While the extent of Hurricane Sandy’s damage in the U.S. and the Caribbean is still being assessed, what’s already clear is that across the map the recovery process will be long and require massive financial and human investments by both governments and non-governmental groups alike. Lessons learned from the earthquake recovery in Haiti, particularly regarding the importance of international solidarity and recovery based on the needs of those most directly impacted, are critical for us all to heed. Though Sandy did not even directly hit Haiti, at least 52 Haitians lost their lives in the storm. Haitian activist Patrick Elie told Democracy Now on October 29, given the vulnerability of Haiti’s environment, “roads have been destroyed. Whole villages have, for all intent and purposes, disappeared.”
Those who were still homeless from the January 2010 earthquake are among those hardest hit — again. Sandy’s rains flooded many camps, damaged makeshift structures and increased the risk of contracting cholera, underscoring the ever more urgent need to rethink the flawed recovery efforts in Haiti. As Elie went on to say, “[With regard to] the refugees, the people in the camps… what this government has done is cleared the camps that were the most visible…It was mostly a cosmetic affair.”
Real and lasting recovery cannot happen without genuine input from and accountability to those most affected.
The Power of People’s Movements
It was the Saturday evening before Sandy’s arrival in Haiti. In a tent camp in Port-au-Prince, a group of homeless earthquake survivors were chanting “No land! No house! No vote!” They had just finished viewing Dear Mandela, a documentary of the work of Abahlali BaseMjondolo –the largest movement of the poor to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa. The film’s audience was chanting the words an Abahlali activist and shackdweller, Mnikelo Ndabankulu, wrote on his ballot in South Africa’s 2009 elections during a scene in the documentary. Ndabankulu’s words resonated loudly with those living in Haiti’s tent camps, who had their own refrain in response to Haiti’s highly flawed elections in 2010-2011: “We will not vote while living under tents.” In both countries, poor peoples’ movements have emerged in response to their unfulfilled right to housing. Last week these movements came together, putting their hope on international solidarity among those most affected rather than political leaders who have betrayed them or private relief organizations who have ignored their voices.
We traveled to Port-au-Prince with Ndabankulu, fellow Abahlali activist Zodwa Nsibande, and the co-director of Dear Mandela, Dara Kell, to hold screenings of the film for Haitian activists and residents of Haiti’s tent camps. Like the Haitian Constitution, South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution enshrines the right to housing. However, despite Nelson Mandela’s promise of universal housing, the number of South African families living in shacks has doubled over the past 18 years. Shackdwellers realized that they would have to lead the struggle for housing. Thus, Abahlali was born.
Displaced Haitians have also realized the same. Nearly 400,000 people still live in camps notorious for their unsafe, unsanitary conditions nearly three years after the earthquake hit Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Many people have been made homeless anew through illegal evictions from even these “temporary” encampments. During the discussions after the film screenings, camp residents discussed their own burgeoning, collective struggle for housing rights. In starting their movement, they explained that they are responding not only to government failures, but also to an entrenched and inherently problematic model of aid delivered by international NGOs. Grassroots activist Jackson Doliscar, who works with the Housing Collective, a collective of Haitian organizations working together to fight for the right to housing, remarked, “Learning about how Abahlali advances the struggle [for housing] has shown us, here in Haiti, how we can strengthen our movement.” [cont’d.]