Politics of Poverty

A marathon worth running: Haiti seven years on

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Erosion Control Project in Los Poetes near Belladere, Haiti. (Photo: Ami Vitale / Oxfam America)

After seven years there’s much to be hopeful about in Haiti, and still much work to do.

Seven years ago today, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti. Its epicenter was not far from the Port-au-Prince metro area, home to one of every four Haitians. The temblor, called Goudou Goudou in Haitian Kreyòl (after the sound of the shaking earth), lasted well under a minute, but killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 1.5 million of the country’s population of 10 million. It affected virtually everyone, as some 600,000 people left the earthquake zone to stay with family or friends all over Haiti. Some 300,000 buildings collapsed, including the presidential palace, most government ministries, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the famed film school in Jacmel, the UN mission’s headquarters, the World Bank’s office, several major hospitals, and a huge number of homes. Both the international airport and the main seaport suffered serious damage. During the next two weeks, Haiti experienced 52 major aftershocks and at least one tsunami.

Today, most of the rubble is gone. New hotels catering to international visitors have opened their doors near the renovated airport, as well as in the upscale suburb of Pétionville. Jacmel’s Ciné Institute is back up and running, and designer Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation has helped create a new center in Port-au-Prince supporting Haiti’s artisan community.

But the effects of the earthquake are still very much in evidence. Over 55,000 displaced Haitians still live in tents and other temporary shelters as a result of the temblor.

And quite a few additional shocks have pummeled Haiti since the earthquake. These include a cholera outbreak that has killed 10,000 people, three major hurricanes, and the worst drought in recent memory due to El Niño. Climate change is very likely worsening vulnerability to natural hazards.

Matthew, the most recent hurricane, wrought havoc this past October. It killed hundreds, nearly wiped out agricultural production in the crucial farming areas of southern Haiti, and has left 800,000 people in a state of extreme food insecurity. There is a 38 percent shortfall in funding the UN’s humanitarian flash appeal.

All this has come in the context of serious long-term problems. Nearly 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In rural areas, home to the majority of Haitians, that figure rises to 70 percent, and there has not been much progress in cutting rural poverty over the past 15 years.  One of every five Haitian preschool children suffers from stunting, and over half of the population lives in chronic food insecurity, even in years without a major hurricane.

The cliché that Haiti is “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” overshadows another stark statistic: it is also is the most unequal in Latin America and the Caribbean. The richest 20 percent of Haitians own 65 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent enjoy a mere 1 percent. The glamorous hotels and chic restaurants of Pétionville stand in sharp contrast to enclaves of urban poverty such as Cité Soleil, Cité l’Éternel, and Canaan-Jerusalem—a displaced persons camp turned permanent settlement—that lie just a few miles away.

The governance challenges are daunting. In an economy where agriculture is the main source of livelihoods, less than 10 percent of the government budget supports the sector, and most public agriculture spending is on civil service salaries. Government revenues come mainly from import duties; wealthy Haitians seldom pay income taxes. And Haiti’s local governments frequently complain about lack of support from the national authorities.

So is the picture completely gloomy? No.

A major bright spot is that the Haitian government’s disaster management system has taken the lead in responding to Matthew, with support from UN agencies, aid donors, and international nongovernmental organizations. That contrasts sharply with the multi-billion dollar earthquake relief effort, which largely bypassed the Haitian government and Haitian civil society organizations. Also, the country’s emphasis in disaster management is not exclusively on reactive response. Oxfam, for example, has worked closely with local government committees and citizen volunteer groups to enhance their capacity to prepare for and prevent emergencies.

In addition, there are some important positive developments in ensuring that low-income Haitians can access financial services. Haiti’s three largest banks now have microfinance affiliates, and recently Haitians have had greater opportunities to use their cellphones—which are widely available—to access funds.

There are even signs of reversal in the policy of rural neglect. Three years ago, the government adopted new policies to provide Haitian farmers with more responsive services, such as research, technical advice, and training. The US government and other donors support implementation of these policies.

As we remember the catastrophe of January 12, 2010, we must also recognize that overcoming poverty, inequality, and vulnerability in Haiti is a long-term proposition; a marathon, not a sprint. If the international community can fill in the funding gap in responding to Hurricane Matthew, that is an important step along the way.

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