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Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone’s Haiti Story

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As of July 31st, 2011, 894 camps remain, representing 594,811 individuals (according to the most recent IOM report). The pace of spontaneous returns that have been facilitated by numerous strategies, and assistance programs, has slowed considerably. These remaining are the poorest of the poor, and truly have no place better to go than to stay in the dense, unsafe and unsanitary displacement sites. They are choosing to stay in the absence of the alternative, facing, in tents and improvised shelters, the ongoing hurricane season, and living in constant risk. Some 121,000 are under immediate threat of eviction, with a newly introduced strain of cholera consistently threatening to re-spike as the rains and subsequent floods increase during the season.

Reitman’s article accuses the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population of having lied about initial infection and mortality rates, when in fact what they had done was to restrict the reporting of either strictly to confirmed cases. This follows international protocol. There is no centralized medical data bank, and few trained or equipped to report from more remote departmental regions. Compounding this handicap, the Haitian National Lab was swamped beyond capacity. For this, Haitian health care officials were defamed. I had spoken personally to both Health Minister Alex Larsen and to the health ministry’s general director, Gabriel Thimotée, and both were adamantly and openly calculating the outbreak as a major emergency for untold numbers. Reitman claims that no cases of cholera have occurred since the 1960s, but her statement is incorrect – no cases of cholera have been reported in Haiti prior to the ’60s. Reporting began at the beginning of the epidemic, and a journalist had stated that there had been no cases since the ’60s or earlier. That’s been misrepresented since that time. There are no documented cases of cholera in Haiti before October 2010.

Of the 894 remaining camps, only around 10 are “planned camps” with Sphere Standard humanitarian aspirations. All the other camps are spontaneous settlements that formed without structure in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Many have no management assistance at all; some are covered minimally by mobile teams. No lighting or sanitation. No drainage, security or clean water. Nothing but raggedy, rape-ridden plots of toxic dirt, in a patchwork quilt of tarps, tents and sticks. Few NGOs are still delivering assistance in camps, and, unfortunately, those few are progressively suspending operations as their funds for humanitarian assistance dry up, despite the strong advocacy efforts of Giovanni Cassani, IOM’s CCCM cluster coordinator for IDP affairs, and a few willing camp managers and service providers. Those who will pay the price are the people left in camps, stuck in the middle of this transition from emergency response to development: They will cease to receive assistance where they are, but they have not yet been offered a better place to go/return to.

Otherwise, highly functioning NGOs like Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors without Borders, abandoned many camps, heading for areas that would court media praise and donor dollars. Sophisticated donor money rarely comes without restriction (unrestricted funds). And Reitman touches on this issue in quoting both Dr. Louise Ivers (senior health and policy adviser for Paul Farmer’s exceptional Partners in Health organization), and Schwartz, in relation to “accountability to those we serve” and getting things done (not just showing that the money is spent). But she does not follow up or investigate the point further. Patrons can’t be expected to have the street sense of those in the field. So the overwhelming tendency for those contributing is to identify pet projects to which their emotional embrace is charged by familiarity, rather than real-time needs. And it is a vicious cycle, upon which many in the development set prey. Two notable donor exceptions in Haiti have been Voila and Digicel, both socially responsible companies, but also with the advantage of having in-country presences. Had Reitman focused more on the bureaucracy and systemic dysfunction, and less on sensationalized complaint, a productive balance may have been struck between journalism and advocacy.

Education is a priority for all. Educating donors is a worthy place to begin a new collaboration between NGOs. Not long ago, a major donor came to assess J/P HRO’s camp-based education program. After months of back and forth, and mountains of mandatory paperwork, J/P HRO’s education program scored highest of all grant candidates on the donor’s organizational review. Excited, and on the brink of expanding our school, we were cut off at the last minute, due to a newly discovered wrinkle by the donor’s administrators. We were not eligible for their grant because we had not been an NGO for three years. These types of intractable restrictions have created enormous limitations on many good programs. But there are newly positive signs. The government of Haiti, through a grant by IDA (the World Bank’s financing facility for poor countries), has taken an unusually bold step in actuating a significant relocation and development grant with our organization. I invite this to be scrutinized by media and donors alike. I have great faith in our team, and expect success.

