Haiti: A year after


Two women embrace during a religious ceremony held at the Titanyen mass grave site on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. The religious ceremony is one of many events planned to mark the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 12th magnitude-7.0 quake that killed more than 220,000 people and left millions homeless. (AP)

Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 5:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 5:39 p.m.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The man's body lay face down, his white dress shirt shining like wax in the sun, as he was unearthed in the ruins of a Port-au-Prince restaurant a year after the earthquake.

The bodies still being found in the rubble are a sign of how far Haiti has to go to recover from a disaster that left the capital in ruins and is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people.

As the dust was still settling from the Jan. 12, 2010 disaster, volunteers and hundreds of aid groups flocked in with food, water and first aid that saved countless lives. But the effort to rebuild has been dwarfed by the size of the tragedy, the extent of the need and, perhaps most fatally, the lack of Haitian and international leadership and of coordination of more than 10,000 non-governmental organizations.

President Rene Preval did not speak publicly for days after the quake. He has been seen by most Haitians as ineffective at best, and many observers have criticized him for not spearheading a coherent reconstruction or making the hard policy decisions needed to rebuild.

Preval and Haitian officials stress that their government was weak and underfunded to begin with, then devastated, and never really recovered from the earthquake. Ministries were relocated but could not replace vast numbers of staff killed in the quake or material lost in the destruction.

Advocacy groups also blame much of the Haitian government's weakness on an international community that is not keeping its pledge of support.

"The international community has not done enough to support good governance and effective leadership in Haiti," the aid group Oxfam said in a recent report. "Aid agencies continue to bypass local and national authorities in the delivery of assistance, while donors are not coordinating their actions or adequately consulting the Haitian people."

Ericq Pierre, Haiti's representative to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, said "the problem is that at a certain point the international community gave the impression they could solve the problem quickly. ... I think there was an excess of optimism."

Street markets were soon up and running after the quake and Port-au-Prince's traffic is worse than ever. On Tuesday, Preval, his wife and other officials lay flowers at symbolic black crosses marking a mass grave outside Port-au-Prince where hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims were buried.

"We have this memory in our heads and our hearts and etched on our bodies. We will never forget them. This is hallowed ground," Preval said.

But from the barren hillside, the destruction is clearly visible. The slogan "build back better," touted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and others even before the quake, remains an unfulfilled promise.

Less than 5 percent of debris has been cleared, leaving enough to fill dump trucks parked bumper to bumper halfway around the world. In the broken building where the dead man was discovered, workers hired to clear rubble by hand found two other people's remains.

About a million people remain homeless and neighborhood-sized homeless camps look like permanent shantytowns on the fields and plazas of the capital. A cholera epidemic erupted outside the earthquake zone that has killed more than 3,600 people, and an electoral crisis between Preval's ruling party and its rivals threaten to break an increasingly fragile political stability.

Progress has been slow across the board, starting with the omnipresent rubble.

The U.S.-based RAND organization said donors and the Haitian government are responsible for more not being cleared. Haitian workers are not given personal equipment while heavy lifters have been blocked by customs officials at the border, the report said. The government has also not designated sufficient dumping space.

"Unless rubble is cleared expeditiously, hundreds of thousands of Haitians will still be in tent camps during the 2011 hurricane season" — which runs from June through November, the report said.

Construction of new housing has barely begun. The core underlying issue of sorting out Haiti's broken system of land ownership, where several people hold claim to the same plot of land, has not even been addressed. Without sorting out land ownership, there is nowhere to build.

Internationally financed inspectors have certified that some houses are safe for residents to return, but few have. Many are merely moving their shacks closer to where they used to live, because they don't want to risk another earthquake in their damaged homes.

Meanwhile, only 15 percent of needed temporary shelters have been built, with few permanent water and sanitation facilities.

Owners of small construction materials businesses, such as Justin Premier, 43, should be raking in money. But most people in his neighborhood are just buying plywood to reinforce their tarps.

"It's going to take a lot of time for us to come back where we were before," Premier said.

The earthquake was an opportunity to completely remake a broken education system where only half of school-age children were enrolled, often in bad private schools with predatory fees.

But plans from the Inter-American Development Bank for safer buildings and a unified Creole-language curriculum have not yet come to fruition. The government education ministry, which also lost its headquarters, remains weak.

Instead, schools have opened here and there. About 80 percent of children attending school before the quake are going to class again, said UNICEF Haiti Education Chief Nathalie-Fiona Hamoudi. UNICEF planned to build 200 semi-permanent structures to teach in, but only finished 88 by the end of 2010 because an ongoing cholera outbreak diverted its effort.

The reconstruction effort overall is hampered by the failure to deliver or spend billions of dollars in promised aid.

Americans donated more than $1.4 billion to private organizations to help earthquake survivors and rebuild, but just 38 percent of that total has been spent to provide recovery and rebuilding aid, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of 60 major relief organizations.

Governments have not done better.

More than $5.3 billion was pledged at a March 31 donors conference for a period of 18 months. Only $824 million — about a quarter of the public money not including debt relief — has been delivered, according to former U.S. President Bill Clinton's U.N. Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti. Some $3.2 billion in public funding is still owed.

The United States had originally pledged $1.15 billion for 2010, but moved nearly its entire pledge to 2011 following delays in Congress and the Obama administration.

Clinton was supposed to rally governments and coordinate international efforts. He has had three prominent, simultaneous roles in Haiti's rebuilding: co-chair of the reconstruction commission with Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive; U.N. special envoy for Haiti; and head of his Clinton Foundation, a major donor. In July he told AP he would follow through with donors to remind them of their promises, and expressed frustration when payment was slow through the summer and fall.

But as the year ended, even the United States — whose secretary of state is his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton — had paid just a fraction of what it promised. Clinton has cited bureacracy and the world's financial troubles last year as problems in securing the pledged funds. On his recent trips to Haiti, he has expressed frustration that more is not getting done.

Bellerive said he is disappointed by the slow delivery of funds. He said the delays may be caused by uncertainty surrounding the question of who will succeed outgoing president Preval.

"Perhaps some donors say, 'Let's wait until we know exactly who will be there for the next five years,'" said Bellerive.

"Everyone is talking about the resilience of the Haitian people, and everyone is taking advantage of that resilience," Bellerive said. "It's going to end. Success for me is to do the basic, the minimum, so we can really build a future. And we have to do it right now."

In an Op-Ed to Haiti's Le Nouvelliste newspaper, the IADB's Pierre asked that on the anniversary itself, foreigners leave Haitians alone.

"I ask only one day per year, from 2011 on, to enable us to mourn our dead ... to try to understand how and why we got where we are," he wrote. "We need to find some peace."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top