April 30, 2018 / 3:22 AM / 5 months ago

U.N. criticized for failing on promise to help Haiti cholera victims

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Haitians battling cholera blamed on United Nations peacekeepers are getting little support with only two percent of promised funds materializing, according to campaigners accusing the global community of again failing the Caribbean nation.

Haiti was free of cholera until 2010 when peacekeepers helping after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people accidentally dumped infected sewage into a river.

Since then about 9,750 Haitians have died of the waterborne disease that has infected more than 800,000 people, with the epidemic continuing to affect dozens of people every week.

The United Nations has not accepted legal responsibility for the outbreak but in late 2016 outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized to Haiti for the organization’s role and announced a $400 million fund to help affected Haitians.

But to date - almost halfway through the fund’s expected three-year term - the U.N. Haiti Cholera Response Multi-Partner Trust Fund has only raised $8.7 million or 2.2 percent of the total - and less than half has been spent, U.N. figures show.

Sienna Merope-Synge, a human rights lawyer at the U.S.-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), said this showed “a failure by the U.N. system to honor that promise”.

“The U.N. promises, in particular to create a package of assistance that would provide redress to victims, (have) not been moved forward,” she said.

The IJDH previously filed a lawsuit against the U.N. on behalf of cholera victims, including a demand for financial compensation, but in 2016 a U.S. federal appeals court upheld the organization’s immunity from damages.

SLOW PROGRESS

The spotlight on the failure to eradicate cholera comes after the United Nations and aid organizations have faced criticism for slow reconstruction efforts in Haiti due to a lack of coordination and bypassing the government and businesses.

The behavior of aid workers in Haiti after the earthquake has also come under scrutiny with Oxfam rocked by allegations that staff, including a former Haiti country director, used prostitutes during the relief mission.

Eight years after the disaster Haiti remains the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. World Bank figures show only one in four rural Haitians has access to a toilet, and less than half to clean water.

Experts said improving the country’s water and sanitation systems is vital to overcome Haiti’s vulnerability to new cholera outbreaks, particularly after hurricanes.

In emailed comments, the U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti, Josette Sheeran, said nearly $700 million had been spent by the U.N. and global community on fighting cholera in Haiti since 2010 but funding for the Multi-Partner Trust Fund was lacking.

The office said Sheeran was working on “new innovative financing mechanisms” to raise funds but gave no details.

“There is still a big funding gap, and we urgently need $80 million to complete the next phase of cholera reduction, and community support,” Sheeran said by email.

Cholera is currently infecting about 74 more people each week although this is down from 18,500 at the outbreak’s peak.

Cholera expert Louise Ivers, executive director of the Centre for Global Health at the Massachusetts General Hospital said it was not enough to say things had improved since 2010.

“This has been one the biggest cholera epidemics in recent history and we are into the eighth year,” said Ivers, a doctor who led cholera response efforts during the outbreak in Haiti as head of mission for medical charity Partners In Health.

“Epidemics go down because people have had the disease, they have some natural immunity now.”

NO COMPENSATION

The U.N. fund envisions a two-track process.

The first track would focus on eradicating cholera and building infrastructure for sanitation and clean water.

The second is described as “a package of material assistance and support to those most affected by the disease” which Ban described as a “concrete expression of the regret of our organization for the suffering so many Haitians have endured”.

But Merope-Synge said so far no one has received any type of financial compensation, and projects to help rebuild affected communities - such as constructing markets and clinics - were virtually non-existent.

Ivers said working out which families could receive support is “daunting” because it is now hard to prove who died of what but that this should not account for the slow progress made.

“What’s happened over the last year is a real reluctance by the U.N. system, including the donor states, to support direct payment to households,” Merope-Synge said.

“There’s a fear among the donors and within the U.N. system that it could set a precedent, that if the U.N. does something bad in the future it might have to compensate.”

In response to emails from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti did not confirm whether the U.N. had provided any direct financial assistance to individual cholera victims or families, or plans to do so.

The U.N. office also did not provide requested details about any development projects that are up and running.

It did say Sheeran and Haitian government officials met some cholera victims in February to discuss proposed pilot projects.

Following consultations with four communities in the central town of Mirebalais, the first set of projects had been chosen, and will start next week, with $1.1 million disbursed, the U.N. office said.

The United Nations did not provide details about what this would entail or look like on the ground but said it planned to carry out similar work in at about 140 more communities.

However Ivers said some Haitians feel they have been excluded from the U.N. consultation process which had led to street protests over the past year.

Merope-Synge said the cholera outbreak had left thousands of families struggling to rebuild their lives with little support.

“Families lost breadwinners that have plunged them further into poverty, people took on debt to buried loved ones. All these very real financial consequences,” she said.

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Robert Carmichael and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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