The Cataclysm Of Haiti: What Should UN Do Next? – OpEd


Funding solutions to the crisis in Haiti requires both ideas and innovation. That is why I support the fellowship work of UNHCR innovation and its sister partnership UNHCR ideas, and the wise leadership under whose custody those organisations function with a view to raising money not just from conventional sources but from miscellaneous private sector partners using cutting-edge contemporary means.

By Matthew Parish*

The depth of poverty and human misery immediately visible upon arrival in Port-au-Prince is heart-rending to all but the most callous. A scene of pure devastation greets every visitor, as though one is viewing a battlefield in the immediate aftermath of the most catastrophic devastation. More than six years after a devastating 2010 earthquake, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption still lies in ruins. Nevertheless the families of the faithful in Haiti continue to worship and pray there every Sunday under the umbrella of UNICEF tarpaulins. The extent of the devastation is so great that it can be seen from the air on a clear day when descending into Toussant L’Ouverture Airport. This remains so even six years on.

Children drink from open sewers. People transport their ragged belongings in wooden carts pulled by anaemic oxen. Youngsters live amidst gargantuan rubbish dumps. The elderly search for new rags to clothe them in piles of community garbage. Accommodation, where it does exist, consists barely of corrugated aluminium shacks covered by dirty curtains and scraps.

Malnourished infants queue and beg for food. If any scene could more remind one of the horror of Hieronymus Bosch, it is a visitor’s first impressions of Haiti. Yet there is profound difference between Haiti and Bosch: the innocent citizens of Haiti did nothing to deserve their miserable fates. They live in hell on earth when by virtue of the persistent suffering they have incurred throughout their recent history, surely they are better regarded as citizens of Heaven.

In January 2010 a catastrophic 7.0 Richter scale earthquake struck Léogâne, a mere 25 kilometres from Haiti’s capital. The government infrastructure, even before the earthquake, was so debilitated that is was impossible accurately to measure the damage caused. But by most estimates between 100,000 and 300,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake while up to 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings were destroyed, leaving millions of people homeless and exposed to the cruel elements while businesses were rendered asunder.

Nevertheless the reaction of the international community was immediate and generous, and UN involvement, spearheaded by the United Nations Development Programme, has made much progress in rebuilding not just shattered communities but also the core of the nation itself. The offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees distributed vital aid to some 8,000 earthquake survivors. The Commissioner’s Donor Relations and Resource Mobilisation Service launched an expanded operations plan and budget, with a view to providing material support to extremely vulnerable individuals. Under the auspices of the coordinating UN agencies, a range of admirable results were achieved. Virtually all of 10 million cubic metres of debris were removed from Haitian streets. Over 96% of displaced people were returned to their homes. And lessons were learned. A 2015 guide on urban risk management was developed by UNDP. The Lidé project was a UN drive to promote youth entrepreneurialism in the wake of economic collapse. Substantial new knowledge databases were established to develop mechanisms assisting the poorest people affected by natural disasters, in particular women and minority groups.

Nevertheless a lot remained to be done, even by early 2016. Electoral and judicial reforms were necessary, guided by the expertise of specialist staff in the UN agencies. Poverty reduction and fighting contagious diseases remained a priority, in particular TB and HIV/AIDS. Substantial areas of Port-au-Prince remained dangerous slums. Healthcare remained ruinous. Government capacity was improved, but from so low a level that basic social services remain mostly unavailable to the majority of the population. Physical reconstruction has likewise been slow. According to the World Food Programme:

Persistent chronic poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and continuing political uncertainty threaten achievements Haitians have made over the past five years.

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Haiti herself acknowledged the limited nature of the UN’s achievements given its finite resources, when she said that much more needed to be done In order to strengthen stability, preserve the democratic gains and ensure sustainable development in Haiti. Despite nations’ generosity, there is so much more to be done and so much greater resources required. She must have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, yet she embraces it with fortitude and determination worthy of divine tribute.

Much has been made of Haiti’s cholera crisis, and a number of complaints have been levelled at the United Nations in this regard. To any fair-minded person, the United Nations must accept its due share of responsibility for the cholera outbreak that caused such human suffering. The outgoing UN Secretariat has rightly made due admissions in this regard, and the Secretary General-elect can and must ensure that such failures are never repeated. He knows this, and he is committed to achieving it. Moreover the Office of the Spokesperson of the outgoing Secretary General has been honourable in his acknowledgment of culpability when he said:

Over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera … a new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.

This process, long overdue, is already beginning in anticipation of the new Secretary General taking office. Mr Guterres knows that the United Nations must forge solutions to these problems and not just engage in soul-searching introspection. In the words of the UN’s Haiti Cholera Response Unit:

It is clear that the Government, UN and partners must continue to focus on maximizing efforts during the dry season to minimize the number of suspected cases and to capitalize on the gains made over the last two years.

