Haiti a year later: every glimmer of hope balanced by a tale of despair


Newly married and pregnant with her first baby, Michaëlle Beaussicot has become one of the lucky ones.

She recently moved out of a notorious 55,000-person camp in Petionville and into a new, tin-roofed house atop a breezy plain northwest of town. The community is lit at night with solar lights, has women-only latrines, clean water, room for her tiny vegetable garden and school rooms for primary-aged kids.

“I’m lucky because a lot of people can’t get what they need,” she said.

That group includes Fabriola Valbrun, a 17-year-old orphan who prostitutes herself on the lawless streets surrounding Haiti’s crushed presidential palace. Her parents died one year ago today in the earthquake that smashed Haiti, leaving her with no one and nothing.

“If I had my parents, I wouldn’t have to go through this,” she said, breaking into embarrassed tears. “I have to live. I can’t die from hunger. Nobody cares about helping me.”

For every glimmer of hope that can be found on this sombre anniversary in Haiti, there is a dark tale that serves as its grim counterpart. In the 12 months since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake fractured this struggling nation, billions have been pledged to sew it back together. So far, there are few stitches to count.

Around one million people are homeless or stranded in camps of varying conditions; jobs are hard to come by; sexual violence is on the rise; rubble still litters city streets; few buildings have been resurrected, not even the palace; promises are kept less often than they are broken. Neither the Haitian government nor the international community embedded here is pleased with what they have accomplished so far. Both camps admit that the tally sheet of mistakes made over the past year – and excuses for them – is longer than the count of victories, although it would be wrong to say there have not been some.

The explanation for this is complex, but ultimately rooted in the fact that Haiti was in a dilapidated state well before last year’s epic earthquake.

“The disaster that we see in Haiti today did not begin on the 12th of January,” said Nigel Fisher, a Canadian development veteran with the United Nations overseeing the humanitarian effort in Haiti. “Structurally, the country was in quite a mess before, starting with huge unemployment, a very weak economy, 85 per cent of people living in abject poverty, only 20 per cent of people had access to decent water … less to latrines,” he said, adding it is “simplistic” to expect a reversal of each metric in one year’s time. “These are fundamental problems that don’t get fixed overnight by humanitarian assistance.”

When the earthquake struck, Haiti was flooded with emergency responders who came overland from the Dominican Republic, by air and by sea. As a result, thousands of lives were saved; tents, tarps, medical care and other necessities were given out until the flow of horror began to ebb.

But when the reconstruction phase began, the trouble set in. The swarm of organizations on the ground struggled for co-ordination both amongst themselves and with the beleaguered Haitian government, which lost a third of its buildings and thousands of employees in the disaster. Frustrated, many NGOs simply worked around local and central governments to channel resources to needy people.

Several of the world’s top aid and development organizations have issued year-end evaluation reports in recent weeks; lack of co-ordination among NGOs is repeated in many of them as one of the year’s most obvious drags on reconstruction.

Mr. Fisher said the process might have been smoother if international responders had a better grasp of Haiti’s complexities.

“I feel like I’m skating along on the surface of Haiti, but there is so much more that could be done if my understanding – and the understanding of others like me – was deeper,” he said. “This is a country where we think we’re starting at square one, but behind every square one there are several squares you have to cover.”

Many of those are the responsibility of the Haitian government, which several international organizations on the ground accuse of being indecisive and lacking in leadership.

“The Haitian authorities need to show greater strategic leadership and take decisions that reflect the priority needs of the Haitian population,” the development organization Oxfam said in its scathing report. Initiation of the country’s reconstruction, including infrastructure building, job creation and the allocation of land for new houses, has to start with Haitian authorities, the report said. Only then can the international community provide a sustainable means of mentoring and support.

There is a widespread belief that Haiti’s government needs to decentralize both politically and economically, so local authorities can make progress on local issues.

It also needs to tackle the country’s complicated land-tenure problem. There is no national land registry, which makes verifying land ownership difficult. Until land claims are sorted out, the rebuilding of homes will remain stalled; donations of large plots of land for resettlement cannot be made with certainty.

The close quarters and unemployment have deepened pockets of poverty, unleashing a wave of sexual violence against women that has gone almost unnoticed by most groups because of their focus on other priorities.

Annie Gell, a New York lawyer working with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said an “an epidemic” has been recorded in Port-au-Prince, where police officers have been asking rape victims to pay gas money if they wanted their cases investigated. Perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.

Mr. Fisher said that in retrospect, the UN should have focused less on setting up camps in the early days after the quake and more on the economy.

“We didn’t need to set up the camps and fixate on them,” he said. “We’re not in Darfur or in Congo where camps are put together to protect people. We could have, much earlier, focused on economic regeneration: jobs, supporting the local economy.”

The lack of jobs represents the largest black spot in Ms. Beaussicot’s new community, a settlement called Corail Cesselesse, where tens of thousands of displaced people have been given land to keep. That alone has put them a step ahead of the hundreds of thousands of people living in temporary camps in Port-au-Prince. But land alone is not enough.

“I’m not going to let my child grow up here. It’s going to turn into a slum,” said Ms. Beaussicot, whose husband is a teacher. “We have a vision. We are some day going to buy a piece of land and build our own house.”