Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone's Haiti Story - Rolling Stone
Home Politics Politics News

Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone’s Haiti Story

sean penn haiti port-au-princesean penn haiti port-au-prince

Sean Penn at a makeshift camp for people left homeless by the earthquake in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.


Editor’s note: In RS 1137, we published “Beyond Relief,” a report that examined the failure of international efforts to rebuild Haiti following last year’s devastating earthquake. Sean Penn, a leader in the reconstruction effort, sent us a lengthy and passionate critique of the story. His full letter is presented here. To read our response, click here.

Shame on me. It is not narcissism that leads me to this statement, for I have no shame in recognizing the well-populated club in which I now see I can count myself as having been a member for most of my adult American life. As a person invested in, and having benefited from, the film industry since about 1980, of course, I’d had some peripheral awareness years ago that filmmaker Jonathan Demme was a voice in our own wilderness screaming, “There is a country of people down here in total poverty (call that: no emergency rooms when their children are sick with fever) only a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami Beach!” “Come on, Johnny!” I thought, “don’t gimme no cause célèbre!” It took a fluke of timing and a major fucking earthquake, some 30 years later, to rattle my cage, while some 230,000 Haitian men, women and children were rattled to a sudden and horrible death for no reason but poverty and neglect. “Come on, Seany, give it up for Johnny’s cause célèbre!” So while the most accessible way for me to approach what follows is largely to personalize it, it is by no means personal. This is simply shame . . . shared. And pragmatic hope . . . encouraged.

When the United States military pulled up stakes after their 22,000-strong peak deployment of approximately three months of assistance following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it would be the first time in generations that the Haitian population would say their goodbyes to U.S. troops with a “five-fingered” wave. Under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, their humanitarian mission was not only performed with great humanism, but left behind the map to a logistical and decisive approach for emergency-relief success – a map that may well have been advisory in the building of sustainable development. Among those who shared in, or inherited, that position of leadership were the government of Haiti (GOH) and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). There was also an assortment of international non-governmental organizations (NGO), all depending on the support and faith of nation donors and private investment. Many of these organizations had a presence prior to and during the earthquake, and many lives of their heroic colleagues were tragically lost to the quake itself.

Within the two most politically significant organizations that suffered such losses, the GOH and MINUSTAH, both lost not only close friends and loved ones, but also many in primary positions of leadership. Despite that, most in Haiti with whom I have worked, initially as founder/country director and later as CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization, continued to offer extraordinary skills, experience and passionate commitment. As with any disaster, organizations large and small will always find themselves traveling a virtual mine field of bureaucracy and unforeseeable challenge. Note that reconstruction at Ground Zero did not even begin until five years following the 9/11 disaster, and only in recent months has there been any visual progress made. Also, with the exception of schools built under the leadership of Paul Vallas, now a J/P HRO board member, not a single public building has been rebuilt in hurricane-damaged Louisiana. Sadly, in many cases, the greatest challenges come from within, and in such a mine field are patience, decisiveness, coordination and collaboration – the four balls of a juggler, not mutually independent, but each necessarily and singularly fierce.

Haiti’s most recent earthquake measured 1 million on the magazine-sale scale. That’s fierce too. The August 18th issue of Rolling Stone magazine had hit the stands, its cover boasting a photo of four bearded men, the death of Amy Winehouse and the Rupert Murdoch scandal feature – a story that by rights should have called upon all self-respecting journalists at News Corp. to instantly resign in protest as their bosses reign over the destruction of journalistic ethics, quality and law. But it is not the four beards, the untimely death of a talented young singer or the gangsterism of Rupert Murdoch where Rolling Stone is shaking the most fragile ground, or risking its own journalistic ethics. It is in its special report, “Beyond Relief,” by contributing editor Janet Reitman. The piece is an intended indictment of post-2010 earthquake relief, reconstruction and development efforts in Haiti, describing them as a “disaster of good intentions.”

I picked up a copy of the magazine off the rack during a layover at Miami International Airport. I had taken a red-eye flight from Los Angeles for my return to Port-au-Prince. At that point, our own predominantly Haitian-staffed NGO, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, was continuing to sweat and sacrifice, as the staff had apparently not yet received the Rolling Stone cover verdict that their work side by side with so many others and so many international organizations and those of their fellow Haitians had “failed.” They were also to be a bit shaken that such a message had been sent by Rolling Stone to donors at such a critical turning point in Haiti’s potential future.

