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Helping Haiti – Have Lessons Been Learned?

Plan Better to Prevent Problems in Hurricane’s Wake

It’s hard to imagine another disaster on the scale of the 2010 earthquake and the subsequent cholera epidemic in Haiti. Yet the latest reports on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti on October 4, suggest its devastating effects, like those of the earthquake, will linger. Of the 2.1 million people affected throughout the country, 1.4 million need humanitarian aid, half of them urgently. Ten thousand children have been identified as in need of protection and 800,000 people face extreme food insecurity.

People make a line as they wait for food to be handed out after Hurricane Matthew hit Jeremie, Haiti, October 19, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

Haiti has been particularly susceptible to disasters, and each new one brings new panic and confusion. The international community has played a crucial role over the past decade in responding to natural and man-made catastrophes. Actions by public and private aid groups undoubtedly saved lives and averted suffering. Yet lack of coordination and data sharing by donors and nongovernmental organizations after previous disasters have made it hard to assess progress and identify potential human rights risks.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, new and related crises emerged, including the cholera epidemic and forced evictions from camps for the displaced. These underscore how serious the need for effective monitoring is. Yet Human Rights Watch research conducted after the 2010 earthquake found aid efforts – and their shortcomings – were not properly monitored. And while aid agencies worked hard, Human Rights Watch found that the most vulnerable Haitians had little voice in relief efforts. Many women who were the intended recipients of healthcare services did not benefit from them at all. Gaps in protection against gender-based violence, often a risk in emergency situations, were also identified. Accountability is key.

So in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, the aid agencies and nongovernmental groups that respond to the crisis should not only help Haiti build a lasting capacity to meet immediate humanitarian needs, but also to promote human rights for all Haitians. That’s easy to say, but in past crises, it hasn’t been easy to execute. Well-intentioned funding hasn’t always reached the most vulnerable or allowed them to access services for the long-term.

Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti at a fragile period for human rights. In part because it has been reeling from disaster to disaster, Haiti has not properly tackled long-standing issues like a public education system that’s inaccessible to many, or overcrowded prisons that are disease-ridden and dangerous.

Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Paul Altidor – who was born in the town of Jérémie, where the hurricane hit hard – implored international aid agencies to coordinate carefully with local authorities and groups to “avoid mistakes from the past.”

It remains to be seen if they will heed his call.

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