NEW YORK – For years, Haitians living overseas have been the lifeline of the troubled country, sending billions of dollars to relatives back home.
But now as the international community debates and pledges aid in the aftermath of the earthquake, many Haitians in the United States are feeling left out of the decision making process.
Nowhere was this more prescient than last week as delegates from more than 140 countries convened at the United Nations for a conference to raise money for the reconstruction of Haiti. At the end of the day, some roughly $9.9 had been pledged over 10 years. Of that amount $5.26bn is for the first 18 months, according to UN officials. . Still, skeptics remain as to whether and how the money will be used to truly repair? Haiti’s destroyed buildings and roads.
During the discussions, the Haitian Diaspora played a minor role. Unless members of the community organize, they are destined to remain on the sidelines, even as they continue to send remittances to poverty stricken families in Haiti.
The diaspora’s efforts have been disjointed. For instance, New York University professor Fabienne Doucet belongs to a small group that is petitioning the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission to gain a voting voice for the diaspora. Time may have run out however, for Doucet and other Haitians living abroad to lobby for a seat at the proposed commission tasked with overseeing reconstruction and staffing relief and development-related jobs. Currently, the Haitian diaspora has been allotted one of three non-voting seats. Most of the remaining 18 voting seats belong to international donors who have pledged US$100 million or more to the reconstruction effort.
The diaspora’s token status could become final this week, however when the Haitian parliament, or what remains of it after the January 12 earthquake, meets to ratify the IHRC, said Jocelyn McCalla, senior advisor in the Bureau of Haiti’s Special Envoy to the UN. Until this reporter informed her, Doucet did not even know that parliament was scheduled to meet, much less debate the proposed commission.
As of last Tuesday when Doucet’s group first posted the petition to thepetitionsite.com, 80 people have signed on to its cause. And while the site recommends a standard goal of 1,000 signatures, Doucet does not know how many signatures are needed to sway ministers to her cause.
Though she remains hopeful, it would be wrong to say that Doucet, an expert in early childhood education, was not frustrated by the surprised deadline.
“There’s this overwhelming sense that [we’re] not being included and [we] don’t know how to be included,” Doucet said, comparing the diaspora to the limb of a disconnected body.
“We don’t know where to plug in,” she said. “It’s very discouraging and eventually, that could turn into anger.”
Many other diaspora Haitians feel the same; all riled up but with nowhere to go. They want to help but don’t how. They want to lobby but don’t know the decision-makers. They want to plan but don’t know the major deadlines.
Some, like Fritz Fils-Aime the president of a local Haitian-American veterans association who attended last week’s donor conference at the United Nations, want specific details about how the Haitian government and major donors plan to rebuild his country.
“All we heard up there was a bunch of rhetoric,” said Fils-Aime, after the three-hour morning session broke for lunch.
He honed in on those speeches given by president René Preval, prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive who presented a Plan of Action for Haiti and the diaspora’s lead spokesperson at today’s conference, Marie St. Fleur, the first Haitian-American elected to the Massachusetts legislature.
“We talk about the need to build infrastructure, the need to help the women–OK, well how are we going to do it?” said Fils-Aime, gesturing with his hands and emphasizing the ‘how.’ He had wanted to walk away from today’s conference understanding, step-by-step and over specific time periods, what the major players planned to accomplish. That didn’t happen.
McCalla agreed that the speeches were broad, owing to the time allotted to each speaker and in some cases a lack of preparation. However, the IHRC, he said, and not the UN is the body the diaspora should court to “ensure that it has a strong voice in the policy and decision-making.”
Besides, as Bill Clinton, Haiti’s Special Envoy to the UN, pointed out during his session, a dismal precedent tainted the donor governments’ parade of good will and pledges of hard cash.
In the year since the last donor conference on Haiti in April 2009, less than one-third of monies committed then, had actually been dispersed, he said.
Clinton’s show of accountability—one of the day’s many buzz words, including transparency, decentralization and budget support—may have been an attempt to lead by example but it may have exacerbated doubts among some Haitian-Americans in attendance, that donors will come through this time around.
Fils-Aime, an avid believer in Haitian self-determination, is placing his hopes in the diaspora.
“We have enough professionals here … we have access to the money,” he said. “We can’t wait for people to organize things for us and that’s what we’re doing.”
Home-grown efforts to organize, like Doucet’s, may never realize their potential though, if Haitians in the diaspora can’t access or depend on a centralized point of information. Doucet believes the Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad, headed by Edwin Paraison, could be the diaspora’s base.
“Paraison is in most logical position to really advocate [for us],” said Doucet, noting that the minister’s whirlwind tour over the last two months to include Haitian living in Canada and the United States.
“I hope that he’s able at the parliament meeting to be the voice of the diaspora.”