WASHINGTON—Overwhelmed by sadness, empathy and disbelief, the world’s eyes and hearts are focused on the rescue and relief efforts resulting from the earthquake in Haiti.
However, many who have worked in Haiti fear that a preventable and long-term disaster lies on the horizon if international interventions do not break with past patterns. As international aid pours into Haiti, we have a brief moment to avoid past mistakes and bring real change to Haiti.
During the eight years that the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights has partnered with the grassroots medical group Zanmi Lasante/Partners In Health in Haiti, we have witnessed U.S. and international aid efforts that could be characterized, at best, as unsustainable and, at worst, deliberately harmful.
In 2000, the U.S. and the Inter-American Development Bank approved millions of dollars of what would have been lifesaving loans to improve water, health, education and road infrastructure. Later these funds were withheld because of the U.S. government's opposition to then President Bertrand Aristide. While the loans were eventually released, 10 years later the communities where the very first water projects were to be financed still lack access to reliably clean drinking water, contributing to countless deaths due to waterborne illness.
In 2004, the international community pledged $1 billion to support Haiti. The RFK Center, along with Zanmi Lasante and the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, tried to track the fulfillment of those pledges, but never received clear and consistent answers from donor states on the status of the aid. With no transparency or coordinating body to turn to, the Haitian people had no hope of knowing if that money ever got to Haiti, much less where it was directed and how it could be used to improve their communities. Haitian government sources later confirmed that most of the pledges had never been fulfilled.
In 2008, after hurricanes ravaged the country, the international community convened another donor conference resulting in more than $324 million in pledges. Before the earthquake, most of those pledges had still not been fulfilled.
Historically, interventions in Haiti have been viewed through the lens of charity. The international community, NGOs, international organizations and donor states have gathered time and again to announce to the world pledges of support, only to quietly back away from these commitments.
The goodwill of the international community is certainly critical today to Haiti’s future but charity alone will not be enough to rebuild a safer and more sustainable Haiti. Only by forging a new path, guided by a commitment to the human rights of the Haitian people, can the international community help to create real, lasting change.
Charity is a personal act of choice with no real repercussions. Human rights are legal obligations, grounded in our shared acknowledgement of human dignity — something that every government must respect and no government can take away. In the aftermath of this disaster, every country and international organization working toward recovery in Haiti needs to ensure that their actions will promote the respect and dignity of the Haitian people based on constitutionally and internationally recognized rights to water, health and education.
By partnering with the Haitian government and local communities in assessing the nation’s recovery needs and making long-term pledges to support the government of Haiti in meeting these needs, donors can pave a sustainable path towards recovery. Additionally, the donor nations should commit to making their aid transparent so every Haitian knows where funds are going. Accountability mechanisms are needed to ensure that the government of Haiti, the international community and NGOs use these funds appropriately.
As the world looks for a way to help Haiti rebuild after the earthquakes, the international community has the opportunity to avert a second man-made disaster. The United States and other international donor states and institutions must act now to end a painful history of irresponsible aid policies in Haiti. In acting immediately, as recovery plans are developed, we can honor the survivors of this tragedy by supporting Haitians as they build a better Haiti.
Kerry Kennedy is President and founder of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. Monika Kalra Varma is Director of the RFK Center for Human Rights.