Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone’s Haiti Story

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Adrian is a notorious charlatan and head of programs for U.N. Habitat in Haiti. He has hypnotized a crew of development-set minions with an arrogance that translates into his followers’ fulfillment and to the great detriment of the Haitian people. I was first introduced to Mr. Adrian through comments he made to Jacqueline Charles in The Miami Herald. Following the storm in Corail, Mr. Adrian, a “shelter and development expert,” seized the opportunity to raise his profile in a glibly calculated statement. Piggybacking on a hot but childishly misinformed “gotcha moment” of the media’s own creation, following that storm, he stated to the Herald, “This is what happens when Hollywood and the U.S. military get together.”

My next notice of Adrian was later, when we had initiated one of the first and most aggressive rubble-removal campaigns by an NGO in an area of Port-au-Prince identified with those displaced who live in the camp J/P HRO manages. It is the highly visible market area of Delmas 32, where multilevel residences collapsed en masse, leaving behind miles of double-head-high rubble, strewn with human remains, blocking nearly every roadway. On the day that the World Bank had declared this specific area of operations of primary importance for rubble removal, intending to identify an organization to do the engineering work beginning two weeks hence, and noting Mr. Adrian’s U.N. Habitat as a principal resource, J/P HRO had already completed the area in question. We had cleared virtually all rubble from its central division with private funding from Richard Hotes, a gentleman who later, in full disclosure (and why not?), became a member of the J/P HRO board of directors.

Personal though my judgments may appear, the larger point in any further discussion related to Mr. Adrian is that, like too many in the development community, he stays out of the field, out of touch with the Haitian people, myopically theoretical and pathologically anti-humanitarian, preferring the conference rooms of secured and air-conditioned buildings, where he and his sort entrap captive audiences into masturbatory verbosity and theoretical strategy talks. On this single issue do I fully agree with Reitman. It’s enough talk and political pandering. It is time to act in support of, and on behalf of, the Haitian people and their government. In particular, the remaining emergency concern for those 595,000 living the highly vulnerable circumstances of camps.

By the third page of Reitman’s piece comes the proposal: “Perhaps the very idea of fixing Haiti at all is a flawed concept, revealing not only the limits of Western humanitarianism but also the folly of believing that any country and its problems are ours to set right.” In another context, this might have been a boldly provocative question. But here it exposes one of the great flaws not only in the journalism, but also of the organizations and agencies, and individuals most reckless. Indeed, it is the Haitians themselves who, in so many cases, ARE “setting it right.” And that there are some international organizations that truly do work in support of their Haitian counterparts with these collaborations is why enormous successes can also be touted. THAT is the THING. The THING missed by Reitman and Adrian to the detriment of a population, and potentially at the cost of millions of dollars.

Given the short window of Ms. Reitman’s week in Haiti, she would weave what are the legitimate criticisms toward most NGOs into an overbearing generalization. Hence, the ludicrous, and ironic, targeting of one of the most productive NGOs in Haiti, Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF). I have worked closely with CHF and its now-acting country director, Ann Lee. Ms. Lee earns her reputation as one of the most solid individuals in the NGO community. She had been in Haiti working with CHF for three years prior to the earthquake, and lost many friends and loved ones on that terrible day, including some who lost their lives doing the work they did through CHF. Ms. Lee is, at one point in Reitman’s story, quoted addressing this brand-new set of complexities born of an earthquake of such a scale, in a densely urban and impoverished environment: “It’s a complete learning experience for all of us.”

What I should highlight here is that Ms. Reitman had shaped her own argument by positioning the following quote John Simon, by former undersecretary of USAID under the Bush administration: “Unfortunately, what you seem to have with Haiti is a lot of new people who were not in the business of doing disaster relief and who took this as an opportunity to learn.” Secretary of State Clinton’s counselor and chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, would also be in the crosshairs of this particular spin. (Somehow I didn’t make the cut on that one, though as the only truly new one to emergencies/development, I would certainly hope for ongoing learning, and do appreciate some of the positive framing that our organization received, though too isolated, in Reitman’s piece.) Meanwhile, Simon himself (interesting to view his picture on the Internet) published a piece for the Center for Global Development titled “Six Lessons for Disaster Relief in Haiti.” Well, I’m glad he too recognizes the importance of lessons and his own learning. Ms. Lee said it right: “It’s a complete learning experience for ALL of us.” Ms. Lee’s granting of the interview is an affirmation that no good deed, nor honest words, would go unpunished. It is worth noting, perhaps, that all experienced disaster relief agencies, such as the WFP and IFRC, described Haiti’s earthquake as one of the most complicated disasters in recent history. Of course everyone has to learn. Yet Mills is even criticized for having read the lessons from other disasters, as though it’s not sensible to read the kind of papers that Simon himself writes.

