Earthquake shook everything but the system
Le Monde Diplomatique January 2011
One year on from the earthquake that devastated Haiti, it may still take a decade just to clear the rubble if work continues at its present pace. Meanwhile the poor suffer, the rich profit, and the show is run by NGOs and other outsiders
By Christophe Wargny
Toussaint Louverture International Airport has returned to good health, clean and almost welcoming. It has escalators and duty-free shops. Jet bridges take you straight from your plane into the terminal, as never happened before the earthquake of 12 January 2010. It gives you hope that reconstruction has begun, or is beginning; the promised billions might have finally hit their first targets. You imagine the bulldozers, the diggers and the site trucks at work: perhaps these explain the traffic snarl-up that the taxi driver immediately tells you is a permanent fixture.
But no: rebuilding the airport is the only project to take shape in almost 12 months, backed by clearing the main urban arteries. Reconstruction has not yet started. Unlike the once solid buildings of now devastated Port-au-Prince, the grip of politicians and notables who have strangled Haiti for two centuries managed to withstand the earthquake. They’ve even stolen the word “reform”, which framed the social movement’s projected rebuilding of the institutions and state structures, and emptied it of meaning. For the moment, “reform” equals “staying just the same”.
We already knew the statistics of a disaster worsened by the inertia (or heedlessness) of a pretend state that lacked form, means or political legitimacy. It’s the urban chaos, the absence of any infrastructure worthy of the name, as much as plate tectonics that explain 300,000 dead, the same number injured or maimed, with more than a million people displaced, most of them now in the hundreds of camps around the capital.
TV reports from Port-au-Prince, always looking for the most graphic images, gave the impression of a razed city. The reality was different, but no less tragic. Some blocks, mainly public buildings several stories high, were completely destroyed. But in the old central and western districts, three out of four houses more or less survived. As you climb the surrounding slopes (the higher you get, the better off the residents), rubble diminishes. A label on each building attests to work promptly undertaken by hundreds of Haitian and overseas contractors: green indicates habitable, orange that work is needed, red calls for demolition. The higher you climb, the more green. Below everything is red, or is a camp.
There are so many camps in the zone near the airport that you see and smell them as soon as you arrive. They fill the flatlands around Croix-des-Bouquets, Tabarre and the Cul-de-Sac plain. A sea of plastic huts ruffled by the wind undulate in huge white and blue waves, occasionally broken by the colors of other protective materials. Tent after tent – they are so close to each other that you can hardly fit a small plastic table between them. The overcrowding is horrible, with living conditions during the (June to November) rainy season either intolerable or appalling, despite “urgent” and “massive” aid from abroad. Before you reach the centre of Port-au-Prince it is plain that at the present pace, the “emergency” could last forever.
Providing basic needs
People once aspired to join Pétion-Ville golf club. Now it’s home to 30,000 refugees. Yet it has an advantage over other camps: the course architects, with golfers’ comfort in mind, planted superb shady clumps of green, effective at protecting new arrivals from the blazing sun in between tropical showers. The paths are walled with sandbags to channel water during rainstorms. Some schoolrooms have been improvised, there’s a children’s clinic, enough water for all, an internet café some days in a communal area, and refugees have been rehoused not too far from their former homes.
NGOs are responsible for drinking water and other basic needs. They empty the latrines, they bring round mobile water dispensers. Minustah, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which arrived after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the intervention of the US and France in 2004, is here as elsewhere. But there’s no sign of an official Haitian presence. “A government minister here? I’ve never seen one,” a refugee member of the camp’s management team says. “I think they’re worried about what might happen to them.”Not all camps are so well endowed. Even so, storms ravage Pétion-Ville’s tents, which harbor mosquitoes, rats and other vermin. Because life – or the survival instinct – bounces back quickly, small enterprises make sales – fresh sugar cane, Coca-Cola, clairin (a sugarcane-based brandy), soap – along with cafeterias and local crafts. Small shops are doing good business in evil-smelling alleys.
In dry weather the air is full of particles of faecal matter. Like foul water, these carry the cholera bacillus, and cholera has just returned to the island after almost a century. The relatively easy-to-prevent illness – access to clean water and the ability to wash hands limit the risks – has caused major casualties. By mid-December 2010 nearly 100,000 people were affected, 34,000 in hospital and 2,000 dead. Cyclone Tomas, which swept across the island on 5 November, helped spread the bacteria. Septic tanks overflowed, mixing their contents with the refuse borne by the storms, and gushed down into the camps which became huge cesspits, harboring the cholera bacillus.
Speculators move in
There were predators, too: property owners. Using threats and intimidation, they chased the homeless from land around the golf course. There were skirmishes. Vacant plots became scarce. Speculators jumped in, spurred by the spike in house prices. Because the earthquake destroyed many of the archives and land registries, there has been conflict over title deeds.
Rents tripled because demand jumped as supply slumped. NGOs had little choice but to pay up. Whole new fortunes were created. Those with money made more. A doctor summed it up: “The solidarity of the early days seems far away now. We’re living with an unexpected development – inequalities are spiraling.” They were already the most pronounced in the western hemisphere.
