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Haiti: A Glimmer of Hope?

Bill Miller

What a difference two years make. On January 12, 2010, the world was horrified to witness the aftermath of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that decimated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and killed over 200,000, maimed thousands, dispossessed over 1.3 million and caused losses of approximately $7 billion, which is 120 percent of Haiti’s 2009 gross domestic product (GDP).
For a brief period, media from all over the world chronicled and documented the human and physical devastation. When the “CNN Effect” ended, Haiti was no longer in the spotlight.

During this two year-plus interim, a multitude of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations (U.N.) agencies–in tandem with many governments and private sector groups–stayed involved and lent a hand to help Haiti re-build. Although considerable progress has been made, there are still monumental challenges that will extend well into the future.

During a press conference in late November, Nigel Fisher, deputy special representative to the U.N. Secretary General (Ban Ki-moon), placed some of the challenges of rebuilding Haiti into perspective. He mentioned that the country’s “economic and social infrastructure had long been broken,” even prior to the quake. Some jaw-dropping statistics indicated that over 50 percent of children did not attend school, approximately 75 percent of the population had no electricity and only 5 percent of the roads were in decent condition.

Other pre-earthquake statistics showed that only 50 percent of the Haitians had access to safe drinking water, 55 percent of the population lived on less than $1.00 per day, and 24 percent of children under five suffered from chronic malnutrition. The earthquake only heightened the misery and suffering of a society exhibiting major problems that adversely affected the quality of life.

In a recent fact-finding trip to the ravaged country, Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), highlighted that more than 60 percent of the 10 million cubic meters of rubble has been cleared, with UNDP as the main coordinator of the removal effort. A major impediment to rescue and rebuilding was because over 80,000 buildings had collapsed, leaving impassable mounds of debris.

The United Nations and U.S. State Department assert that many other signs of progress are visible. For example, the number of refugees living in tent camps has declined from 1.5 million to just over 500,000; the health and sanitation sectors have reduced cholera infections to around 200 new cases per day; 75 percent of the displaced children are now in school; 1.5 million people now have shelter, clean water, emergency kits, and access to latrines; solar lights have been installed to help keep women and girls safe from violent attacks; and, even though the recent elections were flawed, this was the first time in 25 years all three of the Haitian branches (executive, legislative and judicial) are actually in place.

Other international public administrators in the U.N. agencies are working to clear irrigation canals, restore phone and postal services, immunize children against childhood diseases, and implement a cash-for-work program. UNICEF ( U.N. Children’s Fund) is developing maternal and child health care programs, as well as focusing on child abuse and illegal trafficking of children. UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is working to develop the educational system.

One program to resettle quake victims is the 16/6 Program that focuses on re-locating displaced people–living in six refugee camps–back to their original neighborhoods. The goal is laudable and considerable progress has been made; however, the program reflects two of the major impediments: Donor funding is chaotic and unpredictable. Costs are estimated at $78 million, yet only $30 million has been received by the Haiti Reconstruction Fund, ostensibly due to bureaucratic snags. Also, of the 515,000 people (in July of 2010 it was 1.5 million) living in 700 camps, this program will assist only an estimated 30,000.

Another U.N. operation is the United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti (with the French acronym of MINUSTAH). Although the mission, which got off to a bumpy start in 2004, has received high marks for providing stability and order to a country that had major gang problems and corrupt governmental and private sector leaders Even with its success, the mission has suffered a public relations setback for three events. In 2011, 114 Sri Lankan troops were sent home in a “sex-for-pay scandal: where food was exchanged for sex with hungry young Haitian girls. Later that year, four Uruguayan solders were charged with beating and sodomizing a young man; and three Pakistani troops were repatriated to be punished for sexual abuse of a Haitian male.

The U.N.’s Zero Tolerance Policy requires that if the military code is violated the guilty soldiers will be returned to their host countries and be dealt with by their respective governments. Along with a Zero Tolerance Policy, the United Nations has assisted victims of sexual abuse and exploitation with psychological and medical support

The U.N. Peacekeeping force is composed of about 11,000 military personnel and police. At present, 70 percent of the Haitians want the U.N. Peacekeepers to stay; however, as the police and military become more professionally trained, the United Nations will gradually withdraw its forces in order to avoid instability and chaos that would be created by an immediate pullout.

