PORT-AU- PRINCE— Beverly Bell has worked in Haiti for the last thirty years and has gained a reputation for her stinging critiques of both the Haitian government and many of the international organizations that work on the ground in Haiti.
Bell is the founder or co-founder of several organizations in Haiti working for economic justice and human rights, and has worked for presidents Aristide and Préval. Currently, she’s an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and heads the group Other Worlds.
Bell answered questions via phone from her home in Louisiana last week.
Let’s start with the homeless problem here in Haiti right now, the refugee problem. Do you know how they’re counting people?
The UN says 1.9 [million]. No one has any idea, in fact. No one knows how many refugee camps there are. No one knows how many people [who fled the city after the earthquake] are living out in the countryside–the figure that’s used for that is a half a million. You know, it’s all guesswork. No one even knows how many Haitians there are. There’s never been a census.
The government of Haiti says 1.5 [million in the camps].
What’s the status of the plan for temporary housing right now as far as you can tell?
There is a housing cluster [made up of NGOs and international agencies working in Haiti]. There are supposedly about 5,000 transitional shelters now [completed].
It’s all too little, too late. As you know, people continue living in these horrible and absurd lodgings that make them prey to theft and rapists; where the conditions are terrible; where bathing, sanitation, elimination, food and drinking water are moment-to-moment challenges; where people suffer extraordinary instability in their daily lives.
It’s been seven months. It’s time that this is resolved, and the fact that there is no plan for resettling these people is an indicator of the total apathy and, really, disdain of the elite for the majority of those who are oppressed.
Who’s responsibility do you think this is, ultimately? Should it be a partnership between the Haitian government and NGOs?
It’s the Haitian government’s responsibility. This is their citizenry. There’s no jurisdictional question about that.
Obviously everyone knows that they are poor and disorganized, and one would think that they would enter into good partnerships with NGOs and with the United Nations or with other foreign governments or agencies that are interested. But they have done nothing except two things: one, to evict people from time to time. And second is to move people from one set of tents…to another set of tents.
You know, they’re putting these people in deserts—in traffic, two hours away from downtown Port-au-Prince, where their community is, where their family is, where jobs are, or work possibilities, school and healthcare.
It’s really criminal neglect, is what it is, of 1.5 to 2 million people.
Do you think the NGOs bear some responsibility for not putting up better structures, not pressuring the Haitian government?
They don’t have legal responsibility, but I would say they have moral responsibility. They have an obligation, ethically, to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable are taken care of.
What about the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission? Do you see any hope in that particular body?
No one is taking note of the fact that the governance of a nation has been handed off to a commission. It’s unheard of.
Here you have people who literally pay money to have a seat at a completely unaccountable and undemocratic institution that gives no state of the union address, that reveals no focus, no papers, no plan—there’s no number that you can call. There is no way for the Haitian people to know what is being planned in this critical, critical moment of [reconstruction].
Is there anything that an American can do to help? Or is being aware the most important thing right now?
No, there’s a lot that we need to do. We need to demand accountability from our government. We need to demand that the government respect international law. We can denounce this commission and the takeover of a nation. We can advocate for greater transparency and accountability from the World Bank and the other institutions, especially the financial institutions, that sit on the [Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission].
I think that we need to demand that the US step up and really act around this refugee crisis.
How can people contribute or figure out which organizations are really the most sustainable? A lot of people want to give money.
I think a lot of people are giving money because it’s not obvious what else one does. Here we are now, moving into the second half of the year since the earthquake, and I think some policy leverages are becoming more clear. It’s been really hard to know what to do… aside from bringing international attention.
People are still trying to figure out how to be useful besides sending a check. I think that’s going to be happening. From [the US] it might seem as though it’s been very slow, but in Haiti there’s been a lot of chaos and crisis… I think we’re reaching a different point now, where we can organize more proactively.
Do you think the presidential election is going to be an opportunity for change?
It should be, but when you look at who’s running [in the election] and the systems that it’s reinforcing, I don’t see that. And furthermore, what is the role of a president when the country is run by a foreign protectorate? I mean, I’m delighted that they’re respecting the constitutional elections process…. But the political class has never served Haiti’s citizens and I doubt that it will now. It comes back to the fact that Haitians need leverage points through which they can pressure their government to be accountable.