For our own part, J/P HRO’s engineering crew had re-established entire neighborhoods, removing over 120,000 cubic meters of rubble and demolishing hundreds of irreparable buildings, much of that rubble recycled and trucked into the slum of Cité Soleil to be used as fill beneath three new schools in assistance to the Digicel school project (mentioned in the Rolling Stone article). Our medical teams and clinics had treated over 115,000 patients, and pushed by truck and helicopter over 100 metric tons of cholera meds throughout the country, including mountainous regions so remote that inhabitants had never seen a white face before. Our school of 260 children was advancing, and we had ultimately helped to relocate over 30,000 people from camps to homes while coordinating camp services as management in that same period. We have trained and employed 250 Haitians on staff, as well as many hundreds of additional jobs our programs created, both through cash-for-work and cash-for-production programs. All of this principally funded by private donors.

As I sat in the terminal, pulling the foil from a packet of mints before retrieving the magazine from the vendor-stamped plastic bag, I did not know that none of our progress, nor those extraordinary accomplishments of other top organizations, including the GOH and the Clinton Foundation (maligned in Reitman’s piece by an unnamed source), would be acknowledged. I boarded my flight to Haiti, clipped on my safety belt and began turning the pages of Rolling Stone.

I am a reader of Rolling Stone. Full disclosure: I once published a short piece in the magazine and have been featured on its cover a few times. My experience in general is that the reporting in Rolling Stone tends to be at least reasonably accurate, quite often stellar, and, more consistently than most, can claim to having broken major stories with a quality of writing that would challenge any magazine of its kind. Janet Reitman is herself a polished writer, a bright woman and, I believe, a well-intended one. But Ms. Reitman has stepped into the wrong wheelhouse here. I myself, by quirk of fate, have been one of the most active (and often critical) voices of relief efforts in Haiti, and in my view, subject as it is to the reader’s judgment, it is her article that is a “disaster of good (journalistic) intentions.”

Reitman had the right idea in her instinct that the complexities of the situation had bred great dysfunction in the relief and redevelopment effort. But what might have been an important and revelatory piece on bottlenecks and accountability shortfalls, accomplishments, failure, crimes, misdemeanors and transparency, Haitian needs and the insight into paths forward inadvertently becomes a damaging orgy of presupposed bias, along with unbalanced and consciously woven attributions for effect, but at the high cost of fact. This distillation of snowballed half-truths perilously threatens to dissuade donorship while bolstering reluctance and excusability on the parts of governments and NGOs alike to release already appropriated funds at this, Haiti’s most hopeful hour for progress since the earth shook. Now, an August 24th blog by Felix Salmon has lifted verbatim from Ms. Reitman’s flawed text to independently claim and regurgitate her erroneous assertions. My finger is in the dike.

So here’s the thing: There are two primary themes in the world of international relief dynamics: one is emergency relief, the other sustainable development. The disaster of Ms. Reitman’s journalism here is that, though seemingly with the best intentions, and certainly peppered with legitimate critique, she came to Haiti for a brief one week, nine months before her article was released. Indeed, just as cholera had begun to spike, and where those she spoke to were likely on edge, and in an environment where scapegoating was at a premium. In her predisposition to indict the frustrating and seemingly static nature of relief efforts, she stepped into a cesspool of “experts,” some representing emergency relief, others entrenched in theoretical development, and a very few who actually sought, or practically applied themselves to, the notion of bridging the two.

In the first two groups she would find relief careerists all too willing to offer themselves as the poles for her polarizing story that borders on fiction. Typically, those both in government or representatives of NGOs who actively work in the field were willing to speak to Ms. Reitman on the record. Sadly, it is they who would be punished most for their honesty, as their comments were re-contextualized to support a story built principally on the complaint-culture predisposition of an uninformed public. I was among those (though least at risk of going undefended, here proven) who gave on-the-record accounts. I spent hours, both in person in Haiti and on the telephone with Ms. Reitman, followed by a 20-minute session with her Rolling Stone-assigned “fact checker.”

