A girl stands with Cite Soleil in the background. Cite Soleil is one of the poorest sections of Port-au-Prince and recent unrest has weakened the already precarious infrastructure. Waste management and sanitation is a challenge and Malteser International runs projects that involve community volunteers in draining sewage canals and cleaning the streets. Photo by Juan Carlos Castañeda/Malteser International

Haiti living on edge of disaster

  • December 14, 2019

A vicious circle of disasters and unresolved injustices are feeding one another and starving the citizens of Haiti. But the crisis is widely unknown.

The entire country is classified as either “stressed” or in a food “crisis,” according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The American famine organization predicts the crisis will rise through the February to May period, despite the return this fall of normal rainfall after two years of drought.

“Since the beginning of September, the supply of basic food commodities on markets has decreased due to deterioration of the socio-political situation, which is characterized by barricades along main roads, fuel scarcity, inflation and broad insecurity,” said a FEWS Net report.

Haiti has no prime minister right now, which means there’s no cabinet and no effective government. There is a president, Jovenel Moïse. The citizens despise the man to such an extent that massive riots, demanding his removal for corruption, have swept the nation. However, Washington prefers Moïse to any of the alternatives, so he stays.

Add in the longer-term problems. A tiny elite, just three per cent of Haiti’s population of 11 million, controls the economy. Below them, a somewhat fragile middle class accounts for no more than 10 per cent of Haitians. The rest of the population lives in abject poverty.

“Those conditions have been getting worse and unimaginable during the past 10 years,” warns Jesuit Fr. Kawas François, director of the Centre de Recherche, de Reflexion, de Formation et d’Action Sociale or CERFAS.

Haiti’s peasant farmers have been abandoning their fields. According to François, 20 per cent of them have decamped for the slums.

“Haiti must import food and everything, because the national production almost doesn’t exist,” he said in an e-mail.

According to the United Nations World Food Program, 3.7 million Haitians require immediate food assistance, including one million people suffering from severe hunger. On Dec. 6 it launched an $82-million international appeal.

The looming crisis, however, has been virtually ignored in the international media. That’s not because journalists aren’t trying, Associated Press spokesperson Patrick Maks told The Catholic Register. “Our journalists based in the country regularly provide reports across text, photos and video,” he said.

More than one-third of Haiti’s population has no sure access to food. If nothing happens, by March 42 per cent of Haitians, more than 4.5 million people, will be on the edge of starvation, according to a consortium of aid organizations active in Haiti that includes Caritas, Catholic Relief Services and Malteser International.

As this is happening, foreign aid is drying up. Haiti’s lack of a functioning government has led donor countries to cut off foreign aid. Basically, donors see no reliable hands to catch any money they might throw Haiti’s way, said Maltesers International Latin American and the Caribbean regional director Jalena Kaifeneim. 

As far as Canada is concerned, “Haiti is and remains a priority country for Canada and benefits from one of our major official development assistance programs,” International Development spokesperson for Global Affairs Jadrino Huot told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “Indeed Canada is the second largest bilateral donor (after the United States) and Haiti is the largest recipient of Canadian aid in the Americas.”

Between 2010 and 2018 Canada contributed almost $1.5 billion to Haiti.

The Haitians who could contribute solutions don’t see a way forward. “Brain drain is destroying Haitian society. More than 80 per cent of graduate Haitians are living outside the country,” said François.

Adding to all this, a destitute nation doesn’t fare well against the forces of global climate change, said Development and Peace Latin America program officer Mary Durran.

“Obviously, the more poor people are, the more vulnerable they are to climate change,” she said. “Climate change is just another ill that adds onto everything else.”

Haiti has for generations depended on foreign aid. That dependence deepened following the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that killed at least 100,000 people and left half the country homeless. With this year’s drop in official country-to-country foreign aid, all that’s left are little NGOs like Canada’s Development and Peace funnelling a tiny stream of charitable donations to their partners on the ground.

Even farmers who produce food in Haiti are having trouble feeding their families, said Fausta Jean-Maurice Baptiste, program co-ordinator for the Haitian peasant organization ITECA. ITECA, a French acronym for the Institute for Technology and Mobilization, has been a Development and Peace partner for 30 years.

“Rural areas have been cut off from the major urban centres, resulting in a break in the market supply system,” she said in an e-mail. “The small peasants could not sell their products to the big traders.”

Concrete challenges linked to climate change have included a dramatic increase in the frequency and force of hurricanes, including Hurricanes Isaac (2012), Sandy (2012) and Matthew (2016). 

“So many natural disasters in such a short period would have hit any country hard, but Haiti is still a very vulnerable country,” Kaifeneim said.

The 2010 earthquake triggered a cholera outbreak that is still ongoing. Nearly 10,000 Haitians have died of the disease. 

Kaifeneim understands that people have thrown up their hands in despair over the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

“The funding we receive has declined substantially. There’s also some donor fatigue with Haiti,” she said. “The question, it’s not, ‘Why still Haiti?’ It’s, ‘Why Haiti again?’ There were so many disasters that hit one after another.”

The first thing that must be fixed in Haiti is its politics, said François.

“All the sectors are pressing President Jovenel Moïse to resign,” he said. “It’s the only way to put an end to the crisis, reset the national economy and the main activities in the country. Supported by the United States, he remains in office and the country until now is blocked. We are in a real impasse. So Haiti is still plunged in its drama and the future is really uncertain.”

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