Written Presentation to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (April 2011 Update)

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. The first-ever UN technical-assistance mission was to Haiti in 1949, and its purpose was to prepare a comprehensive framework to advise the government to promote economic development and fight poverty. Sixty-two years later, after hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries on Earth. Haiti has been receiving food aid from the international community for fifty-five years. It is time to try a new approach. We recommend putting human rights at the center of all efforts to help Haiti help itself.

A human rights–based approach rejects the notion of charity and focuses on how best to help the state meet its obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights to shelter, food, water, education, and access to health care and other basic rights essential to leading a dignified life. Framing reconstruction and development in Haiti as a human rights issue will:

  • support efforts to strengthen the Haitian state;
  • enhance accountability and transparency;
  • fight corruption;
  • synchronize donor and NGO efforts;
  • promote decentralization;
  • create greater understanding of the root causes of poverty/underdevelopment; and
  • encourage the active participation of Haitians, especially those in rural areas and in the vast urban slums who have literally gone unrecognized by the state, the moun andeyò, “outside people.”

Put simply, adopting a rights-based approach will help the government of Haiti and the IHRC address multiple priorities simultaneously. Moreover, the UN has adopted a rights-based approach for all UN agencies and funds, as have most of the major international development NGOs and bilateral aid agencies. A rights-based approach will also support the “Rule of Law Compact” currently being developed by MINUSTAH (the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti) and the government of Haiti.

The Haitian Constitution and international law require the Haitian state to guarantee fundamental economic, social, and cultural rights. The Haitian state, as the primary “duty bearer,” must develop laws, regulatory frameworks, oversight bodies, and policies to provide education, shelter, access to health care, and social security to Haitians. The state must also dedicate its maximum available resources to realize rights. The Haitian state, however, has not fulfilled these obligations for many decades. It has “outsourced” its duties to the private sector, which goes largely unregulated, with predictable results. For example, the collapse of the private school La Promesse in Pétionville in November 2008, fourteen months before the earthquake, killed over eighty children. La Promesse and many other schools were built in dangerous areas because zoning regulations were not enforced, building codes were not applied, and inspections or oversight by relevant ministries (Education, Public Works) was totally absent. This must end.

A rights-based approach focuses on increasing the capacity of the Haitian state to deliver public services and oversee those actors, state or private, who are engaged in their delivery. The goal should be to responsabiliser l’état: enable the state to take up its essential responsibilities toward citizens and do its job. This means providing resources, expertise, and advice to state officials, helping them to establish systems that deliver public goods and services. Increasing state capacity also means ensuring that laws and regulations are enforced and that agencies are held accountable for their performance, with sanctions for those who do not meet required standards.

The state is primarily responsible to Haitians, who are the primary “rights holders.” Accountability is a means, not an end in itself, however, and greater accountability will generate increased transparency and decreased corruption. Since corruption has been the main impediment for donors to provide funds directly to the Haitian state, a rights-based approach will help break the vicious cycle of diverting support from the state to NGOs, which only keeps the Haitian state weak and at the mercy of the “Republic of NGOs.” The state, however, must show results: greater enjoyment of rights, as a quid pro quo for receiving this support.

A rights-based approach to reconstruction and development means that the citizens of Haiti will have a voice in reconstruction and development at every stage. For too long, most Haitians have been ignored, overlooked, and even discouraged or prohibited from participating in governance. Their desire to be heard came through loud and clear in last year’s nationwide consultation that resulted in the Voix des Sans Voix survey, whose results Michèle Montas eloquently presented to the donors conference held in New York on March 31, 2010. “Listen to us for once,” Haitians from all walks of life pleaded.

Protesting and criticizing are not enough, however, and a rights-based approach will improve the quality of the demands made by Haitians so that their claims yield positive results. The capacity of the Haitian state to respond to these demands must also be enhanced: this is the essence of rights-based reconstruction and development.

Let’s take access to clean, safe water as an example. The right to water is recognized under international law and is directly related to the right to life, food, shelter, and education. On September 30, 2010, the UN Human Rights Council recognized the right to water and sanitation as legally binding in international law on all nation-states. This affirmation followed the July 2010 UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/64/292), where 120 countries found that “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living.”

