Saturday, February 6, 2010
PETIONVILLE, Haiti (Feb. 5) -- Mayor Claire Lydie Parent's office is directly in front of Place Saint Pierre, a central plaza that serves as the main camp for citizens of this suburb of Port-au-Prince who have been displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. Crowds have been gathering there for days, and the mayor's office has been a focal point for their anger.
"They think City Hall gives the food," the mayor says. "I tell them, 'Okay, I understand. If I had the food I would give it to you.' But [the international organizations] don't deal with City Hall."
On Sunday, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) began a major scale up of food distribution in Haiti, aiming to reach two million people in the next two weeks. But the WFP has been mired in complex coordination and distribution challenges, including gas shortages, security concerns, and communications problems.
And Mayor Lydie, as she is called, blocked aid after a conflict with UN coordinators and political competitors, resulting in even more protests and plenty of accusations hurled in every direction.
Place Saint Pierre is one of the area's biggest refugee camps, with perhaps 1,000 residents. Residents of the camp say that people are constantly coming around and taking names for lists of aid, but many of them are probably scam artists.
The problem in Petionville illustrates the challenges international organizations will face as they attempt to deliver foreign aid on a neighborhood level, with little or no inside knowledge of the country.
The WFP spent 18 days planning the distribution that began this week. Working with eight major partners, including Save the Children and World Vision International, the UN selected 16 distribution points in and around Port-au-Prince. The distribution points are mostly schoolyards or churches with a defendable perimeter.
The program works by distributing food coupons to needy women, who have been identified by local officials and community leaders. Their names are added to a list of recipients, and NGO volunteers give each woman a coupon for food. Women then come to the distribution points and exchange the coupon for a 25 kg. bag of rice.
The "lists" as people in the camps call them, are a hot political issue, as well as an opportunity for fraud. Everyone wants to get their name on a list, and rumors fly that local officials are only recording the names of their family and friends.
In reality, community representatives are supposed to make field assessments of populations in camps by working with knowledgeable insiders to determine who is genuinely at need. But this is one of the most difficult challenges of food distribution in any refugee camp, especially so in an urban environment, with one million newly homeless.
In Petionville, the problems are compounded by Haiti's indigenous political structure, where centralized authority usurped the power of municipalities.
"I don't know anything. I can't say anything. I don't see anything," Mayor Lydie says.
On Wednesday, a peaceful but boisterous crowd protested in front of Mayor Lydie's office and ran through the streets of Petionville demanding aid and attention. Mayor Lydie accused another local official, Magdalie Marc Pierre Louis, of organizing the demonstrations to hurt her.
Monique Excellence, the local UN representative, confirms she has never met with the mayor. But only because Lydie refuses, she says. Lydie says she has never even heard of Monique.
On the other side of town, crowds have also been gathering outside the home of Magdalie Marque Perrie, local elected authority, or CASEC (Conseils d'Administration de Sections Communales). Magdalie and Lydie are political rivals. Many contend that Magdalie is angling for the job of Mayor.
This past week Magdalie was usually followed by a small entourage, including distribution volunteers, all of whom had harsh words for the mayor. Hungry, angry residents surrounded the volunteers as they repeated the rumors they heard on the street: Mayor Lydie is selling food coupons, Mayor Lydie is only giving food to her friends, Mayor Lydie wants to be the only one giving out food.
At Route de Fréres on Tuesday, the first day of the distribution, aid delivery was almost halted after a representative of the mayor's office failed to appear. UN protocol for the operations requires four official individuals oversee the distribution: a representative of the Mayor's office, the CASEC, a WFP official, and a person from the partnering NGO. On the second day of distribution, the mayor still could not be reached, and the planned food delivery to 1,700 people did not take place.
The version of events, as described by the three women involved: Magdalie, Monique and Mayor Lydie, are a complicated patchwork of truths, near-truths, and outright accusations. The mayor says Magdalie is spreading lies about her and organized the protests in front of City Hall in order to hurt her reputation. Magdalie says the Mayor made a direct phone call to stop the aid, and should be blamed for its failures.
Monique, the WFP representative, contends she spoke directly with Lydie, and the mayor told her, "You already chose the place, you already chose the time, you guys just go with the distribution; you don't need me."
On the second day of distribution, Monique says the Mayor refused a meeting, so she decided, instead, to ask Haiti's secretary of state for agriculture, Michel Chancy, to intervene and force a representative to attend. As a result, aid delivery resumed on Wednesday.
At UN headquarters, now operating out of the former Logistics Base and airport, Natasha Scripture, a spokesperson for the WFP, said the organization, "can't get involved in local politics. Our job is to get food to people, there's always going to be food disputes and disruptions."
In an effort to avoid violence, officials only allowed women to receive this food aid. But for many women, the bag is heavy. At the distribution point on Route de Fréres, a younger woman offers to carry rice for an older, injured woman, but must negotiate a price to do so, and convince her she is not stealing the bag.
But for Christian Nzeyimana, the Acting Head of the Port-au-Prince Sub-Office for WFP, local politics is about to take a main stage. He takes on the responsibility of supervising the 30 local field monitors, like Monique Excellence, who work with local officials as UN liaisons on the ground.
On Thursday, he was aware of this week's problem in Petionville, but only heard that aid was stopped because of a "political problem."
Like almost all of his colleagues, Christian faces an enormous and unprecedented challenge in Haiti-- to deliver urgent aid to millions of people in crowded urban neighborhoods he has never actually seen. The needs of other cities, like Jacmel, St. Marc, Gonaives and Leogane have not yet been addressed.
Christian only arrived in the country on Saturday, coming from Burundi, a place he describes, with a smile, as "Pretty different."
Follow the URL below to see original article w/ more pics by Emily Troutman for AOL;
BE SURE TO NOTE that at this same time also, the Pope parties in Rome;
Click on the title above to read more about this and remember, 75% of Haitians are Catholic;