Haiti on the brink

Slow progress following the 2010 earthquake has led dissatisfied aid providers to reconsider support

Author: Selwyn Parker
January 21, 2013

When the last tremor of the Haiti earthquake faded away in January 2010, it left some 300,000 dead and about the same number of wrecked homes in its wake, not to mention the destruction of schools, hospitals, government buildings, roads, lighting and just about every other item of infrastructure that a nation needs to go about its business.

But the international response was instant and generous. No less than $12.32bn was pledged in humanitarian and recovery funding under the highly optimistic title, given the nation’s benighted past, of “Towards a new future for Haiti.”

Now that we’ve reached the third anniversary of the disaster, about half the money has been spent. But to what good? In short, how does Haiti’s vaunted new future look?

For some 347,000 people, not good at all. They’re the ones still living in tents in 450 restless and dysfunctional “temporary” camps all over Haiti. They survive on a dollar a day or less, and about 80,000 could soon be evicted.

At the worst of the homeless crisis, in July 2011, about 1.5m Haitians lived in 1,500 of these tattered tent cities, so it could be said the humanitarian mission has been reasonably successful. But closer inspection reveals that Haiti is as far from achieving a decent future as it ever was. In fact, things could be worsening.

As the International Organisation for Migrations, one of the hardest-working bodies in Haiti with 486 staff on the ground, reported in January, “even with a 76 percent reduction [this] is still one of the largest on-going displacement crises caused by natural disasters to date.”

Amnesty International’s latest report is blunter, describing the homeless situation as “nothing short of catastrophic”.

Meanwhile armed paramilitary groups are roaming the countryside after being demobilised. The justice system is virtually absent for most Haitians. A cholera epidemic that visiting researchers described as “preventable” has killed 7,800 and still stalks the land. Unemployment varies between 70 and 86 percent of the 10m population, despite earlier billion-dollar loans to boost jobs.

And although the optimists set considerable store on the new government of president Michel Martelly, a 51 year-old pop singer, and prime minister Laurent Lamothe, we’ve been here before. Most previous Haitian governments have varied between kleptomaniac, brutal, dysfunctional or merely weak. Ominously, the new government is asking for “aid sovereignty”, which looks very much like getting its hands on the lolly.

In short, the worst fears of former World Bank president Robert Zoellick may have been realised. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster – a period when international rescue operations were performing miracles, he warned that the spending of all donor funds must be carefully targeted and conscientiously monitored. Above all they must not be wasted on “feel-good projects”, in his own words.

So what have we got for that $12.32bn? A lot of feel-good projects. Only a fraction has been allocated to decent housing, although it’s surely the most urgent need. Little wonder then that Canada’s minister for international cooperation, Julian Fantino, has just frozen his country’s generous contributions because he is so dissatisfied with progress.

The tsunami-devastated region of Aceh in Indonesia should have shown the way. Virtually flattened in 2004, it bounced back within six years. In a model of project coordination, 140,000 houses were rebuilt, 2,500 miles of roads constructed, and 200,000 small businesses – the building blocks of the economy – granted financial support.

In Haiti, the omnipresent non-governmental organisations are part of the problem. In a recent review of the reconstruction project, Time magazine referred to their “bloated presence” and added that “the NGO-industrial complex can seem more bent on perpetuating itself than on purging the problems it came to fix.” Put another way, what did Homeopaths without Borders do for Haiti?

Of course, much good has been done. A US-funded farming programme hugely boosted yields of corn and rice. Foreign doctors have pitched in to help overworked local medics. Some schools have been rebuilt and educational reforms put in place. But none of that means anything to 347,000 tent-dwellers.