The CHF program in Ravine Pintade is new to Haiti, and new to the world of disaster relief, but is based on their years of experience of operating in urban environments from Colombia to Ghana and India. It will very likely prove itself to be at the core of reconstruction following future natural disasters in urban areas. What Ms. Reitman has done in referring to CHF, and attributing to them the generic criticisms of NGOs, is really criminal. Having been in Haiti since January 2010, I can share with you here that CHF is most certainly not, as Ms. Reitman contends, “generally considered one of the most ostentatious NGOs in Haiti.” On the contrary, the “two spacious mansions” and the “fleet of brand-new vehicles” claimed derogatorily of the organization’s presence in Haiti, are, in fact, an office building (which suffered serious earthquake damage and which they rent at an extraordinarily low cost), and a hut, if you will, in Ravine Pintade with no air conditioning, where Haitian and international staff alike sweat relentlessly throughout the day to meet needs, and a small collection of well-maintained and necessary vehicles; the “newest” of them has been traversing, scraping and banging about the rugged terrain of Haiti for six years.

Furthermore, Reitman contends that CHF is “one of the largest USAID contractors in Haiti and enjoys a cozy relationship with Washington.” The were-it-not-so-sad-it-would-be-laughable distortion of this is that were it not for such reckless media, were it not for the absence of diligent media coverage in Haiti, such “cozy relationships” might be productively had. But instead, the virtual blanket of negativity has served to do nothing but inflame suspicion between donors and NGOs, and to allow those NGOs most destructive and least ideologically integrated – least knowledgeable of either the GOH plans or of the needs of the community at large – to seize the day. And it is they, in their cozy relationship with the media, who do more harm than good, in the sense that anthropologist Tim Schwartz was, I’m sure in a literal sense, accurately identifying. Schwartz, who is quoted throughout the piece and is used to support many of Reitman’s propositions, is a very knowledgeable person. But for Rolling Stone to not recognize the hyperbole and provocateurism of his language displays a short memory for its own Gonzo, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Though Schwartz has recently become a lightning rod for criticism based on a leaked and highly questionable USAID report, where he asserted that the death toll from the immediate effects of the earthquake had been exaggerated (exaggeration is common to disaster, though often immeasurable or subjective), he is still rightly considered a brilliant and vital voice. But again, it takes appreciating Schwartz’s idiosyncrasies, as it would Dr. Thompson’s himself, to recognize that when Schwartz uses a word or sentence descriptively, as Dr. Thompson might, the word “swine,” he would more likely be applying it to one such as Jean-Chrisophe Adrian than he would to describe the Suidae family of even-toed ungulates. His pre-quake book, Travesty in Haiti, remains, for me, the single most important sanity-sustaining volumes for any international who cares about Haiti, and in what its healing may come to represent about all of us, from countries outside, with blessed comforts and informed compassion.

Still, the greatest obscenity of Ms. Reitman’s reporting comes when she intermingles Schwartz’s primary accusatory swine call upon NGOs as “ignoring what the Haitians are telling us” in their request for “repair” over “replacement” of their homes with Ms. Lee’s notion to “raze” homes and offer temporary shelter to those whose homes would be replaced. The homes Ms. Lee is referring to have been paint-stenciled the letters MTPTC in the color red (not the red “X” Ms. Reitman’s piece reported, presumably as a shorthand to readers more acquainted with relief protocols following Hurricane Katrina). The MTPTC is the government of Haiti’s own ministry, which with the support of UNOPS (an excellent U.N. organization, earlier referenced as the “correct” surveyor at Corail) inspected post-earthquake structures. Those stamped in red letters are homes that have been determined by engineers, trained by UNOPS, to be, for any practical and equitable spend, beyond repair, and Ms. Lee, in genuine service to these residents, properly intends to dissuade them from the dangerously misguided belief that basic repairs will suffice. Recently, J/P HRO’s engineering team pulled 13 bodies, including some babies, out of a home that had been reoccupied following the earthquake, despite the red-stamped warning of the MTPTC. It collapsed, as more will, following a rainfall that seeped the fissures of its earthquake damage. For dissuading highly dangerous residency, Ms. Lee and her organization were slighted. I’m quite sure this misleading integration with Schwartz’s quote was neither the intention nor context of Schwartz’s words, but rather, a well-intentioned journalist’s investment in poetry versus the prose that would demand more than a week of in-country observation.

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