Haitians still wait for recovery


Five months after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the emergency response has finally secured a toehold: No one is lacking essential life-preserving services. But real recovery and reconstruction efforts have yet to begin, and there is a significant risk of further disaster.

In more than 10 years of emergency relief work, I’ve never seen camps like those in Port-au-Prince. International standards defining what people are entitled to after a disaster are in no way being met.

The Haitian camps are congested beyond imagination, with ramshackle tents standing edge to edge in every square foot of available space. With the rainy season now beginning, the crowded conditions and overtaxed public toilets have raised very real concerns about a cholera epidemic.

The tents themselves are a hodgepodge. Families’ first attempts at fashioning shelters have been augmented with plastic sheeting supplied by international agencies. But the makeshift housing certainly won’t withstand a hurricane. If one were to hit Port-au-Prince, the death toll can only be guessed at. There would be nowhere for displaced families to take refuge in a city where most of the hotels, public buildings, schools and churches still lie in massive heaps of rubble.

It’s to be expected that cleaning up the rubble will take time. But what is shocking is that it hasn’t really started. In four days of driving through this sprawling, heavily populated city recently, I saw only one backhoe in operation. It was repairing a sewer line. The other handful of modest cleanup efforts I saw were being done by teams of a dozen people with shovels and wheelbarrows, tools pitifully inadequate to the task.

Massive, aggressive intervention is required. It will take a convoy of construction equipment, such as that possessed by the U.S. military camped on the edge of the city, to remove the rubble and clear streets that are clogged with piles of concrete and iron. But the cleanup is just not happening.

Why has so little been accomplished? Why hasn’t heavy equipment been brought in? Why hasn’t the government depopulated at least some of the worst camps, moving residents to safer locations on the outskirts of the city where proper settlements can be planned, and proper shelters constructed?

After an initial honeymoon period with the international aid community, the Haitian government has imposed stringent controls. With more than 600 organizations present, some central planning is essential. But the government in Port-au-Prince has lapsed into the classic pattern of corruption, inefficiency and delay that holds the country hostage.

At a recent United Nations-led meeting, one international organization reported that it had 45 vehicles waiting at Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic. They had been there several weeks because Haitian officials had denied them entry. This is not an isolated case. Dozens of organizations involved in the aid effort have had trouble importing goods and materials, and the restrictions and requirements on new projects to help the affected families continue to grow.

Though it’s important that the Haitian government is in the driver’s seat of the recovery effort, it has not yet stepped up to the job. The government needs to aggressively facilitate imports of needed goods and equipment and allow agencies to resettle both camp residents who are most at risk and those whose homes were not damaged. The government says it prefers a solution in which all camp residents are resettled at once.

Meanwhile, as ordinary Haitians suffer, the elite families of Port-au-Prince continue to live in luxury in elegant homes high above the dusty sprawl. These families have controlled the wealth of Haiti for generations, and many are now profiting from their county’s latest tragedy. The aid agencies all need rental cars and trucks, housing, offices, warehouses and local supplies, and Haiti’s elite tend to control access to those things. Experienced aid workers have seen this phenomenon before; our efforts to assist the poorest also end up making the richest even richer.

And of course, Haiti’s wealthy businessmen also have a stake in how the reconstruction takes place. A friend described an absurd moment from a recent meeting of a number of aid agencies with President Rene Preval. The president, my friend said, announced that he’d just received a message on his BlackBerry from the owner of one of Haiti’s private water companies. The man was concerned that aid agencies were giving out free water to people in camps and said it would ruin the economy. No one in the room knew how to respond.

The government’s recent establishment of a settlement commission is a positive sign, as is its change in rhetoric from talking about temporary shelter to more permanent housing. But more aggressive cleanup is urgently needed, as are efforts to start resettling some of the displaced. U.S. and European donors need to exert more diplomatic pressure on the Haitian government to remove obstructions, most notably those for importing capital items. A hurricane contingency plan is urgently needed.

Meanwhile, the view from the rain-soaked tents in Port-au-Prince is bleak. Graffiti calling for Preval’s ouster has started appearing everywhere, but with endemic corruption and a fractious, weak opposition, a clear alternative has yet to appear. Until earthmovers arrive and the rubble clearance operation begins in earnest, the hundreds of thousands of displaced families can do no better than pray that another disaster doesn’t come before reconstruction.

E. Thomas Johnson is humanitarian response coordinator for the Danish relief organization DanChurchAid.