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Haiti faces major challenges two years on

A Haitian woman in the Beaubin camp for displaced people wears a T-shirt with the name of President Michel Martelly


Political paralysis, a lack of leadership among the international community and a cholera epidemic continue to plague Haiti two years after a devastating earthquake.

An estimated 1.5 million people lost their homes following the quake on January 12, 2010, which killed almost 250,000 people. Half a million remain homeless.

Nevertheless, the United Nations has made a positive assessment of the international community’s efforts. An inventory of fixtures compiled at the end of November 2011 showed that almost 100,000 temporary shelters had been built and 21,000 houses repaired or rebuilt.

“We can say that the humanitarian response has been a success,” declared Nigel Fisher, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator.

This optimistic vision is far from shared in Haiti or among the diaspora.

“You can’t say that a lot has happened over the past two years,” said Charles Ridoré, a Haitian sociologist based in Switzerland.

“The United Nations are judge and party at the same time. We saw this clearly with the cholera epidemic. External expertise was needed to make [the UN] aware of their responsibility in importing the disease to the island.”

Gérard Bedock, head of the Swiss section of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Haiti, said the situation “wasn’t good”, adding that one couldn’t talk of success.

“The damage is still being cleared away, almost half of those displaced still live in tents and the cholera epidemic has been raging for more than a year,” he said.

Lack of leadership

The lack of leadership – both among the international community and the Haitian government – has prevented the implementation of a global reconstruction plan.

Michel Martelly, a former musician and businessman, was sworn in as president on May 14, 2011, but spent the first six months of his mandate fighting to get a parliamentary majority. The government has still to announce its list of priority projects.

“It’s the sign that we’re slipping,” said Frantz Duval, editor of Le Nouvelliste, one of the country’s main newspapers.

“But it’s also the price of improvisation, since Martelly wasn’t a political man. The process is complicated. What’s good is that everything’s happened without violence and guns.”

The chaotic and uncoordinated reconstruction was started by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and bilateral groups, but above all by individuals.

At Canaan, for example, a large plain north of the capital Port-au-Prince, tens of thousands of more or less solid buildings spring up from the earth as part of an irreversible process of turning urban zones into shanty towns.

Ridoré repeats what was already being stressed more than a year ago. “The electoral process should have been postponed and a national unity government set up. Far too much time was lost.”

Cholera epidemic

Ridoré talks of a “disheartened and disillusioned” population which stumbles from one calamity to the next without having time to catch its breath.

The cholera epidemic, which appeared in November 2010, has already claimed almost 7,000 victims and affected half a million.

“Despite the number of people getting involved and the amount of money at their disposal, the response has been completely insufficient and totally disorganised,” Bedock said.

MSF has been able to take charge in almost a third of the cases.

“We’re at the front line facing one of the most serious epidemics of modern times. We’re trying to respond as much as possible, but the battle is unequal,” he said.

The end of the rainy season should give some respite to the disease’s progression.

“But what will happen in six months when the epidemic returns?” Bedock asked.

Some medical NGOs are already leaving Haiti because they are running out of money or are forced to forgo emergency aid to devote themselves to their core mission.

In a country where the health system rests almost entirely on the large NGOs, principally MSF, this haemorrhaging makes people fear the worst.

“Aid paradox”

“That’s the paradox of aid: you don’t want the NGOs to go, but neither is it tenable to be propped up by the international community for such a long time,” Duval said.

“Over the past two years people haven’t asked themselves how invalids are going to survive without their crutches.”

Ridoré points to the example of his 78-year-old sister, a member of a religious congregation forced to take charge of an orphanage overnight when the American NGO which had looked after it until then found itself without funding.

Bedock points to an “ambiguity” when it comes to foreign aid.

“Local authorities fear our departure and the taking over of what we do by the health ministry, which can’t guarantee quality, free medical care and universal access,” he said.

“But on the other hand, politicians use NGOs as scapegoats, which creates strong resentment towards us among the population.”

Witness statements

Soley Leve: “Nothing changes – the Haitian population is still living in tents, still living outside. Humanitarian workers turn up like rabid dogs – without any visible result. In the disaster-hit areas politicians are still just saying anything to get support.”

Lele: “Our politicians are happy to seek votes instead of addressing the truly miserable situation of the population. Despite the humanitarian aid, a large part of the population is suffering all sorts of problems: famine, cholera, other diseases – and they can’t send their children to school.”

Lucas: “I’m used to seeing dangerous and extreme situations, but I’d rather die than go through what I saw on January 12, 2010, again. It was like a huge massacre caused by nuclear bombs.”

Damien Mainnemare: “Too many non-governmental organisations are getting in the way of local institutions and are working without meeting people and holding discussions. There’s still so much to do!”

Franco Célestin: “Two years after the earthquake, the country’s still in an economic and social slump – not to mention the political situation, which brings us misery thanks to a group of parliamentarians only looking out for their own interests.”

Josue Joseph Saint-Cyr: “People often say ‘hope keeps you alive’ and, after all kinds of events, ‘life goes on’. I also understand that the mental scars are far from healing. But we’ll hold on and get by with God’s grace.”

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Haiti is two-thirds the size of Switzerland but has an estimated population of ten million compared with Switzerland's 7.7 million.

Up to three million people are thought to live in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Haiti suffers from high inflation, a lack of investment because of insecurity and limited infrastructure, and a severe trade deficit.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Three-quarters of Haitians survive on $2 a day or less. Almost half of the population is illiterate.

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(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens),

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