In the last few days, aid organizations and other institutions have released impressive reports about their progress in Haiti since the fateful January 12th earthquake destroyed the country’s most important city.
On the other side of the spectrum, critics of the Haitian government have been equally adept at exposing the snail’s pace of progress from the deeply unpopular Haitian president Rene Preval. Opposition parties, which prior to the earthquake were irrelevant, found a raison d’etre and have been actively leading weekly protests demanding that Preval step down.
But anyone who thought that six months later, things would be running smoothly in Haiti either failed to grasp the depth of the destruction heaped on by the earthquake or didn’t understand how weak almost every institution in the country was before the earthquake.
In Haiti people refer to the destruction of the three L’s. L’etat, L’ecole and L’eglise, the state, the school and the church. These institutions suffered disproportionately in death and destruction. Thousands died as hundreds of school buildings collapsed and thousands more died after staying or rushing into churches thinking wrongly that they would be safe in the religious sanctuaries.
These institutions were the bedrock of Haitian society and culture and their destruction was as much a psychological blow as it was physical.
The Haitian government deserves much credit for what it has done. For one thing, officials were able to rid the streets of the piles of dead bodies that littered the ruined streets of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. So far, the major health outbreaks like cholera that were predicted have not materialized. Schools were reopened a month later, and some sense of normalcy returned to Port-au-Prince, even as thousands fled.
But should Haitians feel good about where they are six months later? The answer is a resounding no.
Six month later, most people are now beginning to realize the morass in which they find themselves. Their lives have been upended forever and most of them are looking for alternative lives outside of Haiti. Many professionals who stuck it out in the hopes of being part of their country’s rebirth have a sinking feeling that maybe such nationalistic fervor was misguided after all. They feel that they, like their brothers and sisters did decades ago, should have left when they could have established new lives outside of Haiti. Now it may be too late.
So as everyone ponders Haiti’s future, what they have seen is not too hopeful. While the Haitian government and the international community responded with massive aid to the original catastrophe, efforts at rebuilding have been painfully slow without a cohesive plan.
Since January, I have made more than six trips to Haiti to update readers of the Haitian Times on the progress there. To be sure, the bodies have been cleared from the streets, but the debris hasn’t and it has choked the country’s most important city, rendering it almost impassable. The rubble, which could roughly fill 10 Louisiana Superdomes, is being removed all too slowly. According to officials, only 2 percent has been cleared so far — with 300 trucks working daily.
Most of the billions of dollars donated after the earthquake has paid for emergency relief efforts. Hundreds of millions remain unspent as aid organizations decide the best ways to allocate resources. Food distribution, which was visible after the earthquake, appears to be waning.
Perhaps the most disturbing element in post-earthquake Haiti is that crime has returned with rape against women and girls at an all time high. Most Haitians had hoped this was put behind them. When most people talked about a “new Haiti” crime was not part of that discussion.
And so as Haitians await manna from heaven, the reality on the ground is not too rosy. The Haitian government appears to be convinced that their pathway out of this mess is to build garment factories that can take advantage of generous US tariff laws on Haiti-made products.
Plans for Haiti’s reconstruction for the most part are dusted off old plans that are updated and shopped around to mostly foreign governments besieged with their own problems at home and can’t afford to rebuild another nation. For instance, while more than 60 countries pledged almost $10 billion to Haiti’s reconstruction, less than 2 percent has been delivered three months later as those countries work out their internal bureaucratic conflicts that these pledges have unleashed.
Even the most advanced countries would have a hard time dealing with the kind of destruction that the earthquake delivered in Haiti; more than 200,000 deaths, 1.6 million homeless and 40 percent of building collapsing. For instance, almost 10 years after the World Trade Center attacks in New York, reconstruction of the downtown area is far from being completed. New Orleans still has not returned to its normal self as it approaches the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
So the way things are in Haiti should not be surprising. But unlike in other countries, Haiti’s lack of medium and long-term solutions for rebuilding is disturbing. Haitian officials from the president down to the civil workers lack a fundamental understanding that a country’s future cannot hang on the largesse of aid organizations. I don’t know of any country that was developed through Save the Children or CARE or USAID.
Unfortunately, many in charge of Haiti right now, including Preval, have an innate fear of the private sector, having studied in Europe during the student uprisings there. But the world has changed since those turbulent days of the 1960s — and so has Haiti.
While I applaud the country’s short-term work, particularly in the early days, I’m not too hopeful at the long-term future of the nation. The current cadre of leaders is not ready for the arduous task ahead.