Just back from Haiti, MU's Kaussen found local activism outstripping outside help

Thursday, August 12, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The people of Haiti are not waiting for foreigners to solve their problems.

“I know Haitian people that are very politically active and they’re organizing themselves; nobody was sitting around waiting to be saved.” said Valerie Kaussen, who returned Saturday from her second trip to Haiti after experiencing the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the capital city on Jan. 12.

Seeing Haitians organizing peaceful demonstrations and debates to advocate for their needs was the only bright spot in a trip marked by sadness at how little progress has been made.

“They’re not attacking the international community or the aid delivery,” Kaussen said. “They’re sending their message to the state, to the (Haitian) government.”

Thursday marks seven months since the quake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, and recovery efforts continue to crawl. Government bureaucracy and a lack of consistent support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have resulted in more than a million and a half people still living in temporary tent shelters, with unreliable access to food and water, Kaussen said.

“Reconstruction, in terms of rubble removal, looked exactly the same to me as it did in April,” she said. “I really saw no progress. It’s shocking, quite honestly.”

Kaussen, an associate professor of French at MU, has been traveling to Haiti since graduate school, and was continuing research on the way the disaster has affected Haitians’ perceptions of home.

During this trip, she met with people from the Haiti Shelter Cluster, a United Nations-affiliated organization responsible for coordinating aid distribution in Haiti.

Under the cluster system, an NGO voluntarily takes responsibility for the management of a particular camp, organizing housing and other non-food aid like showers and medical care.

However, only about 35 percent of the camps have this type of management, Kaussen said.

“The International Organization for Migration is supposed to be the camp manager of last resort,” she said. “However, for whatever reason, they’re not able to take on that task. So 65 percent of the camps don’t have regular aid, aren’t really being taken care of.”

Bureaucracy seems to be bogging down aid distribution in a system with no oversight, she said.

“It’s very random which populations, which camps get aid and which don’t,” Kaussen said. “In more dangerous areas, areas with criminality, NGOs won’t go there. And if the NGOs don’t go, nobody goes.”

Illegal eviction from camps by the government is another problem plaguing many tent-dwellers, she said.

The Force for Reflection and Action in Housing, FRAKKA by its Creole acronym, is a grassroots group working to educate locals about their rights when it comes to housing. Rights that include “decent housing,” according to article 22 of the Haitian Constitution.

“There are all kinds of granted rights that people don’t get to take advantage of,” Kaussen said. “But it’s a good sort of political issue to rally people around and to inform people that they have this constitutional right.”

Haitian politics are making headlines worldwide, as hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean announced his bid for presidency in the upcoming election. But locals fear the election news will take attention away from the really serious problems, Kaussen said.

“The elections are important, and it’s certainly fun to hear about Wyclef Jean and his candidacy,” she said. “But it shouldn’t deflect from what’s going on on the ground.”

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Ray Shapiro August 12, 2010 | 12:58 p.m.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agricultural sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming, and remain vulnerable to damage from frequent natural disasters, exacerbated by the country's widespread deforestation.
note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher death rates, lower population growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected (July 2010 est.)
Roman Catholic 80%, Protestant 16% (Baptist 10%, Pentecostal 4%, Adventist 1%, other 1%), none 1%, other 3%
note: roughly half of the population practices voodoo.")
When will "Foreign Aid" be included as a source of income for some of these countries? Are outside monies being used to promote self-sufficiency or global dependence? Where's the Vatican when you need them?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 12, 2010 | 2:36 p.m.

I still recall the afternoon I nearly touched Haitian soil. I was a passenger on a flight from Trinidad to Miami. For some reason the plane wasn't able to obtain a fuel refill at Piarco International Airport (Trinidad), so we made a "technical stop" at Haiti.

The first thing we noticed, as the plane executed its landing pattern, was that there seemed to be no live trees anywhere in sight. We could see stumps. Were the trees felled for fuel?

Refueling stops do not allow passengers to exit the plane. This was explained to the passengers, who were of the opinion they didn't want to exit the plane under any circumstances!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 12, 2010 | 3:01 p.m.

Ellis, I have a friend who used to go to Haiti each year for a mission trip. On what I believe was his first visit, they took a puddle jumper from Port au Prince to the smaller town they were staying out. The pilot made a low approach over the runway to buzz the livestock off of it, then came back and landed on his second go around.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 12, 2010 | 3:47 p.m.


Are we then to classify Pennsylvania as being a Third World country? On morning flights from Pittsburgh to DuBois* it is often necessary to buzz the DuBois runway to run off the deer.

A Twin Otter turboprop makes enough noise to scare even the Devil.

*- That's pronounced "due.boys," not "due.bwaw." Either way it means "the woods," which it sure is!

(Report Comment)

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