Overwhelmed by sadness, empathy and disbelief,
the world's eyes are focused on the rescue and relief efforts for those in
Haiti. However, many who have worked in Haiti fear that a preventable
long-term disaster lies on the horizon if international interventions don't
break with past patterns. As international aid begins to pour into Haiti, we
have a brief moment to break with past mistakes and bring real change to the
The Robert F. Kennedy Center
for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) has partnered with the grassroots
medical group Zanmi Lasante/Partners In Health in Haiti for the last eight
years. During that time, U.S and international aid efforts could be
characterized at best as unsustainable, and at worst, deliberately harmful.
In 2000, the United States and the
Inter-American Development Bank approved millions of dollars of what would
have been lifesaving loans for improvements to water, health, education, and
road infrastructure, only to later withhold these funds because they opposed
then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. While the loans were eventually
released, communities where the very first water projects were to be
financed still lack access, 10 years later, to reliably clean drinking
water, contributing to countless deaths from waterborne illness.
In 2004, the international community pledged
$1 billion to support Haiti. The RFK Center, along with Zanmi Lasante and
the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, tried to track the
fulfillment of those pledges, but never received clear and consistent
answers from donor states on the status of the aid. With no transparency or
coordinating body to turn to, the Haitian people had no hope of knowing if
that money ever got to Haiti, much less where it was directed and how it
could be used to improve their communities. Haitian government sources later
confirmed that most of the pledges had never been fulfilled.
In 2008, after hurricanes ravaged the
country, the international community convened another donor conference
resulting in over $324 million in pledges. Prior to the earthquake, most of
those pledges had still not been fulfilled.
Historically, interventions in Haiti have
been viewed through the lens of charity. The international community, NGOs,
international organizations and donor states have gathered time and again to
announce pledges of support, only to quietly back away from these
commitments. International goodwill is certainly critical today to Haiti's
future, but charity alone will not be enough to ultimately rebuild a safer
and more sustainable Haiti. Only by forging a new path, guided by a
commitment to the human rights of the Haitian people, can the international
community help to create real, lasting change.
Charity is a personal act of choice with no
real repercussions. Human rights are legal obligations, grounded in our
shared acknowledgement of human dignity - something that every government
must respect and no government can take away.
In the aftermath of this disaster, every
country and international organization working toward recovery in Haiti
needs to ensure that their actions will promote the respect and dignity of
the Haitian people based on constitutionally and internationally recognized
rights to water, health, and education. By partnering with the Haitian
government and local communities in assessing the nation's recovery needs
and making long term pledges to support the government of Haiti in meeting
these needs, donors can pave a sustainable path towards recovery.
Additionally, the donor nations should commit to making their aid
transparent so every Haitian knows where funds are going. Accountability
mechanisms are needed to ensure that the government of Haiti, the
international community and NGOs use these funds appropriately.
As the world looks for a way to help Haiti
rebuild after the earthquakes, the international community has opportunity
to avert a second manmade disaster. The United States, as well as
international donor states and institutions, must act now to end a painful
history of irresponsible aid policies in Haiti. By acting immediately, as
recovery plans are developed, we can honor the survivors of this tragedy by
supporting Haitians as they build a better Haiti.