To give some examples of the way in which my own words were spun, I will begin with this: Indeed, as Reitman asserted, I was closely involved and advocated strongly for what became the first, and ultimately a very controversial, relocation. This relocation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in a vulnerable tent camp on the Delmas-Bourdon border, which our organization managed in coordination with the International Organization of Migration (IOM). By “managed,” we mean the lead NGO coordinator and international project advocate on behalf of the families living there. This relocation involved moving 5,000 persons (or 1,200 families) off the side of a hill that the United Nations had declared the most vulnerable IDP camp to threat of death by flood or mudslide in the country. That assessment was shared by engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Navy Seabees, and virtually every engineer of every partner NGO with whom we work. A drainage mitigation plan was drawn up, and we set out to accomplish it. Among the 60,000 internally displaced persons in the camp at the time, if 5,000 were not relocated, 32,000 people would have been left in harm’s way. That is a fact.

What made the relocation ultimately controversial was the location and habitat condition of the alternate camp that was planned, surveyed and managed by other organizations after that location had been selected by the GOH on land they had claimed by eminent domain. The area was not selected, as misreported in Ms. Reitman’s piece, “after Penn and Keen met with U.S. and Haitian officials.” In fact, the only part that Lt. Gen. Keen or I played in that was in our mutual and staunch advocacy that safe alternate areas of relocation, with services and material support, be provided. Furthermore, her contention that the lieutenant general and I would have been meeting with “U.S.” officials to designate a location seems written with the intention of bolstering the myth that the U.S. relief mission was, in some way, an intrusion on Haiti’s sovereignty. The officials we and the GOH did meet with, whether independently or collaboratively, were U.N. officials, not “U.S.” officials.

As framed in Ms. Reitman’s piece, this alternate camp became a disaster of its own. The camp is called Corail-Celesse. And indeed, as Ms. Reitman reported, a few months following the relocation, a storm had hit Corail. Approximately 150 of the 1,200 tents erected would be collapsed by that storm. A single death was reported, by lightning strike. It was also wrongly reported at the time that the surveying organization, a U.N. designate with a grand reputation and working through the Haitian Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, had been somehow derelict in its duty by determining that Corail was not seated in a flood zone. I went personally to Corail in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The harsh rain had proven one thing for certain: the surveying organization was correct. And for those in the know, their grand reputation remained intact. The tents had fallen simply from harsh rainfall, sky to ground, not, as widely reported by the media, due to flooding. What those not in the field do not know is that 100 or more tents go down in EVERY camp with EVERY harsh rain. But rains in Haiti tend to fall at night, when fearful journalists dare not tread into “spooky” IDP camps, and too many U.N. bureaucrats have never seen the inside of a camp to begin with.

When I visited Corail that morning, none of the former residents of the camp I managed wanted to return to the hillside of Bourdon (a.k.a. Pétionville camp). I spoke personally to hundreds of them. They preferred to stay in Corail. They salvaged their belongings, 150 new tents were distributed to them, and life, shitty as it was post-disaster, went on. It needs to be said that this was a voluntary relocation and that all formal communications with those who opted to relocate was done with a factual sharing of all information available, which shamefully included the false assurances, given by habitation organizations of the U.N., that all tents would be expediently transitioned into the hurricane-resistant shelters that were to be placed on a separate sector of the Corail land, development of which would happen in expedient follow-up to the initial relocation. What was never proposed to those opting for Corail, however, was, as Reitman erroneously reported, “that they would be first in line for jobs in the Korean-owned garment factories that the Haitian government pledged would soon be built in the area.” (Though we all had high hopes for that to be the case.) In the construction of the article, she folds that false information (based on a widely known rumor of Haitian political campaign-speak origin) into my confirmation of the list of incentives and assistance that were in the offing immediately in her piece, connecting the rumored promise of jobs to my quote, “That’s the plan. . . .” WRONG!

