Hope for Human Dignity: Haiti Five Years after the Earthquake
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the Haitian people’s struggle for human rights and dignity. I thought about Haiti’s remarkable history in the aftermath of the horrendous earthquake, five years ago this month, when I traveled there with CARE’s emergency response team. Even amid vast human suffering, Haitians remained deeply proud of their country’s legacy as a trailblazer for civil rights for people of color. In 1804, after overthrowing its French colonial masters, Haiti became the world’s first independent, black-ruled republic.
The earthquake dealt a profound blow to that proud legacy. I was struck by the sense of paralysis, that the damage suffered by public agencies had left Haiti’s government all but immobilized. Nothing symbolized this more than the sight of Haiti’s National Palace – the official residence of the president, reminiscent of our own White House – lying in ruins.
In the intervening years, despite political turmoil, Haiti’s government has worked closely with the humanitarian community and we have achieved a great deal. Most of the 1.5 million displaced people who were sheltering in spontaneous camps have left them. But the dream of civil rights and opportunity remains elusive. Most Haitians live in poverty and lack adequate public services, while a small minority controls most of the national wealth – an injustice that stands in the way of recovery and future development.
Addressing these challenges is central to CARE’s earthquake response. Initially we focused on meeting critical humanitarian needs such as emergency shelter and water. We quickly transitioned to a longer-term strategy of empowering Haitians to rebuild, advocate for their rights and demand accountability from authorities.
CARE encourages local officials, like Dierry Léger, deputy mayor of the hard-hit Carrefour community, to become more responsive to constituents. Dierry is proud of his work addressing a major reason the quake killed so many people: lax building code enforcement. “There has long been a problem with people building houses without respecting building standards,” he told me. “But things have changed.”
At the community level, CARE identifies natural leaders and helps them build organizational skills. I met an inspiring local activist, Emmanuel Beauvoir, when I returned to Haiti recently. A 32-year-old pre-law student, he rallies Carrefour residents around improvement projects with CARE’s support – like building paved stairs and walkways linking rugged, hillside neighborhoods with jobs and schools in the city below.
Engaged and dedicated citizens like Emmanuel are crucial if Haiti is to achieve equality and economic opportunity. Humanitarian groups like CARE can help. But ultimately our goal is to see Haitians acquire the skills and tools they need – and let them lead the way. “Every project we undertake is a drop in the bucket” in view of the country’s enormous needs, says Emmanuel. But these are learning opportunities for volunteer groups like his. “It’s the people of Haiti that are living the reality every day and have a lot to offer.”