Haiti beset by rubble and state ineptitude

 

ONE OF the first things Irish Minister for Overseas Development Peter Power learned on arriving here yesterday was the international relief effort for Haiti can look very different if you’re inside an air-conditioned UN compound or are a homeless Haitian sweltering under a plastic tarpaulin.

As he flew in from Miami, Mr Power saw the patchwork of blue from the air. Six months after the earthquake, there are still 1.5 million homeless Haitians, distributed over 1,300 sites. The single undisputed achievement of aid organisations is to have given all of them a tent or tarpaulin to sleep under.

“The first three months of the response have been rather successful,” Sarah Muscroft, the head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told Mr Power at the UN’s daily “cluster meeting” at the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) logistics base. “By the first of May, everyone had emergency shelter. We had done a massive food distribution. There were no major outbreaks of epidemics. Violence in the camps is minimal.”

Haiti has had an unusually light rainy season, so predictions of camps mired in mud did not come true. The hurricane season is likely to be less clement. Meteorologists predict up to 23 named storms over the next few months, and much of yesterday’s meeting was devoted to hurricane preparedness.

If the relief effort is such a success, Haitians ask, why do they feel they’re stuck in post-earthquake limbo, with a capital every bit as ruined now as in January? Ray Baysden, who heads MINUSTAH’s analysis centre, began his talk on security with an analysis of Haitian politics. “The most pressing security issue is the lack of an opposition,” he says. Lavalas, the party of the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (who lives in exile in South Africa) is fractured and unpopular. Weekly demonstrations against President René Préval subsided as Haitians gathered in their tents to watch the World Cup, but could resume when the cup is over.

Préval has extended his own rule by declaring a state of emergency, but elections should take place next autumn or winter. “Will go quietly?” Baysden asked rhetorically. A small event, such as a shortage of fuel or bread, could spark unrest.

An official from an Irish NGO has described the Haitian government as “the biggest obstacle to reconstruction”. The problem seems to be ineptitude and bureaucracy more than corruption. It takes months for an aid organisation to register with the government, which has been known to lose files. Until government approval is granted, all NGOs must pay a 30 per cent tax on everything brought into Haiti.

Former US president Bill Clinton is both the UN’s special envoy for Haiti and the co-chair of the Interim Commission on Reconstruction, with the Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive. The commission’s first nine-hour meeting here last month accomplished nothing. Clinton has since told development officials privately he has serious doubts about the Haitian government’s ability to oversee reconstruction.

“You can’t bypass the government, because it leads to anarchy,” cautions Brendan Rogers, the head of Irish Aid, who accompanied Power.

Land tenure is another huge problem, because aid organisations cannot gain title to the land where they would like to build transitional or permanent housing for the displaced, and the government is unwilling to take decisive steps to seize land for that purpose. Up to 70 per cent of the displaced rented from landlords. Those deeds that existed were destroyed in the earthquake, and Haitian courts can take five years to resolve tenancy disputes.

Rubble is the most visible impediment to reconstruction. The UN says 38,000 buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, leaving 20 million cubic metres of rubble. “We’ve moved 250,000 cubic metres,” Ms Muscroft said. “At that rate, we will still be removing rubble 20 years from now.”

A three-month plan that would deploy all assets available to clear rubble would cost $120 million and would remove only 10 per cent of the most problematic debris in Port-au-Prince. Ireland has committed €13 million in funding over three years for Haiti. Power was to visit a planned settlement for the homeless run by Concern, the World Vision child protection project, Concern’s water and sanitation project and Goal’s cash-for-work programme, which pays Haitians to help remove rubble.