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The politics of aid in Haiti

By Owei Lakemfa
HAITI lays prostrate. Most of it flattened by the Tuesday January 12,  2010 earthquake which measured 7.0  on the Richter Scale. The capital, Port-au Prince, which lays 16 miles from the quake’s epicentre needs 70 per cent reconstruction while some parts of the country need  90 per cent rebuilding.

There was so much destruction not because this is the highest scale known to humanity, but due to the fact that while other earthquakes in  places like the South Pacific originate hundreds of miles down the earth’s crust, the Haitian one was just 6.2 miles or 10 kilometres.

A second reason was the very lax building standards; poor infrastructure is unable to withstand quakes. This was further compounded by quite poor political, security and administrative structures due to long misrule and external invasions. So some Haitians that did not die or get injured during the earthquake became victims of sectarian and gang violence.

The earthquake sent an estimated 200,000 to early graves, while over three million people were affected; majority of them need new shelters. The presidential palace collapsed with President Rene Preval having to  run the country from a police station.

The Parliamentary building went down taking a lot of parliamentarians along and The Cathedral destroyed, killing the Archbishop. The European Union envoy, Pilar Juarez died. The United Nations (UN) Chief Mission, Hedi Annabi, his deputy, Carlos da Costa and 38 other staff were killed and hundreds of  UN peacekeepers and staff still  unaccounted for.

With hospitals flattened and buildings unsafe due to fears of aftershocks, women gave birth on pavements.
With such unimaginable destruction, Haiti needed quick  aid, especially medical, food and water from whatever source.

The United States(US) rose to the occasion sending in urgent aid. President Barack Obama personally led the American mobilisation, co-opting two former presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. F. Bush. In its efforts to control the situation the US took over the Haiti Airport through which it landed troops.

When the Doctors Without Borders sent in a cargo plane carrying a field hospital with life- saving medical equipment on Saturday, the Americans refused to allow it to land. The aircraft had to land in neighbouring Dominican Republic and the cargo brought in by road which caused a 24-hour delay. Two Mexican  aircraft carrying vital supplies were also not allowed to land.

Similarly, relief flights from France and Brazil were denied landing rights  by the American military. The co-ordinator of Spain’s  International Development Agency in Haiti, Daniel Martin complained that vital supplies his country was bringing in were diverted by the Americans to a neighbouring country.

How were Americans able to take over? Haiti due to dictatorship and frequent military coups, has no military; rather, since 2004, it has relied on 9,000 UN peacekeepers. Secondly, its police is weak, thirdly its frequently rampaging criminals, and external forces have made its government quite weak and almost ineffectual. The situation was made worse by the escape of 4,000 prisoners from the main jail when the quake struck. So there was no doubt that a security situation had arisen.

But given this situation and the need for aid to quickly flow, was the US the proper body to take over and coordinate? Definitely not. The UN before the quake had 7,000 multinational soldiers and 2,100  international police. The Dominican Republic which shares boundary with Haiti, after the quake offered 800 soldiers to the UN.

Given its neutrality, composition and its multinational control, it was logical for the UN to be in charge of the situation and any country bringing additional troops should do so under UN control. UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon said the UN should coordinate the relief efforts and groups pouring into Haiti.

But the US rejected UN leadership, insisting that it would lead the world body and the rest of humanity in Haiti. The Americans who are pouring in 2,200 Marines and 3,500 soldiers from their 82nd Airborne Division into the small ravaged country boasted that it would not come under the UN. American State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the US troops will “be under US command”.

Rather than engender free and urgent flow of aid to the quake victims, the US hindered it with its overbearing attitude. It forces incoming flights into Haiti to register with its Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and decides who lands in Haiti and who does not, who  takes off and who does not. In other words, all in the name of providing and distributing aid,  the US has seized Haiti.

Logically, given its  obsession with security, the Americans give  preference to  flights bringing  in their soldiers rather than those  bringing in urgent medical and relief supplies from other countries and aid groups. The usually reticent  officials of the World Food Programme complained that the Americans allow too many US military flights and too few aid deliveries.

It is not uncommon to see heavily armed American troops in Haiti amongst a traumatised, weak and hungry populace, yet it is hunger and  lack of food that is propelling the violence on the streets. The situation in Haiti is not primarily security but the need for urgent aid, so the Americans  might have ulterior motives beyond humanitarianism. Crowley hinted this when he said  that the objectives of the American Government is “not only to provide life-saving support to the Haitian people but to rebuild the capacity of the Haitian government”.

America had invaded and occupied Haiti for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934 during which 3,250 Haitians were killed by the invaders who lost 98 Marines while bequeathing Haiti with a $40 million debt. The US returned in 1994 to restore elected President Betrand Aristide and left in April 1996, only to come back eight years later to abduct and exile the same Aristide. Now it is back in the name of aid and this time  it is uncertain for how long it will stay.


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