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After massive aid, Haitians feel stuck in poverty

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:02 AM

PORT AU PRINCE, HAITI - One of the largest and most costly humanitarian aid efforts in history saved many lives in the aftermath of last January's earthquake but has done little to ease the suffering of ordinary Haitians since then.

As U.S. officials, donor nations and international aid contractors applaud their efforts - all the latrines, tents and immunizations - the recipients of this unprecedented assistance are weary at the lack of visible progress and doubtful that the billions of dollars promised will make their lives better.

"We have just enough to survive but not enough to live," said Dieusin St. Vil, a tailor whose ancient sewing machines lie crushed in the rubble.

St. Vil - who sleeps with his family in a moldy tent in a dangerous flood plain near the new U.S. Embassy - and 810,000 other Haitians in 1,150 camps get by on the bare minimum. Oxfam contractors service his latrines; a German group pays for minimal health care and runs a little school; and the musician Wyclef Jean's charity brought tents and delivers clean water.

Every few weeks, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who pays "cash for work" comes by and hires a dozen people, who earn less than $5 a day to shovel soggy garbage off the streets. This is the largest jobs program in Haiti, having employed 350,000 people. But the work is short-term, usually a week or two. Total cost for the year: $19 million, or less than $50 a worker after overhead.

"From the Haitian government, nothing," St. Vil said. "For the people in the tents, there is no future, just today."

Since the Jan. 12 quake, the roads are worse, electricity spotty and rice costs more. Carnival is being canceled again. There are still few jobs. President Rene Preval is missing from public view. Political paralysis grips the country. The results of the mismanaged, chaotic Nov. 28 presidential elections remain a mystery. After uncovering troubles with the conduct of the vote, a monitoring team from the Organization of American States is set to recommend that the government-backed presidential candidate be eliminated from the second round of voting, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The international community spent more than $3.5 billion on immediate disaster relief and pledged to spend $4.5 billion more in recovery aid in 2010 and 2011, with an additional $1.1 billion in debt relief for the destitute Haitian government.

At the Fantastik barbershop, Clenor Fleurent was trying to get his generator started. No electricity, no clippers. "With my own eyes I don't see progress. I don't see anything," he said. "Progress is for special people."

'We have lost solidarity'

International humanitarian organizations, the nongovernment groups that form a kind of parallel government in Haiti, were welcomed as a saviors in the weeks after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled vast swaths of the capital, killing 230,000 and injuring 300,000 more.

Now many people look at the organizations with distrust.

"The only people making money in Haiti are the NGOs who use the Haitian people to raise money and pay for their big cars," Fleurent the barber said.

The dream of 100,000 temporary shelters - versus tarps and tents - has not been realized. New housing starts are at a standstill, except at the edges of the city, where more than tens of thousands of squatters are covering the hillsides with shacks in spontaneous communities they call Canaan and Jerusalem.

"It's like Cite Soleil with a view," said Ken Isaacs, vice president for programs for Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian aid organization that has built 10,000 temporary shelters.

Cite Soleil in Port au Prince is one of the world's most notorious slums.

When representatives from donor nations and Haitian government and civil society groups gathered in March at the United Nations to plan the future of Haiti, this pattern of runaway, unplanned development was exactly what they promised not to repeat.

"Haiti is chronically disastrously complex, and the most complex environment I've ever worked in," Isaacs said.

At the studios for Signal FM radio, owner and director Mario Viau recalled that for a full hour after the earthquake, his station played, over and over again, the Eagles's classic rock anthem "Hotel California," with its memorable hook: You can check out, but you can never leave.

"I'm sorry, but it feels like a week after the earthquake, it feels like that song is still playing and nothing is happening," said Viau, who also runs one of Haiti's largest private security companies. "We had the earthquake, then cholera, now elections, now the crisis caused by the elections. Now we are a divided nation, we have lost solidarity."

Patching, not rebuilding

There are few major rebuilding projects visible in Port au Prince. The most prominent is happening in the abandoned, condemned downtown core - where a replica of the historic Iron Market is being re-created by the Caribbean mobile phone provider Digicel. Workers on Monday were scrambling to finish before its grand opening Tuesday.

A mountain of debris has been removed from the city, but it represents only 5 percent of the rubble pile. Donor nations squabble over who will pay for it.

Engineers have made cursory inspections of more than 380,000 homes in Port au Prince. Half of the houses need to be repaired or demolished. But the Haitian government has not yet issued building codes. Officials say they will do so by March.

"You can have the best seismic monitoring and best risk maps in the world, but if you don't enforce building codes, you have done nothing," said Eric Calais, a world expert on the geology of Haiti and a professor from Purdue University who took a year's leave to advise the Haitian government.

He described his year as "incredibly frustrating."

Seismologists now suspect that a smaller, previously unknown fault - not the main fissure running through the city - was responsible for last year's earthquake, which leveled the offices of 27 of 28 government ministries, destroyed schools, hospitals and offices and put more than 1.5 million into the streets after homes and apartments toppled and cracked.

"I haven't seen a lot of rebuilding. I've seen a lot of patching, which gives you the false impression that something is fixed, when it is just hidden," Calais said. "There will be a bigger, more powerful, more damaging earthquake, closer to Port au Prince, and it will likely occur within the lifetimes of buildings being built now."

The aftershocks continue. The city shook again in November.

The economy, fragile but growing in 2009 before the earthquake, slid into a recession - despite the billions spent. There is little business investment. There are fewer jobs today than before the earthquake, and those jobs were largely created by the international humanitarian organizations.

"Who made money in 2010? The NGOs," said Pierre Marie Boisson, chief economist for Sogebank, whose office building is still riddled with broken, jagged glass.

Commerce, manufacturing and tourism all dropped in 2010. Businesses, large and small, that provide food, water and health care were hurt by the massive infusions of free goods and services from the NGOs and foreign governments.

"Humanitarian aid driving an economy is always a bad thing," Boisson said.

"The business people are skeptical and fed up, in a wait-and-see mode, and not optimistic," Boisson said. "We're waiting for a new government. There are a lot of plans on paper, and we are waiting for a government to turn them into laws and into reality."

The Haitian government has been pushing the NGOs to stop providing food and other services in the camps, to force residents to return to homes or rebuild. Residents of the fetid camp in Champ de Mars parked in front of the collapsed national palace are demanding money to go.

People are leaving. "But we're not really sure where they've gone," said Nigel Fisher, the United Nations director of humanitarian relief here.

As some wander away, the demographics are changing. "Many of the camp residents are there not because they lost homes but because they have no jobs and no money, and so are homeless," Fisher said.

Waiting for change

At St. Louis King of France Catholic Church, pastor Quesnel Alphonse was preparing for a pilgrimage to the mass grave at the edge of the city. His church was destroyed. There are 150 people sleeping in his courtyard in tents.

"What am I to do? I can't put them on the street,'' the priest said. "They can stay. But for how long? Will they be here another year? There are no jobs. Do not believe anyone who tells you there are more jobs.''

At a cholera clinic near the airport, Thomas Vandamme, a French doctor with the group Doctors Without Borders, washes his hands with chlorine and water a hundred times a day. His face is covered in stubble; he looks exhausted but satisfied.

In all of Haiti, more than 3,600 have died of cholera. Here they have treated 2,500 patients. Though 40 people died at the clinic, they have not had a death in 15 days.

"I feel good. We did a good job here. For a doctor, cholera is a good disease. The patients come, and they are easy to care for. You give them rehydration. If they come here, we can save them," Vandamme said. "I have never saved so many lives before."

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