Angela Bruce Raeburn is Oxfam America’s senior policy adviser for humanitarian response in Haiti. Last month, she visited the largest “spontaneous settlement” in Port-au-Prince.
Located at the end of a winding road in the posh part of town, past the home of the US Ambassador to Haiti and the tennis courts, sits a golf course. It is the site of a make-shift camp plastered with the big letters naming the large aid agencies that have provided assistance here since the earthquake.
It has also been the home of approximately 16,000 men, women, and children since January 2010 when the quake decimated the already fragile and tenuous lives they once led.
Romelus Raynald, the coordinator of water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion activities at the camp, noted: “The people come to my office and they tell me their stories. They want work, they want food, and they want their kids to go to school.”
Raynald is an impressive, soft-spoken man whose face is an open book of sadness and details about the camp and its residents. He says that the camp population has fallen from about 9,000 families to roughly 4,500 families. “Many have returned to their homes, others have found alternative homes and temporary shelters.”
“But those who are left behind truly have no place to go. “There has not been a lot offered by anyone to help. It is really Sean who has helped us.”
Sean is Sean Penn, and the camp at the golf course is affectionately referred to as “Sean Penn’s camp” since the actor took up residence there after the earthquake until 2011. A Haitian relief organization co-founded by Penn, JP/HRO, funds the teachers and education for students at the ironically named L’ecole D’Espoir primary school (School of Hope) for children at the camp. The number of children in the camp far exceeds the available 500 slots, though, and there is no school for high school aged students whatsoever.
Celebrity interest can no doubt shine a spotlight on humanitarian tragedies around the world. In fact, at Oxfam we work with Celebrity Ambassadors who donate their time and notoriety to help us fundraise during humanitarian disasters or lobby for changes in laws and policies that affect poor people around the world.
But while the attention that celebrities bring is valuable, it takes more than public attention to bring about structural and sustainable public policy changes, such as the much needed and urgent housing policy in Haiti. The international community, which includes the United Nations, NGOs and bilateral organizations, and the government of Haiti must face–with transparency– the root causes of Haiti’s land ownership issues, which are at the core of Haiti’s housing inequalities. The question of land and tenure in Haiti is as old as the republic itself, and ever since its founding, Haitians have struggled against entrenched interests, an antiquated land system, and corruption.
In the meantime, we must all remember that camp residents such as those in Port-au-Prince are human beings who have reorganized their lives as best they could while in such precarious circumstances. At the golf course camp, for instance, there is a water committee staffed by Haitians, and coached by Oxfam, who are responsible for managing the water kiosks that sell water, to ensure that the structures that allow the water to flow are in good working order, and that there is minimal waste. There is a women’s committee to sensitize camp residents about violence against women, and to ensure that residents know that violence will not be tolerated and that women know they have options. And there is the school.
However, a clean, well-managed camp complete with water kiosks, a women’s committee, and a school should not be the model for housing in Haiti. We know that this is not an acceptable quality of life.
And if you hear that the argument in favor of the camp is that it is better than where the residents lived before, then the international community must pack up, admit defeat, and go home. At least our departure would bring an end to the distorted economy exacerbated by our very presence in Haiti.
As we walked away from the camp, Romelus thanked me for visiting with a smile and asked me to share the message about the people in the camp. I couldn’t help but think he’d been making that same plea over and over again during the past two years, every time someone new came through.