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Haiti

Reconstruction in slow motion

by Vera Dicke

In brief

A woman prays in the cathedral ruins in Port-au-Prince

A woman prays in the cathedral ruins in Port-au-Prince

Haiti continues to suffer from the effects of the earthquake two years ago. But the causes of many problems run deeper. Civil society organisations say that donor commitment remains crucial.

On 12 January 2010, more than 230,000 people lost their lives and some 2.3 million their homes in Haiti. Next came a wave of international solidarity. Countries promised billions in financial aid, and numerous aid organisations provided tents, food and medical supplies.

A recent UN paper shows what progress has been made over the past two years: half of the rubble has been cleaned up. According to the UN, moreover, more children are in school now than were before the earthquake, and people have moved into some 100,000 newly built homes. The emergency is over, and aid agencies are beginning to withdraw from the country. More than 500,000 people, however, are still living in tent shelters. Many of them do not have steady jobs. Families suffer from rising food prices, and the cholera epidemic that started in October 2010 still has not been contained.

Unfulfilled promises

According to statistics published by the UN’s Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti, only 53 % of the nearly $ 4.5 billion worth of aid that was pledged has actually been disbursed. The countries that lived up to their promise include Japan and Finland. The USA and Venezuela are among those that did not do so.

As the inflow of funds dries up and aid agencies start to pull out, gaps begin to become evident. For instance, SOS Children’s Villages, a German NGO, reports a rising number of children who are left to themselves. They did not lose their parents in the earthquake two years ago; they are abandoned by poor parents these days. According to Louay Yassin of SOS Children’s Villages, this practice is known in many poor countries. With aid waning, some parents simply do not have the money to take care of their children. Others resolve to give their children to richer families. Called restavecs (from the French “reste avec” or “stay with”), these children work like slaves. Today, the main challenge is no longer the earthquake, but structural poverty.

Disaster relief cannot solve that problem. Haiti lacks reliable governmental structures and a strong civil society. The country has a history of violence – of dictatorship under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son John Claude “Baby Doc”, military coups and years of civil strife. A UN peacekeeping mission has been in the country since 2004. Last March, pop singer Michel Martelly was elected president. It took him five months to put his cabinet together. The parliament rejected two prime ministers he proposed.

Only two months after the earthquake, Welthungerhilfe, a non-governmental Ger­man aid agency, stressed that Haiti needed to build its state as well as rebuild its infrastructure. The NGO argued that the government would have to create an appropriate environment for reconstruction. In a paper it published in 2010, it warned against opting for quick solutions, which might do the country more harm than good. Should donors and non-governmental organisations set up parallel structures, Welthungerhilfe warned, Haiti would drop back into poverty as soon as aid runs out. It argued, for instance, that foreign food aid is no substitute for domestic production and that international organisations harm a country when they poach its high-skilled civil servants.

But such advice was rarely heeded. Even today, according to The Guardian, the British newspaper, Haiti’s government has little influence on how international aid money is used in its country. Most of the funds bypass national institutions: only six per cent of bilateral aid for reconstruction projects is channelled through Haitian institutions, and less than one per cent is given to the government.

Some Haitians nickname their country “the Republic of NGOs” because they feel it is run by UN troops and NGOs. It is easy to understand their desire for more national sovereignty. President Martelly is aware of such sentiments and says he wants to establish a national army again. But the government has also become active in other fields, for instance by funding free schools for poor children with revenue from a tax on telephone calls and international money transfers.

Vera Dicke