Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Message from Humanitarian Parole Lawyer Jayne Fleming

Message from Jayne Fleming

Many of you have written to me, wondering about my silence. I’ve been in Haiti for four days now, but so far not a word. “What’s up?” you ask. “How’s life in Port au Prince?”

My mother taught me as a child that if I felt like blowing up about something I should count to at least 100 before speaking. “The mind works best at cool temperatures.” I’ve counted to about 10 million and I’m still boiling.

But my mother also said “silence is acquiescence”, echoing Victor Frankl, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. So I’ll stop counting and send this report.

I’ve been focused on three main issues: food, shelter and physical security – the greatest concerns of our clients here. Is Haiti making progress in these areas? Are the billions of dollars in aid pledged to Haiti having an impact? I’ll share a few stories based on personal interviews and you be the judge:

Food: our team visited the largest tent camp in Port au Prince on Monday, it holds about 55,000 people. I was also there in March and May and was hoping to see improvement. I stopped to talk to a young mother sitting outside her tent with a baby. The two were sitting in mud (from the rainstorm the night before). The baby was naked. The mother was wearing a loose dress that exposed her skeletal figure. She told me she is 17 years old and her baby is 7 months old. They have no family. I asked where she was getting food. She told me she had not received aid since March. I asked if she was nursing her baby. She said “my breasts are not giving milk anymore”. The baby was sucking on a piece of mango. He had a belly the size of a basketball, infant malnutrition. I gave the girl a bottle of vitamins, a sad gesture by a witness to starvation.

Next I talked with a woman caring for 13 children – they are not all hers. Some are her grandchildren, but their parents died. They have not received food aid since March. She sells charcoal to support the family. She earns about $1.50 a day, not enough to feed all of the children. I gave her two bottles of vitamins.

We stayed long enough for me to conclude that conditions in the camp have not improved. A dramatic understatement.

Later that day we had a meeting with about 120 women associated with Kofaviv and Favilek.

We met at the school where the women are studying English with Benes (thanks to your donations). The women live in various camps scattered throughout Port au Prince.

I asked them if they have gotten food aid. They ALL said no. They have not gotten aid since March. Most of the women have small children. They told me their children are always hungry and sick.

I met with several women privately. One young woman is pregnant from a rape after the earthquake. She has not received any food or prenatal care. Another widow with four children told me she is ready to give up hope because she cannot feed her family. A third told me she was planning to give her baby away to foreigners because she cannot feed her.

Hearing these stories six months after the earthquake was infuriating. Why isn’t anyone getting food? What happened to the billions of dollars we gave to aid groups to support Haiti after the quake? What happened to the billions pledged by foreign governments?

Explanation: According to UN and government officials we met with, President Preval has ordered all international aid groups to stop distributing food to the 1.2 million displaced Haitians living in the camps. I have yet to hear Preval’s official statement on this (I am here four more days and hope to), but one official speculated about his rationale:

* The Haitian people are strong. Giving them food creates dependence. If you don’t give it to them, they will find work and support themselves. (Note the unemployment rate in Haiti is 88% and hundreds of thousands of people who were working lost their jobs because downtown Port au Prince was destroyed by the quake).

* importation of food undermines the Haitian economy. People should buy food produced in the country. (With what money? And what food? And why not just ask aid groups to buy locally, but still allow them to distribute to those starving to death?).

* People in the camps are working the system. They’re not really poor and don’t need aid. They’re just living in the camps to get a free ride. (The 17 year old who cannot breast feed?)

* if you feed people in Port au Prince, they’ll never move. Stopping food hand-outs furthers the goal of de-urbanization and encourages migration to the provinces. (Note there’s no food there either).

I’m sure there are dozens of other equally irrational explanations. The bottom line, though, is innocent people are starving.

I’ve heard all about state sovereignty and deference to state leaders, including President Preval. But should the principles of sovereignty apply when we are witnessing the slow starvation of over a million vulnerable human beings? What would Victor Frankl say?

Tomorrows topic? Shelter …

All the best,

Jayne

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