By Danielle Grace Warren
The opinions expressed are her own.
The people of Haiti have a name for the earthquake that rocked their country: Goudougoudou, an onomatopoetic creole nickname invented for the earthquake meant to emulate the sound of the earth rumbling, the buildings falling. There are numbers for it, too: 230,000 deaths, 59 aftershocks and 1.5 million people who remain displaced nearly a year later.
While over a billion dollars in US aid was promised was for rebuilding Haiti is tied up in the umbilicus of Washington, Port au Prince residents are settling between piles of debris — 98% of which still has not been removed. Haitians pick through the rubble for building scraps to reinforce torn tarpaulin.
Many who were displaced by the disaster and came to the Haitian capital for aid have tried to re-settle in the small towns and villages of their birth. But they have been forced to return to the capital yet again since it is still where most of the food and aid in the country can be found.
Before the earthquake happened there were already 3.5 million people living in Port au Prince — nearly 50% of the total country population. This number has doubled in recent years as people have flooded in from severely deforested and degraded agrarian areas in the hope of finding a job. Yet the vast majority of Port au Prince residents are unemployed or underemployed. Eighty percent of city dwellers live below the poverty line in slum and squatter settlements with unstable housing and poor sanitation.
If living in poverty in Port au Prince is the best thing going for Haitians because it means hope for the possibility of work then the international community’s focus on the area is sure to keep the majority of the people there in a perpetual state of waiting.
It is this waiting, despite their desperate circumstances, that is turning the Haitian people into beggars. Begging, an activity that has always been rare in Haiti, despite historical poverty, is just making the nation even more of a client-state and ever more dependent on foreign aid.
Much has been discussed about rebuilding a better Haiti. In rethinking our strategy for measuring aid, President Obama urged that, rather than just managing poverty, “we have to offer people a path out of poverty. We need to help countries help themselves, not offer aid that provides short-term relief without reforming societies. That’s not development; that’s dependence … And it’s a cycle we need to break.”
As part of the global 2015 Millennium Development Goals, the UN identified the following targets: to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, achieve decent work for all, integrate principles of sustainable development, and significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.
Whatever the amount of aid that arrives in Haiti in the near term, it will eventually run out. In order to provide much needed jobs and food, we need to be investing in sustainable agricultural education and development projects in partnership with leadership at all levels, especially local leadership in impoverished rural areas, that take both people and the environment into account like sustainable women’s farming cooperatives and mangrove reforestation initiatives in partnership with local fishers.
If environmental protection is ignored, the watersheds and coastal lowlands will be increasingly subject to erosion, inundation, and destruction. In turn, this will increase the likelihood of future disasters such as flash-floods.
If we do not decentralize aid, if we do not channel it to other distressed areas of the country as well, we will be marginalizing all Haitian people and ensuring that Port au Prince will become a ghetto once again.
This is not to ignore the fact that jobs can and should be created in the city itself nor that Port au Prince is home to a large population of people who have no desire to leave — and nor should they have to. But shouldn’t they have a choice?
Danielle Grace Warren is the president of the One Village Planet-Women’s Development Initiative and the treasurer of One Village Planet/Village Planète (Haiti), which has implemented the only successful mangrove coastal forestation project in Haiti.
This piece was first published 11/11/2010 in "The Great Debate", Reuters.