In Haiti, 20% of school-age children are prevented or impeded from attending school because of the time and energy they must spend every day fetching water, often unclean and unsafe, for their households. Girls, once they reach puberty, often stop attending school for lack of access to clean and safe sanitation facilities. Even before the quake, access to water was on the decline in Haiti; one study showed that the decrease was 7% from 1990 to 2005.  This is a grave violation of international human rights laws, which require the state to show that it is making progress in guaranteeing rights instead of regressing.

The state is the primary duty bearer to guarantee the right to water, but in Haiti the relationship between the state and the private sector is completely upside down. NGOs and private companies dominate distribution and access, and they are largely unregulated and uninspected by the state. This is literally a deadly combination: outsourcing responsibility without oversight. The state exerts limited oversight over the many private water companies whose large delivery trucks ply the crowded streets of Port-au-Prince and other cities. The government’s Service Nationale d’Eau Potable (SNEP—National PotableWater Service) is so weak and underfunded that it actually turns to NGOs for help, and the NGOs decide whether or not they want to help SNEP. NGOs even occasionally donate some of their funds to SNEP in places like Port-de-Paix.

The quality of the water sold is dubious. Haitians have a saying: “Nou achte dlo pou lajan, men se maladi nou achte.” (“We pay for water but all we buy is disease.”)Yet access to clean, affordable potable water is a state responsibility under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 24(2), which Haiti has ratified. Eighteen out of nineteen water sources tested in Port-de-Paix were selling contaminated water. The poor in Haiti—meaning the overwhelming majority of the population—pay more in both absolute and relative terms for water.

The Haitian state must have a legal framework, regulatory bodies, and a strategy with goals, timelines, and benchmarks to increase the accessibility, affordability, and acceptability of water. All relevant international development and reconstruction projects should focus on how to increase the capacity of the state to achieve this goal. Data on access, costs, and water purity must be gathered and analyzed and form the basis for government action. Reliable data is a cornerstone of a rights-based approach because you cannot improve what you cannot measure.

Since NGOs and private companies will remain engaged, they must be licensed and inspected and penalized if they fail to meet minimum standards. Like the state, these entities are “duty bearers,” with international legal obligations to protect, respect, and fulfill the right to clean water. The population must be consulted regularly to ensure that their views and concerns are taken into account. The IHRC, international financial institutions (World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank), and bilateral donors must coordinate their assistance and ensure that their support generates greater enjoyment of the right to water.

Donors also have a responsibility under international law to help Haitians enjoy their rights. This duty is enshrined under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Haiti has not yet ratified but whose ratification should be a priority for the new government. Since Haiti remains so dependent on foreign aid, the duties of donors and NGOs, in general, and the IHRC, in particular, to help achieve the progressive realization of rights, are pronounced.

As former president Bill Clinton said in a speech to aid groups in Haiti on March 25, 2010, “Every time we spend a dollar in Haiti from now on we have to ask ourselves, ‘Does this have a long-term return? Are we helping them become more self-sufficient? . . . Are we serious about working ourselves out of a job?’” These are the right questions, and a rights-based approach will help provide the right answers. By focusing on strengthening both the Haitian state’s capacity to deliver and the Haitian citizen’s capacity to demand, the international community will help end the over sixty years of dependence that has prevented Haiti from developing a true democracy, a vibrant economy, and a society that enjoys all its human rights.

1 This section draws on an excellent study completed before the earthquake entitled Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti, by the New York University School of Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Partners In Health, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and Zanmi Lasante (2008).

Created by the government of Haiti, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) is the planning body for the Haitian recovery. The IHRC is co-chaired by the government of Haiti and the UN Special Envoy to Haiti. In addition to representatives of the Haitian and donor governments, the IHRC board of directors includes voting members from Haiti’s legislative branch, judicial branch, and labor and business communities.

William O’Neill is a lawyer specializing in humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. He is director of the SSRC’s Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum and has recently returned from assisting UN operations in Haiti.

More on Haiti at The Immanent Frame, the Council's blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

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Published on: Thursday, April 28, 2011