Letter to Toronto Star

Letter to Toronto Star writer Catherine Porter, November 28, 2010

In your article "Cholera's knockout punch to Haiti" (November 26), you wrote:

Many of the 1.5 million people living in refugee camps pinched into every available opening here have better access to clean water, toilets and health care than they did before. It’s the sprawling slums that are the main concern. They have all the ingredients for an outbreak: crowded shacks, no toilets, few NGOs bringing in chlorinated water, fewer health centres.

An extension of this argument whispered by many aid workers and UN staff is that the "problem of the camps" is artificial, their numbers inflated by the "higher" living standards offered by humanitarian NGOs' services. Accordingly, the implied solution is "tough love": stop the services and the camps will disappear, a position that pleases very much landowners eager to get their properties back. As if people actually had somewhere else to go! Your article risks echoing this position.

Yet as Mark Schuller pointed out on Oct. 4, the camps are quite at risk of cholera too, and are far from the relative paradises (compared to the slums) that some aid workers make them out to be:

The [Unstable Foundations] report, based on six weeks of on-the-ground research, is now finished and available online. With a team of eight students and a colleague at the Faculté d'Ethnologie, Université d'État d'Haïti, this study covers over 100 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), a random sample of one in eight of the 861 in the metropolitan area. Students conducted quantitative and qualitative surveys in three inter-related areas: conditions and services within the camps, residents' level of understanding and involvement in the camp committees, and interviews with committee representatives. I personally visited 31 camps.

The results show that despite the billions in aid pledged to Haiti, most of the estimated 1.5 million IDPs are living in substandard conditions. For example, seven months following the earthquake, 40 percent of IDP camps did not have access to water, and 30 percent did not have toilets of any kind. An estimated 10 percent of families have a tent; the rest sleep under tarps or even bed sheets. In the midst of the hurricane season with torrential rains and heavy winds a regular occurrence, many tents are ripped beyond repair. Only a fifth of camps have education, health care, or psycho-social facilities on site.

The services provided in the camps vary quite significantly according to a range of factors. Camps in Cité Soleil have almost no services, while those in Pétion-Ville are better managed. Camps that are not on major roads or far from the city center in Croix-des-Bouquets or Carrefour have little to no services. Smaller camps, with 100 or fewer families, have demonstrably fewer services. Camps situated on private land -- 71 percent of the sample -- are significantly worse off than those on public land.


The aid to the camps has not been neutral, but rather driven by the NGOs' institutional interests and Haiti's pre-existing inequality. Aid has gone to the easy-to-reach (i.e. close to NGO HQs), media-friendly and "safe" (i.e. not a pro-Lavalas "red zone") areas of the capital, while residents of poorer, peripheral neighborhoods - whether in camps or not - have been effectively frozen out. The withholding of aid to camps on private property also speaks to the prioritization of the rights of property over the rights of earthquake victims, by the "international community", the government, and apparently many NGOs too. The dividing line is not simply "camps good, slums bad", but class inequality.

One last point, you write:

The government presented a sanitation master plan in 1998, Emmanuel says. But it was never implemented. Local incompetence or corruption alone were not to blame: a $54 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, earmarked for planning a waste water system and improved potable water access in 15 town and cities around the country, was blocked by the United States as part of its informal embargo against the left-leaning Jean-Bertrand Aristide government, a 2008 report concluded.

Thank you for including this crucial piece of background to the cholera crisis. But don't you think Star readers should know that Canada too backed this destructive aid embargo? As Anthony Fenton has documented (see below), Canada was the lone ally of the US at the IADB in the economic strangulation of Haiti during the Aristide years, and knew very well the political and social consequences the aid cutoff would have. As a journalist in Canada, your job is firstly informing the citizenry of the depredations of our own political elite, not simply bashing Uncle Sam.


Nik Barry-Shaw
Haiti Action Montreal

PS Anthony Fenton on Canadian support for the aid embargo:

In a memorandum distributed by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT), on January 25, 2002, the "Canadian position" on the disbursement of loans and on the role of the OAS is stated explicitly:

"The IDB (with the support of Canada as a member of the Council) continues to require a green light from the OAS...before supporting the resumption of large scale assistance [to Haiti]."

Although as noted above, the OAS position was "irrelevant" to the releasing of funds, the Canadians imposed with the U.S. the belief that a "green light" from the OAS was still necessary.

Consistent with the ICISS report, the memo correctly anticipates that a maintenance of the status quo policy, or, in the words of Canadian officials, the "consequence of inaction" on the part of the 'Friends of Haiti' would "lead to the descent of Haiti into chaos."

A month later, an Intelligence Assessment from the Canadian Prime Minister's secretive Privy Council Office further stated that "Aristide must access blocked foreign aid or continue to lose ground, and he knows it."

In another memo, Canadian officials proudly refer to the "cooperative Canada-US working relationship" on the Haiti file. Not only was Canada closely coordinating its policy with the US, once the Bush administration took over the file from President Clinton, Canada virtually stood alone with the U.S. in defiance of a majority of the OAS member states who wanted, at the very least, for the loans to be disbursed.

A Canadian memo dated July 25, 2002 acknowledges how the "majority" of the member states who comprise the OAS Permanent Council "favour release of some IFI funding" to Haiti. Only the U.S. and Canada stood in the way of this, even as Haiti's ambassador complained that "No political group has the right to hold a Government and a people hostage."

A few days later, one day before a major meeting of the Permanent Council (July 30, 2002), Canadian officials indicated that an exasperated Haiti planned to request approval of a resolution that would lead to a lifting of the barriers to the disbursement of loans. A Canadian official, who met directly with Haiti's ambassador, conveyed to him "that Canada would not be in a position to support the Haitian draft."

Noting that the Haitian ambassador seemed to feel, nevertheless, that he "has the numbers necessary to push the resolution through," the Canadian official said, "On straight numbers, he is probably correct - but at the moment, there are two key players outside of the tent."


In case there is any mistake over who the "two key players outside of the tent" were, the next day, following the Permanent Council meeting where Haiti tried to table their resolution that would free up the aid, a Canadian official boasted how, "Firm opposition to the Haitian draft from USA and Canada...resulted in Haitian indication of willingness to work on revisions to the text."

Although forced to water down the resolution in order to make "it...acceptable to all," that is, to Canada and the U.S., the Haitian ambassador defiantly decried to the Council that "Haiti will not accept the tutorship of the international community, or that of an institution which is working to carry out the agenda of some other government." The ambassador added that "forcing Haiti to accept any outside framework is incompatible with the sovereign law of the people and government."

Nevertheless, the U.S.-Canadian "slowing" process yielded the desired result. By January of 2003, not long before the 'Ottawa Initiative' meeting, Canadian intelligence analysts would accurately predict that circumstances had deteriorated so much that "Aristide...could be forced to resign or could face a coup." They even presciently noted how "Ex-military power brokers may be preparing for 'Regime Change,'" and that according to "some observers," it was conceivable that "hundreds of ex-soldiers could be mobilized, should conditions deteriorate sufficiently and a suitable leader appear."

Another Canadian memo drafted eight months before Aristide's ouster (June 10, 2003) noted how "the gradual suspension of most external assistance" and the channeling of funds away from the Haitian state to NGO's had the result of weakening the government; "Accordingly, the State's capacity to respond to the needs of the population has been greatly diminished." Publicly, however, it was Haiti's "failure" and "bad governance," coupled with Aristide's increasingly "authoritarian" ways, that diminished the State's capacity.