Monday, December 6, 2010

LAMP Holiday Catalog 2010

Consider purchasing a gift and supporting LAMP's mission of protecting and promoting human rights.

You can follow the link below to view our 2010 Holiday Catalog. In it you'll find lots of gift options that directly benefit Haitians through LAMP's work in the fields of health, law and education!

You can download the catalog here.

LAMP Editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Feel free to check out a recent OpEd published yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer by our organization on Haiti's national elections:

Annul Haiti's elections and have free, fair vote

The picture at left was taken by Regine Theodat, my supervisor, as singer Wyclef Jean tried to vote in his hometown of Croix-des-Bouquets.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Haiti’s Elections

Today, Haitians voted. Or rather, some voted, some were denied the opportunity and others voted more than once. Some polling sites were shut down, others opened late, and many voters names were improperly excluded from voting registers, meaning they couldn't vote. I'm sure there are stories in the big papers about the broad picture of what happened across Haiti today, so I'll leave them to tell that story. Instead, I'll offer some snippets from my first time getting to be an official elections observer.

Something curious: Here's the layout of the typical voting site, almost every one of which was housed in a school. The classrooms were divided into different "biwo yo" or bureaus, each one hosted by a group of local members from national political parties. Each biwo received a voting kit which included several clear boxes for depositing ballots and precisely 495 ballots of each type of ballot (President, senator, and deputy). Voters would show their national identification cards at the entrance to the school, which were often controlled by armed police. They would then visit voter lists that told them which biwo they were required to vote at. Here's the curious part: the party members running each biwo had to certify every ballot and had control of the ballot boxes. With so many ballots, it seems entirely possible that in quiet moments they could stuff the ballot boxes with ease. There are supposed to be observers from other parties prowling about to catch any such fraud, but this seemed like a less than ideal system for dealing with potential fraud.

Something jarring: The first polling sites we visited were in Cite Soleil, where serious problems were plaguing the polls from the start. The second site had a huge contingent of UN troops outside, and people (mostly youth) were furious about a late start. Up at Lalue, a wealthy suburban community where standing President Preval had just finished voting as we arrived, it was the complete opposite. Polls opened on time and were orderly, voters of all ages turned up and cast their votes without fanfare.

Something positive: Maybe there are some downsides to this aspect that I'm not seeing, but these elections were a communal event. To contrast, the last time I visited the polls in the U.S. I went into a lonely senior center, was met by two or three poll workers, voted and left. It was a fifteen minute activity at most. In Haiti, there were likely 100 poll workers or more at every single site we visited. Many were housed at schools and had people sticking around long after they voted, or congregating right outside entry gates observing who went in and out. This participation and interest was at least one redeeming aspect of how today's events unspooled.

Something surreal: Oh, and for good measure we arrived at an out-of-the-way polling site and crossed paths with singer Wyclef Jean as he was coming to vote.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Elections in Haiti are set to happen, but what kind will they be?

Here’s an oped piece that I collaborated on with our legal director about Haiti’s upcoming elections

By Thomas M. Griffin, Esq. and Ted Oswald

Haiti has another disaster looming – but this isn’t a natural one. On November 28th, the beleaguered country will hold national elections sorely lacking in transparency and inclusivity. Whatever government is elected, its deficiencies will impede reconstruction efforts and perpetuate the cycle of oppression that grinds against the poor majority.

While the Haitian leadership, foreign stakeholder governments, and the candidates would have us believe that these elections are free and fair, the truth is that the run-up to elections day has been a volatile mix of unjust meddling by government institutions, backroom decision-making, and woefully flawed preparations. With the U.S. having pledged over a billion dollars in reconstruction aid to Haiti, we should not be content to equate the mere staging of elections with the meaningful democracy necessary to move Haiti forward.

Most of the fault for these electoral deficiencies lies with the Provisional Electoral Council (“CEP” in French), its members hand-picked by the much-maligned current President Rene Preval. Charged with running the elections and certifying parties and candidates to stand for presidential and legislative offices, the CEP broke from the constitution early on when it barred the Fanmi Lavalas party for the second election cycle in a row. Lavalas is the only party that has the backing of the poor majority, and this exclusion has left this massive voting block feeling cheated again. On top of this, a lack of transparency in the CEP’s certification of presidential candidates gave the appearance of partiality from the start of campaigning, leaving many fearing that the election has already been decided.

Amplifying these fears is the CEP’s failure to adequately prepare the population for the elections. Historically difficult voter registration became a herculean task post-quake due to the estimated 1.5 million Haitians displaced into ragged tent cities surrounding Port-au-Prince. Instead of mounting a significant campaign to register new voters, enter changed addresses for the displaced, or purge names of those killed by the January quake, the CEP’s inactivity has set the stage for the exclusion of many and the likelihood of double-voting and ghost voting.

