hear in the news that blan [foreigners] complain that we sell our aid,” said Handy Jean-Louis, a leader with the Solino neighbors’ assembly. “But what good is the food if we can’t cook it?”

Women are particularly made vulnerable by the top-down approach to food distribution. Several people in the Solino camp and leaders with KOFAVIV retold stories of women either being robbed of their ration cards or propositioned for sex in exchange for them. “The bandits force themselves on women, pull guns on her for her to give out the card,” Villard said. “So now he has a monopoly. That is, he will just give out the cards to whom he wants. We women don’t like it; in order to get a card you need to sleep with them. To get a tent you need to sleep with them.” Villard and Delva reported 22 cases of rape in the camp in Champs-de-Mars, just footsteps away from the crumbled National Palace, in the first three months after the quake, and 80 in the Martissant camp (see “ ‘They Treat Us Like Animals’ ”).

Another case of larger-scale coercion took place in a camp on the grounds of St. Louis de Gonzague, a long-standing Catholic K–12 school that educates the children of Haiti’s so-called political class. Elvire Constant and others said the school’s French director, Father Patrick Belanger, had begun withholding aid from the camp residents in an attempt to force them to leave so that the school could reopen. Belanger, leaders told us, kept the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders from providing services; one day we visited, a group of Cuban doctors sat sheepishly at the camp entrance waiting for authorization. Ration cards had been distributed only once, in mid-March, by World Vision.

According to the community leaders, Belanger’s policy of starving people wasn’t working, so he and the school administration stepped up their efforts, calling in the mayor and police of Delmas, the suburb where the camp is located, to issue an eviction order. But the camp’s six community organizations intervened on the 11,000 residents’ behalf, and the city government backed down in mid-March (see “Playing Politics With Aid”). Then the school administration turned to a “carrot” approach, working with the national government, which issued an order to reopen schools on April 5, the day after Easter. According to government officials who preferred to remain anonymous, the government offered each of the six camp organizations 20,000 gourdes ($500) in exchange for relocating their members, promising to help find open land. Three of the six groups toured the land the last two weeks in March; instead of the 13 hectares they were promised, the dispersed sites add up to only five. Leaders estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 people, instead of all 11,000, could stay there. All tracts of land were still unsuitable as of April 5: None had water sources or latrines.

The school held a meeting with parents on April 1, clearing the entrance to the camp of some 800 people on either side. The irony of the situation was not lost on camp residents. “We’re ready to move if the government provides us with a suitable location, which includes school,” said Samuel Rémy of the neighborhood organization CAS. “If it’s a natural disaster such as flooding we understand. But they are moving us so that the children of a small minority can have education. What about us residents? There are 3,000 children here. Don’t we pèp la [“the people,” poor majority] have a right to school as well?”

When the site finally had water and latrines at the end of April, 6,000 people began to be relocated there. Others were scattered across other camps, including dusty, isolated Corail, an hour and a half from town.


In camps and neighborhoods where grassroots social organizations that existed before the quake were in charge, the provision of basic necessities was often well-managed. Many such groups, including KOFAVIV and AVS, undertook formal censuses that could have been quite useful to the NGOs. Constant, along with five other committees, had a list of all 11,867 residents in the St. Louis de Gonzague camp. But the large, foreign NGOs distributing ration cards in the area chose not to collaborate with these groups and make use of the information they collected.

In the town of Gressier closest to the epicenter, on the coast between Carrefour and Léogâne, a group called ITECA took a census of all families and distributed tents, dry goods, food, and stoves according to their needs, checking people off their list as they came for the relief supplies. Both models rely on trust, long-term relationships, and local decision-making—a far cry from the patronage approach taken by the $1,000-a-day experts and twentysomething NGO middle managers flown in to run the aid distribution.

At issue is how or even whether the Haitian government and the international donors who met on March 31 in New York and who authorized a Reconstruction Task Force (mostly composed of foreign institutions) understand that Haiti’s earthquake survivors, and all people, have rights to water, food, decent shelter, and education. Indeed, this is the challenge that the privatized, NGO-dominated aid delivery system—undertaken with the near total exclusion of the Haitian state, which has received only about 1% of aid money—poses to hegemonic understandings of human rights. That is, whereas liberal political theory limits the definition of human rights to civil or political rights, usually cast in negative terms about what the state cannot do (i.e., rights against torture, the guarantee of habeas corpus, the right to vote, etc.), social movements and many countries of the Global South demand collective, social rights, cast in positive terms: the rights to education, health care, clean water, access to food, and decent shelter.

It is clear that the conditions of many of the settlements of displaced Haitians violate basic human dignity. And there is, in fact, already a legal framework in place for guaranteeing the social rights of internally displaced people. In 1998, the UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs presented its Guiding Principles for Internally Displacement, which member states later ratified in 2005. The principles include rights to “satisfactory conditions of safety, nutrition, health and hygiene”; protection from “rape . . . gender-specific violence, forced prostitution and any form of indecent assault”; and the right to an adequate standard of living, including essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation.

How and when these rights will be assured should be a matter of discussion not just in New York. True grassroots associations have the innovation, the organization, the information, the local respect, and the energy to find solutions. This is the only real, viable alternative to the top-down model of distributing ration cards and creating Astroturf groups to manage limited goods while excluding most residents. Specifically: The system of distribution needs to be overhauled and made more inclusive, the system of cards replaced by consulting with local residents and true grassroots organization; the food distributed should include Haitian-grown produce as much as is possible; decent shelter needs to be built and provided for everyone before they are moved from camps; schooling needs to be provided for everyone, including children living in camps; women need to participate in all aspects of the planning, and women’s gender-specific issues need to be addressed.

Then there is the question of redressing the camp dwellers’ many grievances. Since states are traditionally the parties responsible for guaranteeing rights, and there is little precedent in human rights law for demanding accountability from private NGOs, a major challenge remains determining whom the accountable parties are. Who, indeed, can people petition for improved conditions? Celebrities like Sean Penn? NGOs like World Vision International? Donors and international agencies like the International Migration Organization or the U.S. military? What accountability or responsibility do these agencies have for Haitian citizens?

A grassroots movement of more than 30 local associations from all over Port-au-Prince has come together to demand permanent, quality shelter from the government. This group has held popular education sessions and large public meetings inside the camps, building a mass base for community mobilization and making demands. Meanwhile, the Haiti Response Coalition ( has brought together about 60 groups in Haiti and overseas offering relief, and set up an on-the-ground network of community organizers. These more horizontal, collective alternatives for grassroots aid delivery will be crucial in the coming months as Haitians continue to fight for their rights.

Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of African American studies and anthropology at York College, CUNY. He is the co-editor of Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction (Alta Mira, 2008) and co-director/co-producer of Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (Documentary Educational Resources, 2009).


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