Nevertheless the challenge of accountability must be addressed. As a private lawyer working with international organisations for many years, I understand all too well the axiomatic quality of an adequate responsibility mechanism. Legal accountability is a particularly complex question, because it is difficult to preserve diplomatic immunity while ensuring that there is no impunity. But one must pay a lot of attention in trying to find the right equilibrium between those two aspects that are absolutely crucial.

Such was the state of multilateral intervention in Haiti. And then, just as multilateral donor funding was drying up and the achievements of international intervention were under review, came Hurricane Matthew in late September 2016. In the words of TIME Magazine’s Matthew Ellliott, “tragedy has a way of visiting those who can bare it the least”. A long-distance cyclone of unusual ferocity, Matthew triggered widespread flooding, further destruction of property, flash floods, homes being flattened, the virtually complete destruction of the town of Jérémie, the death of at least a further thousand people, some 175,000 more were left homeless, and perhaps 1.2 million people left in need of civil assistance. Three archdiocesan leaders were killed in the aftermath, as well as many other priests and persons of religion. Once again, the spectre of mass graves emerged in Haiti as the country simply lacked the Holy Men necessary to bury the dead.

In an extraordinary and inspiring telegram expressing his heartfelt sympathy for the people of Haiti, His Holiness the Pope decreed:

His Holiness Pope Francis wishes to express his sorrow and to join in prayer in the suffering of all those who have lost loved ones. He conveys to them his sincerest condolences and assures them of his deep sympathy in these painful circumstances. He entrusts the departed to the mercy of God, that He welcome them in His light. He assures them of his spiritual closeness and his affection for the injured, and for all those who have lost their homes and possessions in the disaster. Welcoming and encouraging solidarity in this new hardship the country must face, the Holy Father entrusts all Haitians to the maternal protection of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and imparts to them, as a sign of consolation and hope, a special apostolic blessing.

It is hard not to sympathise wholeheartedly with these profound, compassionate, benevolent and hallowed words of support from one of the world’s most erudite spiritual leaders. Such sentiments are particularly important because according to the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary of Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti, “the church is like a central living womb for the community”. Haiti is a country that rests upon its spirituality to survive all adversity.

But all these fine sentiments lead in turn to the natural question, what is being done by the community of civilised nations in response to this new crisis facing this nation that has the curse forever to be faced with natural disasters it barely has the institutional capacity to resist? Given such a moral imperative to act, why are the necessary actions not taking place?

Haiti is a country where so much can be done by the international community, given generosity of international commitment and experienced and devoted staff working in the field. On his own visit to Haiti, the philanthropist Bill Gates reported:

We drove into the city of Mirebalais to see the new hospital run by PIH and the Haitian government. I was blown away. The hospital opened last summer and was built using money donated after the 2010 earthquake (people who were injured in the quake still need ongoing treatment). As you can see from the video here, they spared no expense to make it a first-class facility. There’s a machine for performing CAT scans. There’s a sophisticated system for keeping medical records. The staff can send digital images to Harvard and get input from specialists there. They have modern incubators for premature infants. The hospital gets electricity from an enormous solar array (plus a diesel generator at night).

Above all, funding solutions to the crisis in Haiti requires both ideas and innovation. That is why I support the fellowship work of UNHCR innovation and its sister partnership UNHCR ideas, and the wise leadership under whose custody those organisations function with a view to raising money not just from conventional sources but from miscellaneous private sector partners using cutting-edge contemporary means. On a recent visit to Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Argentine President Mauricio Macri both applauded the admirable work of the UN mission there and lamented the fact that it was being wound down just at the time when the country faced renewed crisis. He is right.

As the union of enlightened and humane nations, we can and must do more. Any other course would be so reprehensible as to amount an unforgivable abrogation of the civilised world’s elementary ethical responsibilities to its fellow human beings. The United Nations Organisation was created precisely to uphold values of common humanity and dignity. Its member states cannot afford to sweep away those principles at so critical a juncture in the future of this impoverished country. With the right will, anything can be done. To return to Bill Gates:

Even understanding all the challenges, I felt hopeful about the opportunity for more Haitians to improve their lives. You know you’ve had a good trip if you can visit a country as poor as Haiti and leave feeling optimistic about its future.

*Matthew Parish is a former UN peacekeeper in the Balkans and formerly served as Legal Counsel at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington, DC. He is the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group in Geneva, and formerly served as Chief Political Advisor to Vuk Jeremic in the selection process to become the next UN Secretary General in 2016. Mr Jeremic came second. Matthew is now a key political supporter of the Secretary General-elect, Antonio Guterres.,


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

One thought on “The Cataclysm Of Haiti: What Should UN Do Next? – OpEd

  • December 5, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    Maybe if Clinton foundation actually used all the monies they received to “Help Haiti” actually went there. Haiti is their special place.

    Haiti needs to stop all the feel good about self aid it is receiving and the UN needs to institute a “We Must Change Corp” where people of the world can come together and do actual work that changes the reality on the ground. All of the innovation in water and crops, sanitation and infrastructure needs to coalesce in a untied front. Whether it is Haiti or a nation even more unfortunate is the starting place. The UN needs to put up or shut down.


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