In Haiti, the aftershocks rumble on
Six months after the huge earthquake – with moutains of rubble remaining, over a million still homeless and conditions in the camps deplorable – progress is being stalled by glacially slow decision-making, private greed and struggles to get aid through
SIX MONTHS ago on Monday, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed as many as 300,000 people and destroyed more than 280,000 homes and businesses in Haiti. President Barack Obama promised a “swift, co-ordinated and aggressive effort to save lives and support the recovery” of Haiti. The former US president Bill Clinton said the world would “rebuild better”, and he was appointed the UN’s special envoy and co-chair of the Haiti Reconstruction Fund. A UN conference at the end of March pledged $5.3 billion (€4.2 million) for Haiti over two years.
But today Haitians and aid workers are angry and frustrated that so little has been accomplished. Less than 5 per cent of an estimated 25 million cubic metres of rubble has been removed. The capital is a steaming cauldron of traffic jams, petrol fumes and beggars, where every inch of pavement and bare earth is occupied by the homeless.
“After January 12th all of us dreamed things would change,” says Vertura Succès of the women’s solidarity group Cofides, which receives funding from the Irish charity Goal. “It took several months for us to realise that nothing was going to happen. More than a million people are stuck in tents hot as ovens. I fear the worst: an uprising. Yesterday I was in St Thérèse camp, and people told me they are going to die, that they can’t wait any more. I said, ‘Who are you waiting for?’ and they said ‘the government’. The government has done nothing. The government was irresponsible, before and after January 12th.”
Houses tumbled down the hillside at a neighbourhood called Canapé Vert on January 12th. As you make your way around the mountain of rubble collected through Goal’s cash-for-work programme, you find men listening to a World Cup match on the radio, children reciting lessons beneath a tarpaulin, a crude cement ring built for cockfighting. People mill around one-room shops with names such as Dieu Avant Tout.
It is here I meet Jules François, a 59-year-old teacher from the elementary school up the road. Is Haiti getting better, I ask. “No, no, no,” François replies emphatically. “No food, no house, no clothes.” François, his wife and four children live with relatives because their house was destroyed.
“Children don’t come to school any more, because they can’t pay the tuition, so I too have become poorer. I don’t always have food to put in the mouths of my children.”
François wants the foreigners to mete cho – put the heat on – the Haitian authorities, “so it does serious things to help people. There is no life for people in this country.”
Without thousands of aid workers whose devotion often borders on the saintly, the plight of Haitians would have been far worse. But the aid workers, too, are frustrated. “We wish the rubble could have been cleared up by now, that ordinary people would know what is going to happen to them, but they don’t,” says Gena Heraty, the Irish director of special-needs programmes at NPFS (Our Little Brothers and Sisters).
Heraty has worked with special-needs children in Haiti for 17 years. She was encouraged by pledges of €240,000 raised by Midwest Radio in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, and another €500,000 raised in Dublin for her charity. “You can do so much with money,” she says.
But she was disillusioned by the UN “cluster meetings” she attended in the aftermath of the quake. “People were talking about the integration of the disabled, at a time when people were being discharged from hospital on to the street. People like us should go to these meetings to change things, but who’s going to waste their time? You help the people you can. I’ve been very happy with our programmes. I feel they are making a difference.”
Dr Louise Ivers is another Irishwoman helping to save Haiti. She studied medicine at University College Dublin, then wrote her master’s thesis at Harvard on the transmission of HIV from mothers to children in Haiti. A member of the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Ivers has been on loan to a group called Partners in Health in Haiti since 2003. Like Heraty, she is fluent in Creole.
“I am very disappointed,” Ivers says when we meet at Camp Aviation, the former military airbase where 50,000 Haitians now live in tents and tin shacks. “What I can’t understand is why hundreds of thousands of people are still living outside. When I heard the tap, tap, tap of hammers on tin my heart sank. I realised many of them believed they would never leave here. I think some of them willnever leave here. If that was acknowledged, we could at least start to make it inhabitable.”
Like Heraty, Ivers expresses impatience with the glacial pace of decision-making. “There was a long delay over whether the strategy would be tarps or tents,” she says.
THE US MILITARY helped with the most significant improvement at Camp Aviation: a request for 4,000sq m of gravel, which mitigated the mud during the rainy season. The International Office of Migration provided bright lights to fight violent crime in the camp.
