‘We are living in hell’—Haiti six months later

Can a 10-year, $10-billion rebuilding plan turn this country around?
Martin Chamberland/La Presse

The domes of Haiti’s presidential palace once soared over the Champs de Mars park, a green space dominated by a four-metre sculpture of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture—“a place,” as professor Mario-Jacques Scott, who teaches in the area, puts it, “to breathe and take a break.”

Today, the camp that now occupies the park sits in front of a collapsed palace that, reminiscent as it is of a man on his knees, has become an enduring symbol of a broken Haiti. In the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake, the park is a teeming, chaotic labyrinth of tents, shacks and lean-tos. The odours of life—exhaust, sewage, charcoal smoke—fill the air; women and their children wash themselves behind L’Ouverture’s back. Crowding 3,800 desperate people into the equivalent of six city blocks has had its miseries: on a recent Sunday night, residents say, a young girl was gang-raped by 17 boys.

“We’re hungry,” says resident Carlos Jean-Charles, who sells oil paintings by the presidential palace fence, “and our hunger is turning people into devils. Haiti is hell. We are living in hell.” The young man shrugs and shoos away several children crowding his path. “We need an occupation, I think.”

Arguably, they already have it. Six months after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation of nine million, the practical non-existence of the Haitian government is as plain to the eye as the ubiquitous piles of rubble and rebar clogging the roads. Instead, some 1,200 or so non-governmental organizations (no one is sure just how many, or exactly how much money they have), under the nominal direction of the United Nations, are spread out across the country, distributing aid and conducting piecemeal rebuilding efforts with little or no regard for the country’s central authority—which they see (rightfully, in many cases) as woefully corrupt.

It is why, despite global goodwill and almost US$10 billion in pledges from countries and international organizations around the world, much of that intended to be administered by the Haitian government (Canada alone has committed over $1 billion from 2006 to 2012), the country remains a patchwork of misery, shocking inequality, corruption and chaos that would be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Haiti’s history. And there is more than enough time for further natural disasters, political upheaval and instability for the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, if history is any indication. Pov Ayiti, as they say in Creole. Poor Haiti.

For Georges Jr. Davis, there is no greater monument to the failure of his government than the Sylvio Cator stadium. For three months, the 22-year-old has lived in and helped manage the sprawling tent camp in the stadium’s parking lot, where some 10,000 people sleep every night. Coincidentally, Davis saw roughly the same numbers clamber into the stadium, which survived the quake, throughout the World Cup to peacefully (if not quietly) watch the games on several giant screens.

Look at it this way, he says: 10,000 poor, hungry Haitians came together to partake in the national, hooligan-prone obsession of soccer—without any of the opportunistic crime and violence. If there was a popular, Haiti-wide example of solidarity amidst ruin, Davis thought, this was it. Yet no one from the government has even showed up to the stadium, much less the camps that sit within spitting distance of it.

“The camp has been here six months, and not one visit from the president, not one visit from any minister,” Davis says, walking past a two-metre-high pile of garbage. Only the police showed up three months to the day after the earthquake, and it was to remove people living on stadium grounds. “We have motivated people here ready to help, and yet there are no trucks, no rake, no broom, nothing. There’s no government, only NGOs.”

As a result, toilets and water facilities are overburdened, and food distribution petered out several months ago as NGOs moved on to other projects. Only six security guards, hired by the stadium, patrol the grounds. Residents whose tents are pitched on the road through the parking lot know to temporarily move elsewhere whenever it rains; the road becomes a river, with the current strong enough to drag tents, latrines and whatever else 200 m down the hill onto the streets outside the stadium.

A wary look passes over René Hubert’s face when he hears of situations like the one playing out in the stadium parking lot. He is with Groupe IBI/DAA, a Montreal-based urban planning firm hired by the Haitian government to effectively build Port-au-Prince’s legal and bureaucratic framework. “It’s a vicious circle,” says the self-described optimist. “The NGOs believe that the government is corrupt so they go out on their own, and the end effect is that the government becomes less relevant, and the project ends when the funding dries up. We have a lot of money but no continuity, and therefore no results.”

The Haitian government has never instilled confidence in the global community. For eight years, the country has been hovering at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a survey of 180 governments around the world. In 2009 the country climbed to 168 from 177 the year before, but the government’s efficacy has been greatly diminished in the earthquake’s wake. Clearing the estimated 20 million cubic metres of rubble from Port-au-Prince’s streets largely remains a shovel-and-wheelbarrow operation. U.S. Sen. John Kerry recently criticized President René Préval’s administration over the “troubling signs that the recovery and longer-term rebuilding activities are flagging.”

Bill Clinton, who recently said he is devoting the next three years to Haiti’s reconstruction, was more blunt: “We must—all of us involved in Haiti’s recovery—do better,” the former U.S. president wrote in a column co-written by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

Yet, as Hubert notes, the NGOs themselves operate within a system that has little transparency, oversight or direction. Some 1,200 of them are registered with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a branch of the UN headquartered near Haiti’s airport—though whether this is an accurate number is anyone’s guess. Every day, dozens of NGO personnel arrive in the country; a recent Sunday flight saw roughly 30 relentlessly cheery members of the North Carolina Baptist Mission wearing identical T-shirts arrive in Port-au-Prince.

“I’m blissfully ignorant,” says Matthew Hewett, the OCHA’s information management officer. A tall, tidy fellow from Carman, Man., Hewett is prone to these kinds of startlingly frank declarations that tend to cut to the problem of coordinating non-governmental aid groups. “We ask them for numbers. Whether they report is another question. We don’t have the resources to check if they are.”