For those of us who have been steadily involved on the ground since January 2010, each day feels like an eternity. And to be sure, the challenges ahead are enormous. But no one being honest can say that an extraordinary recovery is not visible. There is still much rubble to be removed, and truly a gargantuan emergency of needs: housing, jobs, education, medical and psychosocial health options yet to be discovered. Roads and power grids to be established or repaired. But cities hit hardest – Port-au-Prince, Léogâne, Carrefour, Jacmel – both in terms of material devastation and the human spirit, bear absolutely no resemblance to post-quake January 12th, 2010. And if there is an immoral message in Reitman’s piece, it is anything that will discourage the hope and practical expectation of recovery.

The government of Haiti poses a challenging paradigm. Haiti is a country with a constitution that bears reactionary principles, drafted in the devastating wake of the Papa Doc and Baby Doc dictatorships. The distribution of power left future presidents with almost total deference to parliament and private interest. In the aftermath of the earthquake, President René Préval and I often worked shoulder to shoulder. I grew to have a great respect and affection for the man. His ability to negotiate the chessboard of Haitian politics was as extraordinary as was his genuine concern for the Haitian people. In fact, had it not been for the earthquake, he would likely have left office not only as the first two-time democratically elected president, nor as one of only five presidents of Haiti since 1804 to have left office alive, but with the most successful legacy of development and economic growth of any president in Haiti’s history. Instead, this very human and internal man – with little formal power, facing his own suspicions, and those of him, and subject to the whims of money flows not under his control – found himself unable to connect with the Haitian people or re-instill confidence of any measure.

By January 2011, anti-climactic though it was, the return of Baby Doc Duvalier to Haiti would inspire interlopers to circle wagons and attempt to set the stage for a, perhaps, more significant distraction. As elections, flawed though they were, moved forward, the self-celebratory wing of the American “left” – think tanks – along with notable expatriate journalists and intellectuals supported by celebrities who endorse their academic mentor’s every call energetically and militantly, all grouped to proactively support the inflammatory return of deposed former president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Note: In Ms. Reitman’s article, passing her own inspection and that of her meticulous fact checker, this central figure of Haiti’s recent past, and current history, was misnamed Jean-Paul Aristide. [Page 70, third column.] WTF??? Really!? WTF???

Meanwhile, Haitians themselves would come to choose a new president: Michel Joseph Martelly. The cumulative cynicism of Reitman’s article dismisses Martelly as a right-wing militarist in the pocket of the private sector and the United States government. It is an assertion entrenched in the lust for endless struggle and the imposition of American norms with no practical regard for a Haitian context. One of Martelly’s first acts as president was to assure a five-cent tax on any calls made to Haiti from outside the country – the entirety of its benefit targeted to place all school-age children in free schooling within two years. Though the economics of this policy may be fairly debated, in that callers may newly self-restrict putting a potential impact on local telecoms, it can hardly be viewed as the act of a “right-winger.” And his call for a new Haitian military should be understood in the balance of a country currently under effective security occupation by the foreign faces, helmets, weapons and APCs of United Nations peacekeepers. (Despite the exceptional work by many of these peacekeepers and their leadership, there are always those who exploit power.)

This dismissal is a slap in the face to Haitians who brought Martelly to the presidency, numbering far more than just those who had access to the polls. But it was also a slap in the face to the United States government’s efforts and successes. When the secretary of state’s counselor and chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, is marginalized as having no “development experience” while playing such an integral role in the legitimacy of Haitian enfranchisement, one must ask: Is the beginning of “development” not in the enablement of a government by the people? Is this their democracy? Or does it belong to its non-Haitian critics? Across Haiti a great thing had happened: The people got the president they wanted. This was in no small way without the exceptional support of Mills, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, and then-MINUSTAH Special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of Mission Edmond Mulet, and his deputies Nigel Fisher and Kevin Kennedy. 

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