An additional distortion in the Rolling Stone article is Reitman’s recounting of a meeting between myself and community leaders within an IDP camp tent. In Ms. Reitman’s article I am quoted saying to a group of Haitian community leaders, during the buildup to relocation, that “I don’t give a fuck about the rich guys who own this club.” This was a reference to the owners of the land upon which these IDPs had established their ad hoc encampment with tents made originally from salvaged bed sheets in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, not, as reported in Rolling Stone, from plastic sheeting (the rain-resistant sheeting she observed was only later distributed by NGOs and U.N. organizations). In the context of the article I had said it, and meant it just as stated. In context of reality and of the broader explanation I gave Ms. Reitman and her fact checker, I explained that I had indeed said those words knowing I was speaking to a group of pro-Aristide, anti-foreign “community leaders” whom, I had been informed in advance, believed that any whites operating in the camp within which they lived were doing so on behalf of the “rich white people who own the club,” which in Haiti has a resonating history of class division, forced evictions and brutality. I used those words about the landowners only in knowing I would need to court open minds, and had to make the separation clear between their assumptions about these landowners (which, had they been justified, indeed my words would have expressed exactly the position I and J/P HRO would have taken) and our own position as a humanitarian operation, presenting them with an opportunity to make a sacrifice for the greater good of the community. I will say here on behalf of those community leaders that they did ultimately make the choice to relocate and they did so with a proud and touching sense of social contribution. But it also has to be said that I am personally unaware of any other earthquake infringed upon landowners, whether white, black, rich or poor, who have been as consistently supportive of an IDP population and their NGO partners. William Evans, Coty Reinbold and the rest of the board of the Pétionville Club have been extraordinarily supportive. So, to have left my statement as “I don’t give a fuck about the rich guys who own this club” and to do it on page one of her article without further explanation, was an indication of the pages to come and the damaging distortion whereby ongoing relationships and vital collaborations are compromised.

On that same first page of Ms. Reitman’s article, a “U.N. official” who asked not to be identified made the scurrilous speculation that the relocation to the camp at Corail, which had most certainly prevented disastrous consequences at the Pétionville Camp, was to this unnamed coward “the most grotesque act of cynicism that I’ve seen in some time.” I believe it lacks journalistic grace to include, within the writer’s own agenda, such words as these, without identifying the interviewee, and seems to have been the result of the absent-minded slip of the interviewee to have properly introduced himself to Reitman. So, in an effort to indemnify both parties, I will risk here, though with a confidence of nearly empirical certainty, that that cowardly unnamed U.N. official was a fellow by the name of Jean-Christophe Adrian. And . . . if not, he, having spoken along these lines publicly before, will serve just fine to exemplify the problem.

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.


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. 

So here we are, in September 2011, standing by as the democratically elected president of Haiti and his people suffer the sabotage techniques of members of a parliament that have blocked from them, the installment of two prime ministers in succession (a third, Garry Conille, awaits Senate confirmation), thereby stalling the selection and rebuilding of the very ministers and ministries through which all redevelopment projects should rightly be administrated. Many of these rogue members of parliament (principally representatives of the former president’s Inite party) with corruption scandals knocking on their own doors are glued together by the threat tactics of a former Fanmi Lavalas party president, whose untimely return was principally facilitated and encouraged by forces outside of Haiti. They are demagogues, whose ideological aims indulge romantic reparations over tangible repair, and so vilify the families of the bourgeoisie that the human construct of progress has been reduced to a protectionist pissing contest, where fair-minded and inventive people, open to truth and reconciliation, may otherwise be coming to compromise for the greater good – distribution of land, manufacturing, import, export, agriculture and a potential boon for green technologies, from which all could share the benefit of the prize. Haiti.

Where to begin? In the areas of operation where J/P HRO have ongoing programs, I am known to the population not as a film actor, not as a warm and fuzzy humanitarian, but as a blan (that foreign guy who’s the boss of the organization working with them in their camps and their neighborhoods). I am also known, to those I am known, as a potential employer. As many as 100 people in the course of any given day will approach or call out to me, “Hey, blan!” What follows is almost never a request for money, for a handout, as would be otherwise typical in a developing country. In Haiti, what is wanted is a job.

When Reitman concludes arbitrarily that the plans of development funneled through co-chair President Clinton and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) and former and sitting prime minister and IHRC co-chair Jean Max Bellerive’s Action Plan for National Recovery and Development are doomed, “Haitians . . . know from bitter experience that the business-friendly model of development, currently being touted as their salvation, has repeatedly failed them.” My question is, which Haitians is she referring to? Those I encounter each day are part of the population that averaged one or two dollars a day in wages before the earthquake swallowed even that. There is an initial focus on hotels and the apparel industry (see the impact of the apparel industry in Indonesia, where percentages of those below the poverty line dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent, and in Vietnam, from 64 percent to 13 percent in a single decade), and a minimum wage now set at $5 per day, the development of a northern industrial park (not to be confused with the earlier mentioned industrial park plans hoped for at Corail) projecting 20,000 jobs, training and upward mobility as the baby steps of investment, into a more holistic plan encouraging decentralization, robust agricultural expansion and new oversights on labor regulation, and freedom of labor organization.

