Haiti: All The King’s Men

Haiti: All The King’s Men

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

But all the King’s horses.

And all the King’s men,

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.


More than a year after a 7.0 earthquake razed Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, killing many of the “King’s Men” – the civil servants who knew best how to put it back together again – the country remains in Humpty-Dumpty like pieces. If it was not what aid-speak refers to as a “failing state” before, it is certainly unencumbered by any pretensions otherwise now.

Humanitarian aid operations saved countless thousands in the earthquake’s immediate aftermath, and continues to sustain hundreds of thousands now. But all the aid agencies and all the $5.5 billion pledged for recovery and reconstruction cannot put Haiti back together again. Only Haitians can do that.

Today 810,000 of the poorest Haitian’s are still living in 1,150 ‘temporary settlements’ underneath a hotch-potch of tattered canvas, frayed plastic sheeting and flattened tin cans so familiar to international aid workers the world over. Conditions of overcrowding, dirty pit latrines, and smoking mounds of damp rubbish on which countless piglets graze, look like a scene from Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’. Yet conditions for most are a vast improvement over what they had before.

Such ‘temporary settlements’ are nothing new, of course. In Darfur, such ‘new towns’ made up of row after row of twigs and sheets were erected seven years ago and have since swelled to house populations of 100,000 or more. In Quetta, Balochistan, Afghan refugees from the 1930’s huddle still beneath thin and rusted ‘wriggly’ tin sheeting on the outskirts of town. Aid workers prefer to use such politically correct ‘aid-speak’ like “temporary settlement” to counter perceptions of ‘permanence’ and unpleasant and negative undertones of helplessness, indifference, and population control implied by the word ‘camp’.

Even now, these ‘settlements’, some of them massive sprawling ghettoes, crowd into every available space amid the rubbled ruins of Port-au-Prince and its neighbouring cartiers. It is as hard to find a blade of grass in Port-au-Prince as it is a mature tree in the mountains behind.

Most of those who remain will be far harder to shift than those who have already sorted themselves out and are even now re-building their former homes. Nearly all of this remaining “case-load”, as ‘aid-speak’ neutrally refers to them, has no option but to remain where they are. Previously renting an overcrowded oven of a second floor room from some gangster of a landlord, they have no ‘home’ to rebuild. And they have no land or money anyway.

They also feel they are better off where they are. Life is better in the camps than in the over-crowded, gang-infested slums that places like Cité-de-Soleil, the antithesis of a ‘Sun-City’, have once again become.

Camp-dwellers pay no rent. The aid agencies pay the rent. And their triumphalist signs, complete with screeching post-imperialist declarations such as “Gift of the American People” or “Donated by the European Union”, adorn each gateway to ensure that they continue to, while unscrupulous landlords extort more and more from them secure in the knowledge that there is nowhere else for the inhabitants to go. This is ‘private enterprise’ humanitarian style, and is a behaviour seen all over the developing world. Who can blame them?

They have access to functioning toilets build to the highest seismic and wind resistant standards (they have tropical storms in Haiti, too, remember) when previously shitting into a plastic bag and flinging it into the night was the best that could be hoped for. Extra money has been spent on ensuring ‘dignity’ through the provision of doors (which have now been substituted by hanging blankets as anything made of wood has been stolen to use as building materials), and ‘protection’ through provision of lighting, neither of which was much in evidence before the earthquake.

Solid waste is collected in skips and taken away in ‘new’ dumpster trucks to be deposited haphazardly in the vast hole in the ground grandly referred to as “Truittier Municipal Landfill Site” where contaminants, including those from toxic medical waste, leach unchecked into the water table. Except, these trucks are not new at all. They are actually on their last legs and made their way here as ‘in-kind donations’ from municipal authorities far away who would otherwise have to pay to  have them scrapped; a win-win if ever there was one … or a win-lose a few years from now?

And the drivers, paid by the load, have every incentive to dump their waste along the nearest road-side in order to maximize the number of trips they make each day. The ‘gully suckers’, the people who suck the shit out of pit latrines and septic tanks, do this too. Another example of “enterprise humanitaire” if ever there was one. Watch where you step in Port-au-Prince!

Safe drinking water is available for free from the pillow-tank ‘bladders’ that are topped up regularly by aid agencies, and sometimes by the government (who are paid by the aid agencies). For a small fee – which was heavily subsidized by  the government for nearly four months in the immediate aftermath of  the earthquake – more safe water is available from the gaily painted private ‘reverse osmosis’ kiosks that can be found on every street. Despite the quantity and quality of safe water available for free a few hundred metres away, nearly ever woman and girl (you don’t see men with 15kg plastic water bottles on their heads very often) trudges up-hill to pay the kiosks for their drinking water despite the fact that most of it is not treated by reverse osmosis at all, but is ‘diverted’ from the government’s water tankers. In other words, it may or may not be safe. But such is the legacy of privatisation, that people think it is.

And jostling on every street corner, the largest micro-enterprise of them all, the plastic water sachet vendor and his ice-box where, for a single ‘gourd’ you can swill a cool handful of water and read the political campaign slogan printed on the side as you do so. Now, this is entrepreneurship Haiti-style.

Health clinics are also easier to find and, again, if provided by the aid agencies, available for free. Ante-natal care, unheard of before the earthquake for anyone but the richest who could afford to pay, is available from the recently trained midwife. Cases needing referral are whisked by ambulance, again provided and paid for by the thousands of charities that dot the landscape. But many of these charities have long since packed up and gone home. The inevitable entropy of the aid business begins to show as logo’s fade in the bright sun, tires run flatter, and basic equipment slowly disappears never to be replaced. Soon, the midwife, trained with your money, will disappear too into the haze of private practice either here or abroad. Aid workers have seen this all before. It is called “capacity building”.

In refreshing contrast, the camp’s children throng twice a day in two noisily bubbling shifts into the ‘child friendly spaces’ – what non-aid-speakers would call ‘playgrounds’ – and tented schools erected by agencies like Save-the-Children and Unicef. As elsewhere in the developing world, uniforms, though sometimes as frayed as their mothers’ nerves and the flapping plastic sheeting all around them, are spotless. This being the Caribbean, girls’ hair is tightly braided, interwoven with white beads and brightly coloured cloth strips. They giggle shyly from behind their hands, white teeth gleaming in the reflection of their laughter. If dignity is found behind the toilet door, then hope is to be found here. Hope for a better future that aid-speak refers to as “human capital”.

Where is the incentive to move? And, anyway, where would they move to? Would they want to be re-settled far from their family and friends in some barren field over the horizon where there are no jobs and fewer buses? This is the government’s plan, and it is hard to see an alternative solution if Port-au-Prince is to regain what little ‘civic space’ it still has.

Aid is filling the gap that should be filled by the Haitian state. As the Economist magazine recently put it, “unless the government can take charge again, properly providing for its people, Haiti will remain chronically and disastrously addicted to foreign aid.”

In aid-speak, this is called “dependency creation”. Unfortunately, the entropy of aid will see the rise in dependency coincide with the decay in service provision as money and interest in the disaster that is Haiti dwindles. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as aid has a tendency to undermine local initiative — “coping mechanisms” in aid-speak. Meanwhile, those other “King’s Horses”,  the international aid agencies, grow thinner, and the “King’s Men” depart for the next emergency in Libya and Japan. Who will put “Humpty together again” now?


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