UN details plans for Haiti's cholera victims, apologizes for role in epidemic

One million vaccines have been delivered to Haiti to help combat the rise of cholera in the southwest of the country, following the passage of Hurricane Matthew over the region in October. Photo by: Logan Abassi / United Nations

The United Nations has rolled out new details about its $400 million cholera response plan in Haiti and its struggles to gain a steady footing on funding, as the U.N.’s chief for the first time formally apologized to the Haitian people for its role in the disease’s lethal outbreak.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered a speech in Creole, French and English on Thursday afternoon at U.N. Headquarters. He apologized for taking insufficient action on stopping the epidemic, but he stopped short of accepting sole responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti in 2010.

“On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologise to the Haitian people. We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role,” he said. “This has cast a shadow upon the relationship between the United Nations and the people of Haiti. It is a blemish on the reputation of U.N. peacekeeping and the organization worldwide.”

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and David Nabarro, who led the U.N.’s response to cholera, also spoke yesterday afternoon about the uneven fundraising advances of the U.N.’s cholera response plan — known as the Multi-Partner Trust Fund to Haiti — and how the money will be dispersed on the ground.

The U.N. has so far mobilized $130 million for the first part of the plan, which is focused on decreasing transmission of cholera and boosting clean water, sanitation and health care systems over the next 10 to 15 years. That brings it within reach of the $200 million funding target for the next two years, Eliasson said.

Some of this funding is already being put to use in the form of an increase in rapid response cholera teams and cholera vaccines.

But the U.N. only has a “small amount of commitments” totaling $1 or $2 million to match the second part of its parallel $200 million strategy that will directly support the varied needs of Haitian communities impacted by cholera.

There have been preliminary consultations in Haiti and New York with the Haitian government, advocacy groups and community networks over whether this funding should flow directly to individuals or communities, according to the secretary-general’s cholera report presented yesterday. These consultations will continue into 2017.

But the community-based approach appears more realistic, explained Eliasson, saying factors such as identifying individual families of victims could prove complicated.

This support could take on a variety of forms, including education grants or the construction of water filtration and local sewage systems, which some communities have expressed interest in, according to the secretary-general's report. Affected Haitians will participate in the development of this work, but U.N. agencies and implementing partners will monitor the projects.

There is indication of additional support from member states, but this will be dependent on the development of specific projects.

The U.N.’s response to cholera is one of the two issues — the other being sexual assault committed by U.N. peacekeepers — that Ban Ki-moon wanted to address before he stepped down as secretary-general at the end of the year, according to Eliasson.

“We see this as an act of solidarity vis-à-vis Haiti, an act of compassion, and an act of respect to the Haitian people who have been so enormously struck by hardship and disaster,” Eliasson said.

As Eliasson explained Thursday, Ban Ki-moon’s apology has its limitations.

“The apology is spoken from the perspective of that we did not do enough with the cholera outbreak and its spread,” he said. “We are profoundly sorry for our role … We now recognize that we had a role in this. But to go to the extent of taking full responsibility… is a step that would not be possible for us to take.”

Cholera broke out in Haiti in October 2010 and has, to date, killed more than 9,000 people. Cholera peaked in Haiti in late 2010 and 2011. There were an estimated 3,951 deaths during the last few months of 2010 alone, but those numbers have since dropped steadily over the years. There were 330 cholera-related deaths from January through October 2016. But after Hurricane Matthew hitting Haiti in October, there was an uptick in cholera cases, tripling the number of people suspected with cholera, according to Ban Ki-moon.

Independent scientific teams have shown that the source of the cholera outbreak originated with the arrival of U.N. Nepalese peacekeepers — some of whom had cholera — and poor sanitary conditions at the peacekeeper camp. For several years, the U.N. has denied this connection. This August, it accepted responsibility for the health crisis, after a U.S. court upheld its legal immunity in the case Haitians have pushed.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

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