In Haiti, good intentions have unexpected and unfortunate results

The wood-frame Carousel grammar school survived the earthquake that destroyed much of this city in January. Beatrice Moise had taught there for five years and hoped she would continue when schools reopened in spring.

But in February she found out that the director had rented the building out to the international relief group Oxfam. Buildings in the upscale suburb of Petionville, where foreigners like to live and work, were in high demand, and Oxfam paid $10,000 a month.

The students, mostly from wealthy families, would probably have little problem finding other schools. Moise and the other five teachers, however, were out of jobs.


Now nearly a year after the disaster, Moise, 38, is working part time as a cashier at a grocery store, earning a quarter of what she made as a teacher, while the influx of foreigners with big budgets has nearly tripled her rent and doubled the price of food.

Still, she doesn’t blame the international groups — the blans (whites). She’s applying for a secretarial position with Oxfam, and her brother already works there.

“I would rather lose my job than have the internationals leave,” she said. “They came here to help.”

The vast foreign aid apparatus in this Caribbean nation is struggling to make significant progress in easing Haiti’s misery after the earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people.

But the international community’s good intentions have created some ambiguous or outright unpleasant side effects: an increase in housing prices that is pushing Haitian professionals out of apartments and offices; political turmoil in the wake of a hastily prepared presidential election; and quite likely the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people.

And the class benefiting the most financially from the international presence? The tiny wealthy elite so often disdained by foreigners for their perceived indifference to the rest of their country’s plight. They own the car dealerships, the high-end grocery stores, the car rental and telecommunications firms, the office buildings, the luxury hotels and restaurants — which are getting more business than ever while more than a million people remain in tent camps.

“You wonder where all the money is going besides seeing all the blans driving new 4-by-4s,” said Steeve Laguere, a Haitian-Canadian and longtime aid worker in Port-au-Prince who has worked for Catholic Relief Services and Plan International. “And people are opening restaurants like there is no tomorrow.”

The Haitian government estimates that there are more than 4,000 foreign aid groups operating in the country of 10 million. With the help of the United Nations mission and the U.S. military, they coordinated a massive medical response after the earthquake and provided food, water and tents for the displaced and injured. And today, organizations are working to contain the cholera epidemic that started in October and has stricken about 100,000 people.

There are proposals to build schools, hospitals, sanitation systems, public housing.

But the delays, particularly in getting people out of the encampments and into temporary shelters, have given many poor Haitians the feeling that nothing has been done, that these new arrivals are touris — a word they have used disparagingly for the U.N. troops here almost since they arrived six years ago.

The cholera epidemic only strengthened the notion that foreigners were muddling around with big clumsy feet.

Haitians in the Artibonite Valley, where the waterborne disease first occurred, quickly blamed a U.N. base staffed by Nepalese troops near Mirebalais for dumping their waste into a tributary of the Artibonite River. The head of the U.N. mission denied this. But Haiti had not seen the disease in more than a century and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently determined that the strain of cholera did indeed come from South Asia.

When a reporter and photographer visited the area in November, opinion on whether the Nepalese were at fault was sharply — almost violently — divided by who benefited from the U.N. presence and who did not.

“They don’t need to be here,” said Isaac Irat, 33. “They don’t give us work. They don’t know what they’re doing. They march out three times a day. They’re looking for women.”

Others gathered to echo the sentiment and said the Nepalese were dumping their waste in the river. Then a young man who gave his name as Osner Bellevue (although the group gathering around him denied that was his real name) insisted they were all lying.

He said a sanitation company pumped out their latrines and emptied the waste outside the base in pits up the hill. He guided the journalists to them.

Black, bubbling muck filled a pit to about 3 feet below the rim. Some men said that whenever it rained, it overflowed and ran straight down the hill to the river. The whole area was muddy and strewn with shreds of sopping trash. Pigs wallowed about.

The cholera epidemic came just as Haiti was frantically preparing for the Nov. 28 election, pushed hard by the international community. With $6 billion in aid pledged for the country through 2011, the donor nations wanted a stable, legitimate government for the reconstruction effort.

Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, said that despite the need for elections, there should have been “some kind of reset when the cholera broke out.”

Even before the epidemic sent the country into turmoil, the timing was so tight that many wondered how the electoral council could distribute voting cards, set up polling centers, tell more than a million displaced people where to vote and train poll workers by election day.

“As it was, they were training poll workers the night before the election,” Schneider said.

The result was chaos at the polls, an election in widespread dispute and riots — with the electoral council, candidates, U.N. officials and foreign diplomats still trying to come to a resolution.

The way good intentions can go sideways in Haiti is embodied in the tale of Sean Penn and the Petionville Club.

The club was an old gathering spot for American diplomats with a sweeping, shockingly steep golf course. When the earthquake hit, Haitians fled their broken neighborhoods to the open space of the club. Within weeks, an estimated 50,000 people had set up camp there. Penn’s newly formed relief group, JP/HRO, took over administering the camp, ensuring there were latrines, adequate water, access to healthcare.

As the rainy season approached in April, Penn, along with many other aid organizers, feared such camps would be swept away by mudslides and were demanding that the government implement a plan to move people to safer areas.

Media had been focusing intensely on Penn’s camp, even though there were hundreds of others like it.

Two days later, U.N. troops began relocating some of the people from Penn’s camp to a barren area miles outside the city called Corail-Cesselesse. Dust blew and the white tents set up for the new arrivals flapped hard in a relentless wind. Some of the people getting off the buses cried and said they’d been tricked. They wondered how they would get food and do business there.

Many observers criticized the government for picking such an isolated place. But President Rene Preval insisted that it was part of a larger plan to build houses and industry in the area. He mentioned that the government took it by eminent domain. Word quickly spread that land there was free for the taking, and thousands of families trekked out to stake their claims.

Miles of hillsides that were empty eight months ago are now filled with people building houses and shanties, planting little crops, fencing off their “properties.” With its cactus and the sounds of hammers nailing, the place has the feel of a Western frontier town.

“This is the first time I planted anything in my life,” said Yves Beline, 42. He had found a load of metal straps used to tie relief shipments to pallets, and was stringing them between sticks to keep the goats and pigs away from his corn, sugar cane, beans and pumpkins. “I had no choice, I had to come to the desert here. I followed some people who said we could live here.”

Next door, Jonile Vital, a father of three, had just replaced his tarp roof with a tin one. He had staked out a much bigger plot than his neighbor and had a good size crop of corn. He said it was hard to find water. But in a way he felt less helpless.

“I have my land. I can grow things. I will be able to take care of my family.”

So within six months of a Hollywood actor venting his legitimate concerns, a boomtown was born. The question is, will the new residents be allowed to remain when the business interests want to build their industrial city?