Each Saturday for the past two months, a thousand or more Haitian earthquake survivors have met in the auditorium of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy (AFD) to discuss the future of their country.
Since its founding in 1996, the AFD has provided a place for grassroots activists and ordinary Haitians to debate and discuss national issues.
Since the January 12 earthquake, the AFD has sponsored weekly public forums in the capital Port-au-Prince, in which participants tell their stories, talk about their conditions and describe their needs; they receive training and information on the situation, their rights under the Haitian constitution, and the United Nations principles on Internally Displaced People. Presenters and participants discuss actions to make their voices heard.
Most attendees are living in spontaneous settlements across the earthquake zone — as are the majority of Port-au-Prince citizens. Delegations come from other parts of the country hit hard by the quake.
Participants have offered vivid testimony about conditions in Port-au-Prince since the earthquake.
Now that the rains have begun, people describe spending the nights sleeping while upright, standing under their plastic sheeting because there is no room for everyone to be sheltered lying down, and because water floods the tents.
During the rainy season, which will intensify in May, it rains nearly every night. In the morning, the sun blazes and the heat under the plastic sheeting — which is all most people have to protect themselves — is stifling.
They are now living in mud 24-hours a day, in camps almost uniformly lacking sanitation.
The price of basic foodstuffs have risen 15-30% since the earthquake, while incomes have all but disappeared. Only those receiving funds from family overseas are able to purchase food.
For those dependent on international aid, finding food for their families is an unending labour.
Coupons for food might be distributed in the camps once a week, though not to everyone and not with predictability. Women able to get the coupons must then go to a different site, often miles away, and line up long before the sun rises.
The next day, the same struggle occurs to find cooking oil — another day of travel to where the oil is distributed in a completely different location to the rice.
Often, there aren’t enough coupons, the rice runs out, the distribution center has been relocated or it does not open due to security concerns. And with the rains, bags of rice get wet and spoil.
Participants describe with horror a dramatic rise in prostitution — young women and girls selling their bodies to feed themselves and their families.
In the camps, infectious diseases are poised to run rampant. Each Wednesday since March 10, the AFD has held a large free clinic in the auditorium, providing primary care services to 1200 people every week.
What AFD doctors see and hear from patients in the clinics confirms the testimony in the forums of high rates of illness caused by the conditions people are living in: malnutrition, diarrhea among children, urinary tract and other infections.
The first demand of those at the forums is for temporary housing in safe and sanitary locations. The second is for food.
Beyond this jobs, education, health care and real investment in food production are raised.
Forum participants are asking to take part in the planning of the nation’s future — the necessary precondition for real recovery. They feel more intensely than ever before, a profound sense of exclusion.
There was no attempt at consultation or participation with Haiti’s vibrant and engaged grassroots organisations in the preparation of the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment put forward by the Haitian government to the international donors conference on March 31.
On March 27, more than 1200 people met at the AFD for a debate on the creation of the 20-person Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti (ICRH). The commission, dominated by foreigners, will oversee all international funding.
The next forum, involving 1400 people, focused on the government’s plan to extend its emergency powers for 18 months to allow the ICRH to exercise extra-constitutional powers. Most participants expressed deep concern over the repercussions for Haiti’s sovereignty.
This was followed by three days of sit-ins at the Haitian parliament to protest the law.
There has been almost no communication about what might be in the government’s plan. People at the forums have no idea what is in it.
They hear billions of dollars were pledged in New York, but have little faith it will be given, and no faith that what is given will be spent in their interests.
Three months after the quake, there has been no plan presented by the government or international NGOs to deal with the urgent need for resettlement of those in the camps.
In early April, there were several reports of forced removals of people camped on the grounds of private schools, private property, and from the soccer stadium. At some sites, bulldozers arrived without notice to tear down shelters, leaving families with no place to go.
More than one million people are estimated to be homeless in the metropolitan area. If there are plans for temporary shelter for more than a small number of people, they are not being communicated to the general public.
Those gathering at the AFD express fear they will be forcibly evicted from the camps. They are also sceptical about plans to relocate people to remote areas, which would leave them cut off from the economic life of the city — including the mutual aid provided by families, communities, neighborhood associations etc, and the informal economy.
Mutual aid and the informal economy are the only things keeping Haitians alive. That was true before the quake and it is still true. Efforts to assist must empower Haiti’s powerful networks of mutual aid and the informal economy — not ignore or dismantle them.
Needed are community kitchens in the camps, loans to women to restart informal sector commerce, relocation for those in imminent danger with their participation, and finding ways of keeping people close to the city if they wish it.
And why, out of US$12.2 billion dollars requested in the PDNA was only $41 million, or 0.3%, allocated for agriculture and fisheries, i.e. for local food production?
The AFD forums represent the largest indoor gatherings of Haitians to discuss and debate the country’s future since the earthquake.
Since January 12, we don’t know of any occasion where the government, UN or international NGOs planning Haiti’s future and the distribution of aid funds, have brought large groups of Haitians together to ask for their input.
Finally, those attending the forums at the AFD are unanimous in their call for the return of elected former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti, who was overthrown in a US-backed coup in 2004.
It is best summed up by community organiser Jean Vaudre, who said at an April 17 forum: “If Aristide were here, even if he had no money to help us, he would be with us, in the rain, under the tents.
“If he were here we might believe, we might have hope that we will be able to participate in the future of the country.”
[Abridged from Haitiaction.net. Laura Flynn is a member of the board of the AFD-US, which supports the work of the AFD in Haiti. For more on the current work and history of the AFD, visit its website.]