Those following the two-year-old saga of the United Nations and cholera in Haiti were startled by a pair of headlines last week. UN launches ambitious $2.2 billion plan to eliminate cholera in Haiti, DR, trumpeted the Associated Press on Dec. 11, reporting on a press conference by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Reuters echoed: UN’s Ban launches bid to stamp out cholera in Haiti.
This seemed like very big news for two reasons. First, such a plan would indeed be ambitious. In the 25 months since Vibrio cholerae El Tor bacteria was confirmed in Haiti for the first time, 7,805 people have died, along more than 400 in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The waterborne pathogen has contaminated nearly every mountain village and barrio stream on the Caribbean island. Yet Ban told reporters at the event that eradicating the disease was a matter of will. "Science," the secretary-general explained, "tells us it can be done."
This would have been the second surprise. Throughout the epidemic, science has been the last thing the UN’s political leaders have wanted to talk about.
The crisis began in October 2010, when Haitians began dying en masse along the rural Artibonite River. As Haiti had no known history with cholera — there had never been a confirmed case before — suspicion quickly focused on the horrendous sanitation at a UN base. The installation was home to a detachment of Nepalese soldiers, next to one of the river’s main tributaries.
UN officials in Port-au-Prince actively tried to dismiss the claims as pernicious rumours while mounting a clandestine and amateurish investigation behind the scenes. Within days of the outbreak, stories in the international press already showed not only that the Haitian rumours about the base were true and that the UN was dissembling, but that the strain of cholera matched a current outbreak in Nepal. The soldiers had traveled from that outbreak to Haiti just before Haiti’s epidemic began.
That was two years ago. Since then scores of epidemiologists — including those appointed by the UN itself — have unearthed overwhelming evidence supporting the hypothesis that the soldiers carried the disease and introduced it to Haiti through negligent sanitation. In response, UN officials have ignored, dismissed, or mischaracterized it all. For the last year, they have done so in the face of a legal action brought on behalf of thousands of cholera victims’ families — demanding, among other things, massive UN investment in Haitian water and sanitation.
So if the secretary-general really did announce a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up Haiti’s long-degraded water systems — even without an admission of responsibility — it would be front-page stuff. But, alas, the headlines were wrong.
Far from launching an ambitious new initiative, the UN was merely repackaging a still-unfunded, year-old effort. Buried in the UN press release, in a line only the Miami Herald seemed to notice, was an admission that the "Initiative for the elimination of cholera in the island of Hispaniola" had already been kicked off in January 2012 by the Haitian and Dominican governments with the support of a few UN agencies. The "$2.2 billion" figure meanwhile is purely aspirational. The initiative is almost totally unfunded.
Reached by phone, UN spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci explained that Ban’s press conference was meant simply to raise the Hispaniolan initiative’s profile. "What the UN is trying to do is boost that initiative... so it can get the funding it needs," she said. But the organization is not exactly leading by example. As announced in the press release, the UN is throwing in just $23.5 million for the 10-year project — one per cent of the requested funds. The organization also says it has spent a total of $118 million responding to the cholera epidemic to date. By contrast, it has budgeted $677 million for peacekeeping operations in Haiti for 2012-13 alone.
Ban did announce $215 million in bilateral donations to the initiative from Spain, Japan, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. But this was misleading as well. None of that money was new, according to a breakdown provided by the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. Nearly all had already been pledged in the spring of 2010 for rebuilding from the catastrophic earthquake earlier that year. The lone sliver of recent money — Japan’s $800,000 — was given to UNICEF in response to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. All those funds were already earmarked for water and sanitation projects that haven’t been completed.
Shifting around aid money — making the same promises over and over without fulfilling them — is an old game in the development world. But in this case it’s especially bold. Donors have been hammered for failing to live up to their pledges for post-quake rebuilding in Haiti. Nearly half the funds pledged after the earthquake for 2010-12 have not been delivered. (The United States has been among the worst of the holdouts, disbursing to date just over a quarter of programmable funds of a $906 million pledge originally made for 2010.) Maybe donors will now promise $2.2 billion more, or just re-label their old pledges once again. But if history is any guide, it’s unlikely they’ll pay either way.
Whatever the UN’s goal in organizing the Dec. 11 press conference, the world body is benefiting from the confusion. One of the primary means by which the UN has deflected blame since the beginning has been to insist that efforts to find the source of the epidemic would detract from fighting it. By relaunching an existing Haitian-Dominican effort under the guise of a UN initiative, the world body can once again claim to be too busy saving Haitian lives to comment on how those lives were put in danger in the first place. It took no time for this to happen. When an Associated Press reporter asked on Dec. 11 whether humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher thought the UN caused the cholera epidemic, he refused to comment, saying: "My focus is on today."
It’s easy to understand why the UN doesn’t want to focus on yesterday. Between 1998 and 2008, some $4.8 billion in aid was spent in Haiti, with little to show in terms of development. The international community pledged billions more after the earthquake, but after nearly three years, the promised reconstruction has barely begun. Every time there is a crisis, big promises and fanciful dollar totals grab headlines, only to limp out of the gate. Another event for the cholera initiative is expected in January, when officials are set to release more details about the plan. It may well be pitched as yet another "launch." There will likely be some new donations to announce, and appeals for further support. But while a few journalists might again be thrown off the trail, the UN can’t evade responsibility forever.
Jonathon M. Katz is a freelance journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2011. Tom Murphy is the editor of the aid blog A View From the Cave.