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August 2, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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The Absence of Hope: Reconstructing Haiti

Salient feature writer Paul Comrie-Thomson takes a look at the relief efforts and aid failures in Haiti, six months after the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck.

The Caribbean nation of Haiti was rocked on Tuesday 12 January this year by a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, centred just 25 kilometres west of the impoverished nation’s capital Port-au-Prince.

The quake has directly affected an estimated three million people. 230,000 died, 300,000 were injured, and one million were made homeless, according to reports by the Haitian Government—though some experts question the validity of these figures.

Television and newspaper reports worldwide were rife with images of the tragedy. Thousands upon thousands of bodies lined Haiti’s rubble-strewn streets, as a result of overwhelmed morgues. Injured survivors were receiving treatment outdoors in the searing heat, with inadequate medical supplies, due to the fact that all hospitals, as well as three Médicins Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders) facilities had been destroyed.

Unharmed survivors were sleeping on the pavement, in cars, or in makeshift structures—they refused to re-enter buildings out of fear that these remaining structures would collapse in an aftershock. Low construction standards in Haiti meant that buildings left standing had more than likely been structurally compromised in the earthquake.

The response to the disaster was swift, but considerable difficulties were faced due to the tattered state of Haiti’s infrastructure. A damaged control tower restricted the efficiency of flight operations, but it did not stop the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport from being used altogether. The capital’s seaport on the other hand was destroyed, rendering the harbour out of action for the initial relief efforts. Most significantly, the sheer amount of rubble littering the streets of Port-au-Prince hindered the delivery and distribution of vital aid. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates initially ruled air drops too risky without the proper distribution structures implemented on the ground. Gates’ decision was subsequently overturned, and aid was parachuted in to desperate survivors in inaccessible parts of the devastated city.

On top of the immediate efforts made by both military and official personnel to send help and shipments of food and medical supplies, across the world states, multilateral banks and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were quick to commit huge sums of money for emergency aid and the long-term reconstruction of Haiti. Aid contributions included US$474 million from the European Union, US$210 million from Brazil, US$131.5 million from Canada and US$100 million from the United States, among a plethora of smaller donations amounting to a staggering US$10 billion. More than six months on, however, this commendable response has largely failed to assist in Haiti’s ongoing recovery from the earthquake.

Failing Aid

On 31 March a UN Aid Conference saw $5.3 billion pledged in relief payments. The payments would be made to a World Bank fund managed by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (CIRH). Payments would be distributed over an 18-month period. As it currently stands, a relatively insignificant 10 per cent of those payments have actually found their way into the fund.

Further to this, only 2 per cent of the $5.3 billion has actually been spent to directly help Haiti in reconstruction. Scoop columnist Gordon Campbell points out that the problem doesn’t end with state-pledged aid either.

“Much the same thing has happened to the money donated for emergency aid by millions of people worldwide to international aid NGOs to help relieve the suffering. Reportedly, only about 25 per cent of that money has been spent.”

Dr Megan MacKenzie, a lecturer in Victoria University’s International Relations programme, speculates that there are a number of reasons for these failures in the delivery of funds. She makes particular note of the media’s role, and consequent failure, in ensuring the issues continue to remain in the public’s consciousness.

“I think the media has a role in how long people pay attention to a particular issue, and I think there was so much attention—and rightly so—when the earthquake happened. Then several weeks on, that attention shifts, in some cases justifiably, to what else is going in the world. But that attention shift also means that peoples’ attention changes, so individuals shift their attention, and governments as well. They don’t feel that urge, or don’t feel like this is the top thing to be dedicating their budget to. So I think the way certain events are portrayed in the media, and peoples’ demand for that sort of immediacy, has something to do with that.”

Dr MacKenzie continues, pointing out that in addition to the role of the media, “in some ways there is also an underestimation in how much time and resources are involved in a lot of different disasters”. She comments that this is common scenario in both post-disaster and post-conflict scenarios.

“There is often this idea that there is a year or two transition and you need an immediate reaction and then things move forward naturally, but actually, as research has shown—rebuilding institutions and rebuilding infrastructure just takes so much time and resources, so I think there is maybe a sort of incongruence between what people think is required and what actually is, in terms of resources and time required.”

Ngos and the Cirh: Acronymic Failures

It has been suggested that the CIRH and its 26 directors—13 of which are representatives of the donor nations as well as multilateral banks such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank—could be one of the key problems behind the failure in delivering funding, preventing reconstruction from beginning.

Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine is critical of institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. Klein explains in detail the lasting damage these institutions can have on countries that require urgent loans. Klein points out that these payments often come burdened with interest rates, and are conditional on the government in question following neoliberal economic policies. Such policies more often than not undermine the country’s ability to make a full recovery.

However, Dr MacKenzie says, “I think with Haiti, the western powers can’t really exploit much more out of the country.” She raises an important point, relating to the problems faced when these multilateral agencies head reconstruction efforts.