I ask Ms. Reitman: Which Haitians are, to date, so invested in the “bitter” experience of the past? When Ms. Reitman focuses through a lens of luxury leftism, through quotations discrediting current strategies and staffs of President Clinton, or the development experience of Cheryl Mills (two of the most proactive forces in Haiti’s, perhaps, best chance), what becomes obscured is that the billions of dollars currently stuck in bottleneck would likely have never existed without their most significant advocacy. (The same can be said for the emergency relief donations made to the American Red Cross, a monolithic but still very necessary institution.) Recently, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, Haiti country director for Oxfam, Great Britain, “voluntarily” stepped down from his post, following allegations not of his own misconduct but of staff misconduct under his charge. It is unclear whether he had knowledge of the misconduct in this situation, but from the outside Hauwermeiren was a rare beast indeed. Rare, in that few country directors in Haiti brought as much ethically philosophical leadership skill sets and experience to the table of relief, despite working for a large bureaucratic organization. It is a loss, I’m quite sure, due largely to Oxfam’s recognition of the current state of intolerant scrutiny by a biased and uninformed media covering, and largely NOT covering, Haiti. And, fairly, to Oxfam’s generally high standards of internal investigation and scrutiny. Clinton and Mills are two of the sharpest knives in Haiti’s kitchen drawer of international support, and the only thing more “bitter” than the “past” for Haitians would be to be beckoned for the cooking of this feast of reconstruction, only to find those two essential knives stolen or dulled by a reckless media, as I’m sure was the case for one of the best country directors in Haiti, Roland Hauwermeiren.

Suspicion and cynicism toward U.S. policy in Haiti have shameful historic validity, but it is a new day. It is time for the Haitian people and their new president to have their voices heard and their needs met. So much white noise of corruption, both real and imagined, so much suspicion, and conspiracy. One of the best and most passionate minds on the American assistance to Haiti, President Clinton, who is also the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, is, due to all this white noise, an asset to the new Haitian president, and yet, for them to walk together is to walk on eggshells simply to avoid the stigma of American interventionism. Clinton was right. Haiti can recover, and more quickly than one would ever imagine. But this will take an intrepid juggling of patience and decisiveness, coordination and collaboration. There will, in the best of circumstances, be stumbles and bumbles. The fucking situation’s a mess. But as long as we understand that some additional fish must be provided if we are to assist in improving fishing skills, and if we continue to have faith in human beings to make incredible things happen, and that Haitians themselves, as I and so many others in the field assert, are on the highest rung of that potential, acting now can be the difference between going the distance and further disaster.

But in all of this, I am reminded of Philip Roth’s description of the Clinton White House while under the partisan attack during a personal scandal gone public. Roth imagined the artist Cristo wrapping the White House in fabric, a scrawl of graffiti across it stating, “A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.” Well, 9 million human beings live in Haiti. They need our support. Rolling Stone readers and Rolling Stone magazine, they need your support and dollars. Donations to underfunded organizations that I can unflinchingly recommend can be made to: J/P HRO, PIH, CHF, UNOPS, IsraAID, Architecture for Humanity, IOM, IMC, PRODEV and Project Medishare. But even more importantly, governance is the key. For all the children of Haiti, we must call upon maverick and socially responsible businesses to walk hand in hand with the people’s chosen president, Michel Martelly, now. And as for Jean PAUL Aristide? Who is that?

The editors reply:

We greatly respect the work Sean Penn is doing in Haiti, and the daunting scale of the task facing all those engaged in the effort to rebuild the country. His accusations of distortions and inaccuracies in our article, however, are misplaced. The writer, Janet Reitman, first reported from Haiti in 1994. Her story on the shortcomings of the current reconstruction efforts were based on nine months of intensive reporting and research, including on-the-ground visits to Haiti, Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C. Penn’s own experiences, as reported in the piece, accurately reflect what he told both Reitman and our factchecker.

It is a well-established journalistic practice to grant anonymity to informed sources who are in a position to suffer retribution for speaking out against those in positions of power. Penn’s “near empirical certainty” about the identity of one of our sources is completely unfounded. In addition, every anonymous quote used in the story was echoed by multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the effort to rebuild Haiti.

Penn is correct in noting that we got Jean Bertrand Aristide’s middle name wrong in the third of three references we made to him in the piece. We regret the error, and have corrected it in the online version of the story.


Beyond Relief: How the World Failed Haiti by Janet Reitman


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.