Rights for Haitians - to food, land, education, housing and life

Thursday, April 23, 2015 - 11:08

When I was in Haiti some weeks back visiting the local office of ActionAid, I learned an immense amount of things. Like the fact that half of the country’s rice is imported. That 80% of all schools are private. That half of the money pledged to rebuild the country after the 2010 earthquake never arrived. That 80,000 people who lost their homes back then still live in informal lodgings in and around Port au Prince. That 250,000 ethnic Haitians who moved to the Dominican Republic after 1929 have just had their Dominican citizenship revoked and are now given that most awful of titles: ‘apatrides’.

These not-so-fun-facts form the fundaments of the work of ActionAid and its local partners in Haiti.

ActionAid is working to help Haitians achieve their rights – to food, to land, to education, to housing, to life.

It is not easy. One major challenge is low confidence in the ability of the state to actually deliver rights via investment in public services. This is part of a circle that keeps on turning, with low levels of belief in government, low levels of citizen participation in governance, low levels of government accountability to its role as public service provider. Add to this mix a number of other elements - lost tax revenues from multinationals dodging taxes in the country, the vulnerability of Haiti to major humanitarian crises like the 2010 earthquake, land grabbing and threats against the participation of civil society in the social change agenda - and you begin to realise how challenging the context is.

Haiti is a small, beautiful, mountainous country which does not have a lot of available land. In spite of this, land grabs are prevalent, mostly for mining, for agribusiness (palm) and for tourism. A number of controversial cases related to mining are being developed by ActionAid Haiti partners, particularly in the North of the country. Meanwhile farmers generally have small plots of 0.5-2 hectares, which seriously limits their chances to develop. Investment in agriculture is minimal. The inability to make it work in rural communities compounds the problem of impoverished migrant populations on the outskirts of cities like Port au Prince.

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All of this could be different. ActionAid’s partner MPP is trying to go down that alternative path. They organise, support and train large numbers of farmers in sustainable agriculture methods, in natural resource management and in the role of the state and importance of community mobilisation to stop land grabs in their tracks.

Meanwhile local partner APV is working to encourage solidarity between women, supporting self-organised groups that have set up a kind of local share economy, keeping a food bank to protect them from natural disasters, to set up a credit union. Those women still say they need more support to get involved in public decision making, to denounce violence against them, to strengthen their networks. That’s the direction of travel of those women.

The right to free education is in the Haitian constitution but is not implemented. Recently a ‘twelve point plan’ on education was agreed by the government, which is a good solid basis to hold them accountable. But there’s a long way to go. To date, ActionAid has focused on getting kids into schools in specific areas where we can work with expert local partners. But they want to go beyond this now, linking up those partners and pushing for a right to quality schooling for all Haitian kids.

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Of the $9bn promised by the international community after the earthquake, only half has materialised. 1.5 million people were left homeless in the wake of the earthquake. 80,000 are still living in informal lodgings in and around Port au Prince. Many housing projects started but have been stalled by lacking funding. In response to this, ActionAid helped to set up and support the Je Nan Je campaign (Eye to Eye) which is tackling head on the housing and land rights issues that arose from the 2010 earthquake.

I cannot bring myself to write about Haiti without mentioning the recent turn of events with the Dominican Republic. Last year, the Dominican government removed via decree the nationality of all those who moved over from Haiti since 1929. One quarter of a million people - many of whom don’t know Haiti, speak Spanish and have never defined themselves as anything other than Dominican – have been suddenly and violently denied a nationality and papers. A cross-border committee has been set up to resolve the issue, but expectations are not high. Caricom (Caribbean Community) has mobilised around the issue denouncing the racist nature of the proposal. Beyond that the international community has kept quiet and people of more affluent nations still keep going on holiday to the Dominican Republic, oblivious. Ultimately this thing will only change if the Haitian government itself supports it.

It is all part of delivering a bigger package of justice and rights for people, without which nothing will ever really change.

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