A third problem for the peacekeeping mission was accidentally causing a cholera epidemic. After a recent visit to Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti who has been involved in the rebuilding effort, attested that a Nepalese soldier in the U.N. mission probably was unaware that he had cholera. Apparently, the soldier’s dumping of waste in the waterways, coupled with Haiti’s lack of health facilities, may have inadvertently caused the deaths of 7,000 Haitians and infected over 525,000 in a cholera epidemic.

Major challenges in the future:

  • Lack of political stability: In February, Prime Minister Garry Conille, who served less than five months, resigned after being requested by President Michel Martelly. Apparently, Conille disagreed with the president over an audit showing about $300 million had been let on no-bid contracts. A lack of competition, transparency, accountability and oversight are still major problems in Haiti.
  • Lack of competition: In 2010, the US government awarded more than 1,500 contracts worth $267 million. All, except 20, went to US firms. Only $4.3 million went to Haitian businesses. Some of the US corporations that received contracts had previous contracts cancelled for bad practices, had been investigated by Congress for unethical or illegal practices, or had been accused of waste fraud and abuse.
    The Haitian leadership and business community must be brought into the process; however, there must be more of a crackdown on corruption and cronyism
  • Commitments: It is crucial that the donors stand by their commitments. Of the $5 billion in international aid, only $3.5 billion has been received, and a large part of that has been unspent.
  • Coordination: Although the United Nations is trying to coordinate the various relief efforts of NGOs to reduce inefficiency and waste, a large number of donors providing medicine, food and other services are not coordinating and are working at cross purposes with little coordination among their activities.
  • Untapped Resources: One huge untapped resource are Haitian females who should be playing a larger role in the society. Clark, UNDP Administrator, met with a group of Haitian women leaders from both the private and public sectors to discuss their strengths and areas of involvement. Although women can and should play a key role in Haiti, they are not well-represented. For example, females head up 40 percent of the Haitian families, yet only hold four percent of seats in parliament. 60 percent of Haitian women are illiterate.
  • Overpopulation: Haiti is overpopulated which adversely affects both the environment and unemployment. Haiti and the Dominican Republic occupy the island of Hispaniola, which is strategically located between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Haiti, with a population of over 10 million, a per capita income of about $800.00 per year, is relatively small at 27,750 sq. km. (10,714 sq. mi.), which is about the size of Maryland. By contrast, the Dominican Republic covers 48,442 sq. km. (18,704 sq. mi.), which is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire and has a per capita income of nearly $6,000.

One of the most environmentally tragic aerial views is the shot of the Haitian-Dominican border. The Dominican side is lush and green with vegetation; whereas, the Haitian side is desolate and denuded with little vegetation. Heavy rainfall causes the topsoil to wash into the streams and ultimately the ocean. Many demographers view Haiti as a microcosm of what many parts of the world will look like unless there is a reduction in population growth. Compounding the problem, Haiti has the highest fertility rate in the region (4.8 per woman between 15 and 49), as well as the highest maternal mortality rate in Latin America and the Caribbean: 670 deaths for every 100,000 born.

Although a large number of Haitians displayed a tremendous decorum and triumph of the human spirit after this disaster, they can only accomplish so much with their meager financial resources. Haitians have to become more responsibly involved in rebuilding and the international community must keep its promises to provide technical and financial aid.

Shortly after the quake, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, while en route to Mexico, made a surprise visit to Haiti. They met with then-Haitian President Preval, visited a children’s safe space established by First Lady of Haiti Elisabeth Delatour Preval and danced with some of the children. Perhaps another visit by these prominent international celebrities would be an excellent way to shine the spotlight back on a country that still needs massive assistance. The “CNN Effect” should be 24-7 and year-round.

ASPA member Bill Miller is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the United Nations and is the producer/moderator of “Global Connections Television.” Email: [email protected]

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