“The state should defend us but it has given up on its responsibilities. It is absent except when if needs us. There are no schools, no healthcare, no agricultural support, and therefore – no future for our children.”
(A farmer interviewed in the district of Lawoy, May 27, 2008 and quoted in The Human Right to Food in Haiti [Rights and Democracy and GRAMIR, 2008])
At least 80 Haitian children were killed on November 7, 2008 in Petionville, just outside the capital Port-au-Prince. They were not child soldiers caught up in battle, nor were they victims of a suicide attack, land mines or errant bombs in a hunt for insurgents. They were simply sitting in their classrooms on a sunny morning when their school collapsed on top of them, crushing and suffocating them to death.
These children’s deaths were not due to bad luck or an accident but rather were both preventable and predictable. The school, called “La Promesse” (The Promise, a bitterly ironic name it turns out) was built on a steep hill, not a suitable location for a school. At least 300 children were crammed into a small space with no easy escape route in case of an emergency. The area is so crowded that rescue workers and the Commanding General of the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti had to walk up the narrow road to the site of the disaster, urging frantic relatives to clear the way for rescue equipment.
Not for the first time, Haitian contractors used shoddy building materials to cut costs and maximize profits. Haitian President Rene Preval could state with certainty and without benefit of an investigation that poor construction, including a lack of steel reinforcement, was to blame for the school’s collapse. He also warned that many other buildings throughout Haiti might fall and called for greater oversight.
Haitians have every right to ask: Where were the building inspectors? Why had the Ministry of Education failed to intervene? What about the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation: how could they allow a school to be built in such a precarious place? Why had the Haitian government, including the police, failed to take action even after downhill neighbors of the school complained about the flawed construction and even moved because they feared a collapse?
The answer to these questions is clear: the Haitian state has consistently failed to provide basic minimum standards of safety, including access to food, clean water, safe roads and buildings, along with adequate schooling and health care. One of my Haitian friends says that Haiti is not a failed state, rather it is a “phantom state.” Yet this phantom is fatal.
The recent hurricanes in Haiti killed at least one thousand people. Hurricanes hit Haiti every year. Yet governments have allowed housing construction in known flood plains. Officials fail to enforce land use regulations and zoning laws, often after pocketing a bribe or some other favor. Irrigation canals overflow with garbage so that when the tropical rains hit, the run-off is instant. Peasants desperate for some revenue have denuded Haiti’s steep mountains of trees to make charcoal for cooking despite laws to protect trees and the environment. The rains run ever faster down steep slopes uprooting everything in their path, including shoddy houses. The city of Gonaives, still under thousands of tons of mud three months after the storms, suffered a similar fate in 2004 when even more people died from mere tropical storms, not hurricanes. The state learned little, however, and the same dilapidated housing went up in the same flood prone neighborhoods only to be washed away again in 2008.
Haiti’s roads, pocked with huge pot-holes, are another death trap. Vehicles go un-inspected; one look at the bald tires and jerry-rigged braking systems makes one shudder. Trucks are dangerously overloaded with goods and people piled high with nothing to secure them. A quick stop or swerve to avoid a hole can mean instant death or injury to those on the top of the pile. And forget about an ambulance or emergency medical care: both are virtually non-existent once you leave Port-au-Prince and a few major cities.
The seas are no safer. Because the roads are so bad many Haitians rely on small boats that ply its long coastline. These boats too are unregulated: no inspections, no life preservers, life boats, or even radio communication. When one of these boats capsizes, dozens and even hundreds die and no one knows exactly how many because there is not even a passenger log. Yet the owners of these boats are never held responsible and state inspectors yet again are missing in action.
Rotten food, drugs whose expiration date is long passed, toxic refuse from other countries, all have landed in Haiti and further endanger an already vulnerable population, one of the most destitute in the world.
The Haitian state has a legal obligation to protect the lives and safety of its people
The government’s failure to enforce laws and regulations has killed more Haitians in recent years than the old Haitian army, police and urban gangs combined. While it is much “sexier” to address political violence, death squads and other grave human rights violations, the average Haitian is much likelier to die from the acts of omission of building inspectors, transport officials, and the bureaucrats responsible for insuring that schools, houses, shops and hospitals are safe and sound.
Fixing this near total state failure will not be easy in a country that has no tradition of enforcing rules. It will take strong leadership and dedicated people doing the daily grunt work of inspecting, reporting, monitoring and following up. Holding those criminally accountable for the homicides, for that is what the death of these children should be called, would also send a strong signal that business as usual is over. Equipping Haitians to demand that their elected officials stop squabbling and start focusing on protecting their constituents’ lives should be a top priority for international donors working in Haiti. Donors must also insist that ministries actually work to provide services and support to Haitians and that the state use its revenues and donor funds to achieve this objective.
Failing to improve the state’s ability to enforce laws and rules will kill more Haitian children as surely as the rains will come next summer.