By Greg Beckett
Photo by Luke Mattar

I have been studying Haiti for more than a decade. My work there has been situated in the popular quarters, or what are often called slums. The popular quarters are poor areas, but more importantly, they symbolize how Port-au-Prince has developed over the past few decades—in an unplanned, ad-hoc, chaotic fashion.

One such area, Martissant, was once a verdant suburb, well outside the capital city. It is now fully engulfed by urban sprawl. The neighborhood is frequently considered dangerous, in part due to the presence of armed criminal gangs. Direct conflict between rival gangs, or between the gangs and the police, has subsided in recent years, but the associations between poor urban neighborhoods and criminal or political violence remain.

Older residents will tell you that Martissant “exploded” in the 1970s, as thousands sought an escape from rural poverty by migrating to the capital. For the past three decades, newcomers squatted on state-owned land or on vacant, private land. Most squatters built their houses on the slopes of Morne l'Hôpital, part of a mountain chain that rings Port-au-Prince. Deforestation preceded construction, and both have contributed to annual floods and mudslides.

'Extreme vulnerability'

Poor infrastructure, lack of enforcement of zoning or building codes, low-quality concrete and building materials, and the degradation of the local geography all combined to make living in this, and similar areas, a risky proposition. This extreme vulnerability is the key factor in determining the nature and extent of "unnatural" disasters, and it is no surprise that the popular quarters have sustained much of the damage, and loss of life, wrought by the recent earthquake.

But the popular quarters are vulnerable in other ways as well. These zones have been closed off from government services or from infrastructure development, and their residents have been systematically excluded from political participation. The UN stabilization mission (Minsutah) that has been in Haiti since 2004 has focused on the issue of security, which has often meant direct patrolling and policing of popular quarters. The mission has made progress in stemming criminal and entrepreneurial gang activity, though most of those arrested escaped from the central prison after the earthquake. But the UN's focus on security also has contributed, in unintended ways, to the criminalization of the poor and of the popular quarters.

Red Zones

Some of these areas, such as Bel Air, are still designated as Red Zones. This designation effectively prevents much-needed aid from being delivered to the popular quarters. Three months after the earthquake, many communities in these neighborhoods report that they have received no assistance from the government or from international aid organizations. No one has come to collect the bodies. No one has come to collect or remove rubble. No one has come with food or water, or to bring tents or build latrines.

This is just one of the many aid-delivery gaps that becomes visible on the ground in complex emergencies. As difficult as it may be, global humanitarian assistance needs to develop ways to close the gap between large-scale, top-down planning and local-level needs. It will be difficult, but it is necessary. In the meantime, many communities are responding to the earthquake in the same way they responded to the absence of the state before Jan. 12—by working together.

Perhaps this time they will not have to do it alone.

Originally published on April 26, 2010.