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Haiti: Putting "Humanitarian" Back in "Humanitarian Aid"

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One of the first things that Haitians now living in the streets want to talk about is their disgust over the international food aid program. In such places as the camps in the downtown parks on Boulevard Champs de Mars, residents report, food is given sporadically – last week not for four or five days. Moreover, it is uncooked rice, and many of those living in the crowded shelters have no way to cook it. Some have been able to sell the rice and, with the funds, buy food that they can eat.

In a heavily militarized operation, U.S. Marines distribute rice from CARE and U.S. Agency for International Development. Haitians stand in lines for hours in the hot sun, sometimes receiving nothing, or scramble for food dropped from the air. “We are not dogs,” said one woman in front of a sheet which serves as the front door of her new home in a public park. “The way they do it just breeds indignity,” said another.

Lance Jean-Francois, of the community organization Solidarite Ant Jèn Veye Yo (Solidarity Among Youth / Be Vigilant), says, “A danger of aid is that it infantilizes people. We say that what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the 35 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.”

The Marine-led distribution, involving weapons on the part of the givers, frustration on the part of the receivers, and more frustration still among those who do not receive, has led to violence. There has been neither security nor equal access for women in the process, though some of the food operations are now offering women separate lines.

Tanya Felix, also of SAJ Veye Yo, says, “U.S. soldiers giving rice… our problem isn’t insecurity. This is not how we should be helped. We need people helping us who won’t humiliate us.”

Some grassroots Haitian organizations here are showing how humanitarian aid programs can do just that, provide help without humiliation. One of these is in the extremely economically depressed neighborhood of Carrefour-Feuilles. There, the Association for the Promotion of Integral Family Healthcare (APROSIFA) has contracted with twenty timachann, small food vendors with roots in the community, and will soon contract with thirty more. Each serves one meal a day to the same ten or fifteen families, usually with upwards of seven members per family. By the time the project has fully scaled up, it will formally provide food for approximately 5,400 people each day. Moreover, says Roseanne Auguste, the technical advisor of and organizer of the program, when the women finish serving those they’re responsible for, they keep serving hungry people who come until the pots are empty – for free, out of solidarity. The program is financed by grants made to APROSIFA, and will continue until the end of April.

The food served is all domestically grown. Roseanne says, “Instead of sending rice from the U.S., I would like to tell the international community that the earthquake didn’t affect production in this country. We can produce food.”

One of the timachann’s operation takes place in the lakou, communal courtyard, of three extended families. There an enormous mango tree provides shade. This afternoon, Madame Gabeau has just finished the preparation of three industrial-sized, blackened pots containing rice, bean sauce, and vegetables. As Madame Gabeau’s team – or what she calls “her family” - awaits their food, they exchange news with each other in the shady courtyard. They are neighbors, if not friends. Two elderly matriarchs in nightgowns and short gray braids, 77-year-old identical twins, come over to tease Roseanne. Little kids strike vampy poses, pushing each other out of the way to get in the center of a photographer’s camera frame. A young woman sits on a high tree root with her baby on her lap, examining her face in a hand mirror inside a plastic Elmo frame.

People calmly talk and laugh while Madame Gabeau ladles mountainous servings into the containers they hand her: lunch buckets, tin bowls, a Styrofoam to-go box. The scene is no different than many pre-earthquake Sunday afternoons in Haiti, except that all the people here are hungry and homeless due to one of the worst natural disasters in history.

Another humanitarian aid operation is underway in a damaged kindergarten building in the beaten-down neighborhood of Belaire. Each day the youth group SAJ Veye Yo feeds 400 people and shelters 200 people, from a bright-eyed baby to a very elderly man. SAJ Veye Yo’s resources are a combination of free truckloads of water from Oxfam Quebec and a local Haitian company, and funds given by the Haitian state and a German company. Three doctors, Haitian and German, fill volunteer shifts three afternoons a week.

The main room is dark, with people sitting in small groups or alone. The walls are lined with stacks of bundles tied in sheets. Above the bundles, white banners read ‘love,’ ‘solidarity’, and ‘respect.’ A boy and a girl play checkers on a piece of cardboard; the boy assures visitors that he’s the best. A two-year old dressed only in a T-shirt toddles towards a photographer’s camera, beaming and calling, “Photo. Photo.”One woman, in response to whether she wants her picture taken, replies in perfect English: “No. I don’t want my family to see my in a shelter.”

Out back a woman sits on a stool washing a big battered pot with a small bowl of water. Two women swing on children’s swings, next to a slide which is now buried under a collapsed cement-block wall. One woman cooks in a little concrete building, while another offers glasses of cold, fresh orange juice all around. In a classroom, three volunteer medical students arrange first aid supplies on shelves.

Lance Jean-Francois says, “People need to know that we can count on ourselves. We don’t lack anything, we have the capacity. That’s what behind this initiative. We accept support that comes, but in the framework of respecting people’s dignity.”

Could these community-run responses be scaled up adequately to meet the need? Probably not; the numbers of those who cannot now afford food is unknown, but vast. The capacity of Haitian non-governmental groups is limited.

But could the international organizations offer Haitians a way to stay fed while maintaining dignity and security? The grassroots models show that the answer is yes.

Photo: Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for more than 30 years. She authored Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes just social and economic alternatives, and is associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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jadefrank's picture

humanity, humility

Dear Beverly,

Your reporting from Haiti is so refreshing and greatly appreciated. It's disappointing, yet not surprising to hear of the indignity that is occurring - when large relief efforts swoop into to provide aid. But it's also comforting to hear that the grassroots Haitian organizations are finding ways to pick up and support the community with dignity - to provide a more sustainable level of relief that will outlast this disaster. May they provide an example that all aid organizations can glean leadership from.

Please continue to update us on the situation there.

In gratitude and solidarity,
Jade

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