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Haiti: A Year Later

January 13, 2011

Haiti_anniversary A year after a deadly earthquake rocked Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 and leaving a million more homeless, international efforts to rebuild the hemisphere's most impoverished country have made little progress.

"With my own eyes I don't see progress. I don't see anything," Clenor Fleurent, who works in a Port-au-Prince barbershop, recently told the Washington Post. "Progress is for special people."

Haiti is a country of almost ten million, most of them desperately poor. Long before the quake, decades of political violence, resource exploitation, and capital flight had pushed it to the brink. The Haitian people are nothing if not resilient, however, and even after three hurricanes and a tropical storm pummeled the country in the summer of 2008, many Haitians were feeling hopeful about their prospects. Then the quake -- the worst to hit the country in over two hundred years -- struck, leaving Port-au-Prince in ruins and the country's future in doubt.

People around the world were horrified by the devastation, and the international community rushed to respond. Within weeks, donor governments had pledged $1 billion for relief efforts and U.S.-based nonprofits working in the country had raised more than $275 million. At a UN-sponsored donors conference in March, donor governments pledged $4.5 billion for recovery and reconstruction efforts over the next two years and forgave an additional $1.1 billion in Haitian government debt. Americans were similarly generous, donating more than $1.4 billion to relief and recovery efforts by year's end. (The folks at GiveWell and the Chronicle of Philanthropy have done great work in making sense of the complicated fundraising picture.)

For a variety of logistical, political, and institutional reasons, the bulk of that money remains on the sidelines. According to GiveWell, only $1.6 billion of the $5.2 billion (38 percent) raised or pledged has been spent. The disconnect between good intentions and the need and suffering of the Haitian people is a constant theme in reports from the shattered capital:

"Piles of rubble still clog the streets, at the current rate, it will take twenty years to simply clean up the mess. Nearly a million people still live in about 1,300 makeshift refugee camps that occupy every available parking lot and open space in the capital. With each passing day, the camps take on a more permament look...." (Wall Street Journal)

"There are few major rebuilding projects visible in Port au Prince. The most prominent is happening in the abandoned, condemned downtown core....Engineers have made cursory inspections of more than 380,000 homes in....Half of the houses need to be repaired or demolished. But the Haitian government has not yet issued building codes....There are fewer jobs today than before the earthquake, and those jobs were largely created by international humanitarian organizations...." (Washington Post)

"Construction of new housing has barely begun. The core underlying issue of sorting out Haiti's broken system of land ownership, where several people hold claim to the same plot of land, has not even been addressed....Internationally financed inspectors have certified that some houses are safe for return, but few have. Many are merely moving their shacks closer to where they used to live, because they don't want to risk another earthquake in their damaged homes...." (Washington Post)

The United Nations, which is coordinating humanitarian aid efforts in the country, is a bit more optimistic. On a teleconference earlier in the week (podcast here), Nigel Fisher, deputy special representative for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), stated that progress, albeit "incremental," had been made and offered a few data points to support that claim: the number of Haitians living in temporary camps has fallen almost 50 percent, from 1.5 million to 800,000; short-term employment has been created for half a million Haitians, half of them women; and the flow of aid money -- while clearly inadequate in 2010 -- will pick up in 2011.

Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, struck a similarly optimistic note in a WaPo op-ed over the weekend. Progress is not always visible, wrote Merten, and we understand people's frustration with the pace of reconstruction. But things are happening.

The Haitian government undertook a proactive communication and flood-mitigation effort before the rainy season last year, and it led the international response to Hurricane Tomas in November. Haitian scientists in the Ministry of Public Health and Population identified cholera as soon as it appeared, and the ministry has coordinated the international  response to the outbreak. An important component of the response is public health and hygiene information, and the ministry's public service announcements -- often directed at children who recite them verbatim with pride whenever someone passes by -- are ubiquitous on the radio....

In circumstances as dire as those facing Haiti, any sign of progress is welcome news.

Still, the situation is fluid and complex -- "chronically disastrously complex," Ken Isaacs, vice president for programs at Samaritan's Purse, an aid organization that has built ten thousand temporary shelters in the country, told the Washington Post. Indeed, it's "the most complex environment I've ever worked in," said Isaacs.

Everyone understands that -- even Oxfam International, which issued a report last week praising the humanitarian response that saved "countless lives by providing, water, sanitation, shelter, food aid, and other vital assistance to millions of people" on the one hand, while taking the international community and Haitian authorities to task for failing to make "significant progress" in reconstructing the country. The report criticizes aid agencies and the international community for not doing enough "to support good governance and effective leadership in Haiti," for continuing "to bypass local and national authorities in the delivery of assistance," and for "not coordinating their actions or adequately or consulting the Haitian people." And it scolds Haitian authorities for not moving forward "on critical issues that are their prime, and sole, responsibility."

The report includes a number of recommendations for the new Haitian government, international donors and NGOs, and the UN. They're well meaning ("Put measures in place to reduce corruption and accountability"; "Work more closely and effectively with the Haitian authorities": "Consult, communicate and effectively involve Haitian citizens in the reconstruction of their country"), though for the most part broad and lacking in specifics.

But maybe that's beside the point. Yes, Haiti needs better government and an end to the deadly political infighting that has compromised its ability to function as a self-governing state. Its woeful infrastructure and public education system need to be upgraded for the twenty-first century. It will require the continuing assistance of NGOs and the international donor community for years, if not decades, to come.

But, like so many other desperately poor countries, what it needs more than anything is jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. Jobs that make it possible for Haitians to participate in the rebuilding of their country. Jobs that give them purpose and hope for the future. Without that, Haiti has little to look forward to.

-- Mitch Nauffts



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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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