Why you should care

Half of American households donated to relief efforts after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, but the country is still struggling. Here’s what real help would look like.

Tomorrow marks four years since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, killed an unknown number of people and left the capital city, Port-au-Prince, in shambles. I was there — before, during and after the quake — and, like many other returned expats, I have no idea what to do with myself on douz janvyè. (That’s Haitian Kreyol for the 12th of January.) It’s an awful day to remember, but forgetting would feel wrong, even if I were able. How to mark the day?

Minutes after the ground stopped shaking, messages came in from my friends abroad. The first thing they wanted to know was whether I was all right. The second was: How can I help? What can we do? Where can I donate? Within days, and for weeks and months afterward, foreigners from all over came to the capital. Some of them were disaster junkies or celebrities down for the photo op, but most seemed motivated by a desire to help. The outpouring of people, dollars and compassion might have overwhelmed, were we not already in a state of shock.

It convinced many of us, at least for a moment, that the quake might yet have a silver lining — that mass death and trauma might shock everyone into getting Haiti right. “You will not be forsaken,” President Obama told the Haitian people two days after. “You will not be forgotten.” We watched him when we got an Internet connection and got tears in our eyes.

The reasons all that post-quake goodwill was squandered might seem complex, but I’d sum them up like this: Foreign aid is unaccountable to the people it’s supposed to help.

Four years later, one has only to do a Google News search for “Haiti” to discover how delusional we were. Forget the Marshall Plan, or a New Haiti, or, as U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton put it, “building back better.” Billions were pledged, little arrived, and even less went to actual Haitians. (Most landed in the coffers of international NGOs and agencies, and was, afterward, impossible to trace.)

The reasons all that post-quake goodwill was squandered might seem complex, but I’d sum them up like this: Foreign aid is unaccountable to the people it’s supposed to help.

Kids playing on the river

People play in the Jacmel River outside the port city of the same name, in 2011.

Source Corbis

So what to do, if you care about Haiti and want to help? This douz janvyè, I’d suggest something slightly wonky, but eminently doable: Focus your goodwill for Haiti on the landmark lawsuit against the U.N. in which 5,000 Haitians affected by cholera are suing for reparations and clean water infrastructure. It seems like a no-brainer. If a corporation dumped toxic sludge into the Mississippi, they’d be slapped with a massive class action lawsuit.

Billions were pledged, little arrived, and even less went to actual Haitians.

But the U.N. has so far rejected every attempt of the Haitians to discuss the claims or provide a forum where they might be heard, claiming that it has immunity — an odd stance for the world’s premiere arbiter of human rights. Lacking any recourse, the plaintiffs have taken their fight to the Southern District of New York, where they’re arguing that U.N. immunity cannot be absolute, and that the U.N. has a legal and moral responsibility to repair the harm it caused.

The plaintiffs expect to serve their complaint on Edmond Mulet, head of the Haiti peacekeeping force at the time, and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon soon. The judge, Paul Oetken, may determine that the U.N. is immune from the claims. But the State Department will have an opportunity to weigh in, on the basis that the claims are related to an international treaty, and its opinion could make or break the suit. And that’s where advocates are trying to apply pressure these days — especially on U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who has a reputation for establishment-bucking human rights advocacy. Yesterday, 64 members of Congress, led by Rep. John Conyers, urged Ambassador Power to press for U.N. accountability.

The State Department will have an opportunity to weigh in. … And that’s where advocates are trying to apply pressure.

The suit will be an uphill battle, but it’s getting some traction, thanks to the perseverance, talent and courage of the people behind it — as well as the clear moral case. (Even Clinton, the former U.N. envoy, has said the U.N. should take responsibility for the harm.)

But the suit carries larger lessons, I think, about remembering tragedy and doing right by Haitians. Four years after the quake, we are finally learning that true reconstruction begins with Haitian rights. And that may be the silver lining we were looking for back in January 2010.

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