Camp Aviation is next to Port-au-Prince’s worst slums, to which many of the 4,000 prisoners who escaped in the earthquake fled. The American Refugee Committee took over camp management in May, but until then NGOs were reluctant to go there, and Aviation was the last camp to receive food distribution. “At the end of the day you don’t ask, ‘Why did we not get?’ ” says Ivers. “You say, ‘Can we get? Can we get?’ ”
Heraty says programmes that are “relationship-based” are the most effective – the kind of projects that she, Ivers and the Irish groups in Haiti are carrying out. But the higher echelons of UN bureaucracy seem obsessed with process, with evaluations and assessments and producing slick charts and graphs. (“The five-year plan is working. We need to build on that and make another five-year plan,” the head of a UN “subcluster” tells me.)
In many cases the perfect seems to be the enemy of the good. Policymakers including Bill Clinton talk about long-term goals such as providing universal education in Haiti (where 80 per cent of schools are private). But they seem to have lost sight of the mountains of rubble and one and a half million homeless. “How about drawing a tangible line – setting more modest, achievable goals that draw a link between where we are and more long-term objectives?” says Darren Hanniffy, Goal’s director in Haiti.
Louise Ivers acknowledges that much of the rhetoric sounds like “pie in the sky” when people continue to live in such wretched conditions. “But I do think if there was ever a time for revolutionary ideas such as universal education, healthcare for all, protecting the environment, now is it. These notions are correct. We should take the opportunity of billions of dollars to try and leapfrog development, to make a transformative change,” she says.
Unfortunately, much of the money pouring into Haiti is being hoovered up by the country’s landed elite, with the complicity of the government. “The corrupt part of Haitian society is sitting around trying to figure out how to make money out of reconstruction, but they’re not trying to help people,” says Richard Morse, the half-Haitian, half-American owner of the Oloffson hotel.
UN and aid officials speak constantly of the need to strengthen the government. At a “cluster meeting” attended by the Irish Minister of State for Overseas Development, Peter Power, on Monday, the head of one UN agency referred reverently to “his excellency the minister of planning”. Almost no one denounces the greed of the Haitian private sector.
A few examples: NGOs say the owner of the Pétionville club, the site of a huge camp for displaced people run by the US actor Sean Penn, charges an exorbitant monthly rent. A Haitian construction company asked for $200,000 to demolish a school rendered unsafe by the earthquake for the Cluny Sisters, who have strong links with Ireland. The same amount was quoted to build a seven-metre-long waist-high wall. At another school in St Gerard’s parish, a Haitian contractor wanted $100,000 to knock down an unsafe wall. This feeding frenzy runs through every sector. “I don’t understand it,” a US solar-energy specialist who is bidding on reconstruction contracts says. “My bids are less than a third of what Haitian companies are bidding, and I’m making a profit. How can these people get away with it?”
In late spring Haiti’s president, René Préval, decreed that aid agencies could no longer import goods through the Dominican border. He wanted them to buy locally in Haiti. It escaped no one that his friends in the private sector would be vastly enriched by the exorbitant prices they charge. As a result, food, mattresses, tents, medicine and household equipment that were already en route have piled up on the border. The Irish group Trócaire has begun to distribute its goods to Haitians displaced in the Dominican Republic.
Other aid groups are paying $500 bribes to customs officials, from large UN organisations down, to get their goods through. American Catholic charities purchased more than $100,000 worth of toys for child-protection centres that Trócaire is also supporting. The toys are stuck in Miami, because the Haitian government is demanding tax that exceeds the value of the toys. Trócaire is equally frustrated that €8,000 worth of desperately needed tents, financed by the Cluny Sisters in Glenageary, Co Dublin, have been stuck in the port since February. “That’s €8,000 that the nuns went to a lot of trouble to raise,” says Jennifer Cornally, Trócaire’s programme officer. It’s rare that aid groups have the courage to denounce such abuses.
TERRIBLE CONDITIONS in the camps, skewed priorities and inaction by Haitian and UN authorities have aggravated sexual violence against women. The UN boasts of deploying 100 Bangladeshi female police, but no one in the several camps I visited had seen any of them – in any case UNPol can only act at the request of the Haitian police.
An official in the “gender-based violence subcluster” organised a song competition “to come up with a message about gender-based violence in Creole”. The songs will be broadcast on the UN’s Radio Minustah for 10 days. The official sounded offended when I suggested they’d do better to concentrate on making the camps safe.
At Camp Aviation, where Dr Ivers works, there have been three murders and 10 reported rapes, though more went unreported because women fear retribution. Before bright lights were installed throughout the camp “there were rapes every night”, says Muscadet Keteline, a leader of the camp’s women’s group. “It’s just the way everybody is living – so close together,” she explains. “These alleyways are so narrow. If a man saw a woman walking by, he would just grab her.”
Saurel Doirin, the director of Camp Aviation, has set up a network of 100 security guards. “Sometimes they would take the rapist to the police, but the police didn’t do anything,” Keteline continues. “So the security men beat them up. It’s a kind of solution.”