“The funding structure for disaster aid is really top-heavy. There is so much money going into these international agencies, but smaller organisations that have really simple projects, like clearing rubble, have a lot more difficult time getting that kind of funding, so I think any time you have an international organisation managing that amount of money, it is very difficult for a smaller organisation to identify their own priorities,” she says.

“It tends to be they will align their priorities with whatever the funding structure is. If there is a lot of funding, for example, for health vs. rubble clearing, even though the latter might be more important, they will pitch for whatever they can get funding for, so you have this system which is really common where local actors are really shaping their priorities according to what external priorities are.”

In a recent documentary, the Al Jazeera network showed that a lot of the Haitian public’s anger and frustration at the inefficiencies in the reconstruction effort is now being targeted at the international NGOs. While this could be a result of funding priorities, Dr MacKenzie explains that this frustration isn’t an uncommon occurrence in post-disaster and post-conflict zones.

“It’s not that people who work for NGOs don’t have good intentions, it’s not that there is any maliciousness—but it’s that budget timelines are not realistic. They are not realistic for how long crisis recovery takes, so you often have this situation in many different contexts where NGOs come in with these amazing ideas and they’ve got money for one year, and so in that year they aren’t able to get their feet off the ground, and then they are gone. So then another NGO comes in with a similar idea, and this is what locals see all the time,” she says.

“In the meantime, these people are coming in with SUVs, and are spending tonnes of money, and often aren’t actually listening to what locals have to say about what would work for them. Sometimes locals have really simple ideas; like that digging an irrigation canal would increase productivity for this farm by x amount. Really simple things, and then you have NGOs coming in with these elaborate plans, and not only might they not be useful, but they may not be realistic when you only have money for one year.”

While there are certainly some systemic failures in the actions of the multilateral banks, donor countries and international NGOs, perhaps the most significant barrier to reconstruction in Haiti—as suggested in a recent article by journalist Kim Ives, published in the Haitian weekly newspaper, The Haiti Liberté—comes from the other 13 members of the CIRH who represent the interests of Haiti’s elite.

Bekele Gelata, the secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross Societies, claims that the Haitian government has not provided the open land necessary to build large numbers of storm-resistant houses—an urgent priority as the region gears up to deal with the hurricane season whose presence looms large in displaced Haitians’ collective consciousness.

Ives says that this is due to the fact “a small handful of rich families own large tracts of land in suburban Port-au-Prince which would be ideal for resettling the displaced thousands”. The representation of these elite interests in the Haitian Government, as well as the CIRH, has stopped the necessary reallocation of this land, despite the urgency of the circumstances. “Over the past 25 years, Haiti’s bourgeoisie bought up large swaths of this (land) for pennies… Now they will look to sell it for a huge profit,” Ives wrote.

The result of all this is that just a single camp has been built to date for the displaced survivors of the earthquake, “on a forbidden strip of sun-baked desert situated between Titayen and Morne Cabrit, two desolate zones”, where the homeless reside in tents that lack the capacity to resist even the least powerful of the hurricane winds that lash Haiti every year.

Aiding Failure

The issues surrounding land ownership, and the failure to relocate the hundreds of thousands who remain homeless to relative safety, are underscored by a long history of subjugation and democratic failure in Haiti. While even the briefest of accounts of Haiti’s history is far beyond the scope of this article, it is important to consider the effect of the 2004 coup d’état, which saw the removal of the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide was ‘kidnapped’ by US security forces during the coup, and was sent to live in exile in South Africa where he remains to this day. While there are questions surrounding corruption and human rights abuses within the Aristide administration, he remains one of the most popular figures in Haitian politics, exemplified by regular and massive protests calling for his return. As Gordon Campbell points out, Aristide is “the only person who could mobilise the bulk of poor Haitians to believe that the earthquake reconstruction effort was being motivated by a concern for their welfare”.
Current Haitian President René Préval has revealed that Aristide and the Fanmi Lvalas Party he represents will not be permitted to run in the recently announced November election. This is despite the fact the current president was originally allied with Aristide, serving as Prime Minister under the exiled leader’s first term. Beyond the logistical nightmare, and ethical questions surrounding the organisation of an election while the nation is in chaos—especially when said election is estimated to cost upwards of US$30 million, and the election process will require the hundreds of thousands of homeless people to somehow register—there are more important questions of the perceived legitimacy of the election when the most popular candidate is excluded from running.

Ives points out “the most prominent elite representative on the CIRH is Reginald Boulos, who heads one of the Haiti bourgeoisie’s most powerful families, and backed both the 1991-94 and 2004-06 coups against Aristide”. Boulos’s influence is not restricted to the CIRH—it extends to the Préval Government itself, raising questions surrounding exactly whose interests the exclusion of Aristide from the upcoming election serves.

One might speculate that elite influence, and exclusive elections will simply ensure the elites represented on the CIRH the freedom and ability to continue to take advantage of their hold Haiti’s poor in the prolonged aftermath of desecration. This begs the question: in the event that the majority of the money pledged to Haiti’s reconstruction actually finds its way into the state’s coffers, are these funds simply aiding failure?

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