While Hurricane Tomas batters Haiti today, none of the $1.15 billion in aid pledged by the United States after last January’s devastating earthquake has arrived. Ten months since the 7.3 magnitude quake killed 230,000 people and only weeks after news of a cholera outbreak, the aid money is still stuck in D.C.
With a million Haitians already mired in refugee camps before the hurricane hit, a Voice look shows that the fingerpointing between Haitian activists and USAID will likely increase.
Meanwhile, heavy rains had already swamped a huge refugee camp outside the capital, Port-au-Prince; the death toll was at three by noon today. But it looked as if the hurricane’s direct path would stay west of Port-au-Prince.
Ezili Danto, founder of the New York-based Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, is, as expected, highly critical of the aid response even before the hurricane made life more miserable. She says the Haitian community in New York, the largest of any outside Port-au-Prince, is “outraged” by the delay.
“USAID is not about helping Haiti,” she tells the Voice, “USAID is about pursuing American interests in Haiti.” Danto says the American public is “being misled,” adding, “Less than 1 percent of any aid comes to the Haitian government directly. Look at the figures: 90 percent of the rubble is still on the ground; private charitable organizations have collected over a billion dollars, yet have only used 20 to 30 percent of it; and, because there hasn’t been any infrastructure help, there is no clean running water. The people have been complaining that it gives them stomach-aches. . . . Do you see how ill-served we are?”
Paul Weisenfield, deputy assistant administrator in the USAID Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, strongly disputes Danto’s accusations. “We don’t see a delay in delivering assistance to Haiti,” he tells the Voice, calling USAID’s response to the earlier disasters “aggressive.”
Weisenfield says that because Haiti is a country “with deep development challenges,” allocation of funds takes time. “We’re still in the process of spending,” he says. “When you’re dealing with that amount of money, Congress has questions. We want to move fast, but we want to move in the right direction.”
In recent weeks, Haitian activists have blamed Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn for “holding up an authorization bill that could have eased the flow of money.”
“Haitians here in the U.S. gave money to the Clinton-Bush fund,” Danto says, “but the money hasn’t been distributed and people are on the streets suffering because of it.”
The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund (which has no Haitians on its board) has said that 100 percent of donations go directly to relief efforts. But “that’s a cruel lie,” Haitian-based journalist Ansel Herz wrote Monday in a Daily News op-ed.
Activists like Danto say that the recent cholera epidemic was evidence that failed aid responses since the earthquake have made things only worse. But Weisenfeld insists that the cholera outbreak “was completely unrelated to the earthquake,” though he acknowledges that it’s often difficult to separate Haiti’s dire straits before the quake from the problems afterward.
Weisenfield sounds optimistic, saying, “The trends are moving in the right direction.” Danto, however, says, “Humanitarian aid is just a mask. Once we understand that, we can really deal with the issues,” she says.
She refers to aid pledges drummed up by outfits like the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund as “just a poverty business — it’s disaster capitalism. My suggestion has always been to find a Haitian-led grassroots organization that’s working directly with the people, and if you want to help, give to them.”
Among other natural disasters, two hurricanes and a tropical storm previously lashed Haiti during one week in September 2008.