Most of Haiti’s 10 million people living in dire poverty are resigned to the fact these elections will not make a difference. Fatigue from natural disasters and cholera, daily struggles to survive post-quake, and the search for food and medicine have demobilized the masses from organizing substantial opposition in protest of these deficiencies. In the neighborhoods where our organization works, we hear the common refrain that these play elections are for the benefit of the already powerful and not the poor.

Whether or not the next government is legitimate, it will face hard days ahead. The cholera epidemic, forced evictions, and the resettlement of camp dwellers will confront it with more human rights crises. Without a strong popular mandate, the next government will have little incentive to serve the majority of its citizens. More likely, it will choose to neglect these new challenges, as has historically been the case with Haiti’s grinding poverty, disease, unemployment, broken education system, and crumbling infrastructure.

For the U.S. to condone these elections without demanding transparency is to perpetuate the corruption common in Haitian politics, sending millions of aid dollars down the drain while undermining the only true foundation for rebuilding Haiti– democracy. Instead of pushing ahead with flawed elections that will reinforce a state already rife with disastrous inequalities, we would be better served by insisting that elections are not held until they can be guaranteed as free, fair, and inclusive.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bizarre World of Haitian Elections Observing

In case you weren't aware, Haiti is holding important national elections on November 28th.

While there are many places you can discover more about the serious deficiencies with preparations for elections thus far, this post isn't focusing on the big picture. Instead, we'll bring the scale of analysis down to a single event.

Last Thursday, I had the experience of attending an information session hosted by the country's Provisional Electoral Council. Since I'm no Francophone I don't want to pass judgment on the content presented because. I can only speak to my impressions of the meeting as it unfolded.

The event was held at the Karibe, one of Haiti's most luxurious hotels that caters to businesses, NGOs and the government for conference events. As we entered, we were greeted by 15 female attendants (I counted) posted at every entrance. One helped me pin on my name tag to my chest—I'm pretty sure most participants, including myself, did not require this treatment.

The event had a carefully detailed agenda, down to five minute increments (for example, "9:05: the national anthem will be played"). We arrived before 9am. The event, which boasted the attendance of news teams, foreign elections observers, Haitian senators and deputies, members of civil society and presidential candidates, did not start in earnest until past 10am. I counted approximately 250 seats in the room. A small fraction of them were occupied at the purported start time.

During the course of the meeting, they screened a dramatized 20 minute public service announcement about the importance of voting. The most ignominious moment: when the theme song played over the end credits was an excerpt of presidential candidate Jude Celestin's catchy campaign song. Celestin happens to be the current president's hand-picked successor, and the use of his song in a film funded by USAID only seemed to confirm conspiracy theories about the U.S. pushing certain candidates (namely Celestin) and the use of government funds to support his campaign.

Questions were entertained by the Council's nine members and an apparent spokesman. It continues to baffle that the entire event was conducted in French where only 10-15% of the Haitian citizenry speak the language. The content of the presentation was surely relevant to the electorate, but the message to the non-French speaking majority was "you're not important enough to merit translation."

And finally, after the self-congratulatory finish to the event marked by hearty hand-shaking and big smiles, everyone retired to enjoy a buffet lunch that would cost on the order of $30 a plate in a restaurant.

Based on appearances, the event was a spectacle intended first to placate foreign critics and please an international audience. At its worst, it showed the flippancy of the government towards the needs and interests of the poor, only confirming fears about what's in store on the 28th.

Many thanks to international donor governments for donating the $30 million to make these elections (and meetings like this one) happen -- I got a great lunch out of the deal.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bwa Nef, part I

Working in Lamp's law office based in Bwa Nef the last few months has meant a series of unexpected events and working conditions that bring joy mixed with frustration. I'll try to use a couple of entries over the next few weeks to highlight more of the work we're trying to do before I leave in mid-December.

In this first entry, I'll try to focus on some moments marked by their levity. Maybe not surprisingly, they mostly involve children.

Something awesome: Almost any time throughout the day, you have someone, usually a small child, who stands at the door and stares at you while you work. They don't ask any questions or ask for anything; they just stare. What a curiosity we are! Many times, those children are invited in to visit. I love the fact that we work in a place where kids are welcome much of the time. I have a feeling there aren't too many law offices out there that allow kids into the inner sanctum to simply hang out and receive some kind words.

Something exciting: Allowing a gaggle of curious little girls to use a computer for the first time to type their names.

Something funny: There's a large patch of smooth concrete right next to our office, usually used by kids as a play space. One day after particularly heavy rains, I walked out to find nearly thirty kids stripped down to their underpants (or in the case of all of the boys, nothing at all), laughing hysterically as they used the concrete as a giant slip'n'slide.