Politics of Poverty

Eighteen months after the earthquake in Haiti

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Eighteen months after the earthquake, Haitians do what they do best – survive!

Angela Bruce Raeburn is a former senior policy advisor for Haiti humanitarian response at Oxfam.

“Haiti is not a country….it is just a place,” a 25 year old unemployed Haitian friend told me matter of factly when I last visited. Eighteen months after the earthquake that decimated what was left of the weak country infrastructure, while killing over 300,000 people, the country seemed resigned. Haitians give the impression that they have moved on from the earthquake. They have experienced other natural disasters before the earthquake and they have since begun to reconstruct their lives as best they can.

Driving through Port Au Prince last month, camp cities have become permanent fixtures amidst the slum landscape – the tarps that ordinarily would be used for six months have been in use for 18 months. The heavy rains that come quickly in this part of the world have destroyed them; they hang on poles, limp and decayed, providing almost no respite. The experts say that we ought not to give more tarps as this will encourage people to stay in camps to receive services. But they misunderstand the Haitian context. People will not the leave the camps if they have nowhere else to go. They have no viable alternative whether we give them more tarps or not. The camps have now become a bustling somewhat invisible addition to the daily lives of people in Port Au Prince and other areas like Leogane. Vendors have set up make shift shops, young Haitian entrepreneurs can add minutes to your Digicel phone, women bathe children, and people use coals to cook next to big piles of garbage while big NGO Jeeps honk their horns to navigate around the chaos.

Haitians I talked to who work as domestics for NGOs know that aid will not lead to development. They understand that aid is simply aid. The tarps that are now almost useless to them are also considered aid: it will help today but it is not a home with a future.

Last week in the Southern region of Nippes, I met a group of Haitian people who worked as volunteers on a disaster risk reduction committee with the local authorities. I asked them if they knew about how much aid will flow into Haiti from the international community in the next ten years and if they understood the purpose of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The elder in the group responded, “ I heard about the IHRC on the radio but I am certain that those who live closer to Port Au Prince do not even understand it – how can we expect people like him so far away in the Nippes to understand it? “.

Even though we all laughed at the time, I thought about his response and recognized its seriousness.

The IHRC is a quasi -governmental institution set up alongside the Haitian government meant to review and align all foreign aid and projects coming into Haiti. It is meant to align with Haitian government plans for reconstruction and be transparent and inclusive. However, the IHRC is perceived in various Haitian circles as a parallel structure of government created by the international community to coordinate how the international community wants to spend its money. Even though the IHRC is co-chaired by the Haitian Prime Minister, there is currently no one in this position in the Martelly Administration. This body will coordinate almost US $5 billion for the reconstruction with average Haitians and civil society having almost no real connection to its existence and therefore not vested in its transparency. More importantly, it continues to operate without the participation of the highest ranking Haitian government official in its circle.

Haiti is not a country where citizens participate and engage with their government. Haiti is still a place where people continue to survive. Yet, there is a fledgling civil society whose voices can be strengthened and raised to call Haitian citizens to hold their government accountable for their actions and to forge a compact with their government to reconstruct the country, which is at the core of effective development.

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