Those NGOs that do choose to register are corralled into the UN’s organizational system of 20 so-called cluster groups, along with members of government, universities and other UN agencies. These “clusters”—“nutrition,” “protection” and “shelter” are among them—meet regularly to hash out logistics and coordination. This staggering bureaucratic heft reveals the enormity of the task of rebuilding a country from scratch—and it’s working, according to Hewett. “Clusters are embedding with government more than ever before,” he says, which is the UN way of saying that NGOs and government are finally working together.

If so, it remains an uneasy alliance. “It’s not always easy to work with the government, let’s be honest,” says Carole Coeur, Doctors Without Borders’ coordinator for the Swiss-based NGO’s Choscal Hospital in Cité Soleil, the notorious Port-au-Prince slum. “That’s the diplomatic answer. They aren’t necessarily used to working at our pace. It was the same before the earthquake.”

The NGOs put the government in a vexing situation: it needs them to supplement its own relief effort, which consists mostly of medium- and longer-term reconstruction plans, yet they undercut the government’s legitimacy the longer they stay. Moreover, according to an October 2009 Haitian government report obtained by Maclean’s, 70 per cent of NGOs pay an “unjustifiable per diem” to their employees, up to US$260 a day. The end result, according to one Haitian Health Ministry estimate, is that NGO employees are paid three times more than their government colleagues. “The government doesn’t know what the NGOs are doing,” Hubert says, “and they have more money than the government does.”

The situation lends credence to a cynical saying in Port-au-Prince: if you are going to contract a disease, catching AIDS is like winning the lottery. After all, the AIDS clinic is funded by foreign governments and NGOs, and it’s the cleanest and most modern in the land. Given the state of the national health system, though, God help you if your kidneys fail.

Navigating the streets and camps of Port-au-Prince is an exercise in all-encompassing frustration, and it is easy to see why it isn’t only the NGOs who question the Haitian government’s ability to steer the country through the disaster. The pre-earthquake unemployment rate stood between 70 and 80 per cent and is likely much higher now, while only 28,000 of the 1.5 million displaced people have moved into new homes. The middle class was scarce before the quake; it is practically non-existent today.

The months following January’s disaster seem to have strengthened the population’s resolve in what Haitian filmmaker Joseph Hillel calls “Haitian Inshallah” (“If God wills it” in Arabic): a reliance less on acts of government than the grace of a higher being. “Only God knows when things are going to change,” says 20-year-old Jayla Dieula, who lives with her family in the Delmas 2 camp, located on a former military landing strip. Dieula says she is afraid of being raped, and worried about what she’ll next eat; government, politics and public policy seem painfully abstract in the dark, sweaty place where she exists.

It speaks to the Préval government’s considerable PR problem—one exacerbated by the president himself, who has been practically invisible in his own country since the earthquake. On the rare occasions when he appears on television or radio, he is uneasy or antagonistic in the face of questions. “Préval doesn’t feel his power is threatened,” says Bernard Chancy, president of the SNC-Lavalin-affiliated engineering firm LGL S.A., “and he doesn’t feel he has to do PR. He’s the chief, and he’ll be there until the end of his mandate.” (Préval conducts most of his business in a temporary office set up behind the palace.)

The first phase of Haiti’s recovery and development action plan, unveiled last March, will see the Haitian government disperse nearly US$4 billion over the next 18 months. Préval likely won’t be president by the end of the first phase; assuming the scheduled November elections take place (though one should never assume here), he is constitutionally forbidden from running for the office again. Nevertheless, his legacy will be marked by how effectively the government administers the billions of dollars heading its way—the first time in Haiti’s history that the administration in Port-au-Prince has taken charge of such an amount of money.

If it works, and that’s a big if, Haiti will be patchwork no more. The reconstruction includes a ground-up redrawing of the country’s infrastructure. Bureaucratic and legislative power, long centred in Port-au-Prince, will be radically decentralized; no longer will residents of Cap Haïtien travel 250 km to the capital to, say, renew their driver’s licence.

There will be construction codes and zoning laws for the first time, as well as the rebuilding of 1,300 collapsed schools and 50 hospitals, 600 km of new roads, two new regional airports, and two new seaports, among the dozens of other infrastructure programs. According to the plan, it will take 10 years to rebuild Haiti. In 20, the plans says, Haiti will be an emerging country.

“I think it’s actually happening quite quickly,” says Hubert, noting the Préval government implemented the plan at the end of June, three months after it was introduced. Still, there are myriad caveats. The Haitian people need to be shaken from their renowned fatalism—the collective assumption that everything will go wrong, or at least stay the way it is. For this to happen, the country needs to phase out its reliance on non-governmental aid, a Band-Aid solution that Hubert says has become all too permanent in Haiti. “Find me a country that has developed itself with NGOs,” he says.

The gulf between plan and reality lies no further than what sits in the shadow of the presidential palace. “Look how dirty it is,” says professor Scott in his teacher’s baritone, jabbing his thick finger at the dirt beneath his feet. “The government does nothing. We have 13-year-olds prostituting themselves for 100 gourdes [about $2.50].”

Nine-year-old Medine Gentille, Scott’s lone student, sits in the dirt and looks on as her teacher bellows against the wretchedness that might await her, and the injustices she already suffers. Poor girl. Pov Ayiti.