The first objective remains to clear the land. Squads of workers in NGO T-shirts, with spades and brooms that make do for cranes and bulldozers, swarm in the rubble. They clear up each day what the storms drop by night. It’s an understatement to say that productivity is low. Household rubbish, in bins or just trashed, ensures that serious diarrhea is endemic. Everyone thinks that at today’s speed it will take the trucks more than a decade to clear up.
Moving from tents to stand-by shelters in wood, plastics and corrugated iron (expected life: three to five years) would make things a little less precarious. Construction of 140,000 of these T-shelter dwellings is said to be in hand, even paid for, at $2,000 for a 15-sq-m hut. But where would they be built and on whose land? How would they be procured? Requisitioned? Bought under the counter? In Haiti, housing politics are juggled between five different ministries. In reality, there is no plan. Only 11,000 have gone up in 11 months. By the time the final shelters were to be built, the first would be decommissioned. Meantime the number of “campers” is not falling.
The catastrophe caused an urban exodus. More than half a million people were accepted by provincial authorities that lacked resources but attempted, with help from NGOs already there and local communities, to provide schools, lodging, medical services, to distribute food, to create building sites, and to offer psychological counseling. Families were called on to take in relatives, sometimes squashing local economies. The provinces have become poorer, reflecting an old Haitian problem – over-centralization.
After a few months, more than 80% of those who quit Port-au-Prince returned. The services they knew they could find in the capital – including the makeshift camps – seemed better, despite their limitations, than those available near their rural refuges: better schools, better aid, better chances (even if uncertain) of finding work. Internal migration has switched back in the usual direction, rediscovering its own vicious rhythm. All this just makes the camps more permanent.
For a long time now most Haitians have looked to NGOs rather than the state for public services. Before the earthquake, the UN World Food Program fed almost two million Haitians, with the diaspora taking care of the same number (1). The earthquake has increased dependence. Whether they like it or not, in Port-au-Prince, NGOs are the only means of survival.
Alongside the UN agencies (2), there are some 10,000 organizations around the world helping to support Haiti. More than 1,000 are on the island. Half are unknown to the state, yet identifiable by their logos to all Haitians. Following the old colonists, American and European NGO officials are in just about all the camps. With their luxury vehicles and expensive equipment contributing to the traffic snarl-up, they offer “work for wages” to more than 100,000 people employed in the clean-up. The wage, 200 gourdes (under $7 a day), is a small fortune, which in 2009 President Préval found too costly for the Haitian economy; he would not pay it despite a long struggle with the workforce. But in today’s Haiti, NGOs have more financial muscle than the state.
Humanitarian aid accounted for a third of GDP in 2009. Hundreds of thousands of people live on it, employees and families. Some foreigners – blan in Creole – also live well: Haitians can see that in the restaurants and find enough in rubbish bins to feed the poorest. Practically every Haitian graduate seeks either to emigrate (3) or to join an NGO. It’s safer than working for the state or starting a business. In 2009, after years when “aid” was supposed to encourage “development”, the Haitian state was still dependent on 60% help from international organisations to balance its domestic budget. And even though things are improving, corruption costs the state huge sums in lost taxes. In 2008 and 2009, $300m of oil credits provided by Venezuela under the PetroCaribe agreement vanished. Almost the same amount was spirited away in the public works markets.
Rise of the evangelicals
Churches flourish alongside these organizations – some are also NGOs. Profiting from the state’s absence, evangelical and Pentecostal foundations are a big hit. One afternoon recently, the faithful were gathered in their thousands in Carrefour (the supermarket) in a Port-au-Prince suburb. Heavy American pop music blared from the PA system. The crowd attempted a few dance steps. Sermons by American pastors, translated into Creole, were followed by singing, jubilation, readings and commentary from the Bible from locally based ministers, trained by the incomers in under a year. Sick people were given blessings. “Miracles” happened. Above all, they thanked the Lord for the daily bread from this generous band of militants saying, “Believe and you will be saved.”Beside evangelicals and Pentecostals you see Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. Ministers of self-proclaimed cults are born every minute. The heavenly army poses as a vanguard, as religious commissars: “We must denounce those who falsely repent, the bad pastors. God is great.” They repeat: “Down with places of Satanism [Voodoo temples].” Was it a fluke that God hit public buildings and the cathedral and ejected the archbishop from his own dwelling? Catholicism is now a minority faith. The sociologist Laënnec Hurbon estimates that 45% are Catholic (compared with 75% a few years ago): magic, miracle-working, guilt cults and new forms of evangelism offer more concrete support networks than the Catholic Church, which has shown itself better at creating elites than at working in a changing and savage urban scene. The Church has prevented any possibility of political reform of Haitian society. Its missionary objective was to create an imaginary shield against reality: to cultivate emotion and eradicate thought. In 30 years we’ve moved from the emergence of a liberation theology – embodied by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, president in 1991, 1994-96, then 2001-04 – to the cult of resignation.
The emergency should be nearly over. But with cholera, it is worsening. Everyone counted on the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, with co-presidents Bill Clinton, the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, and Haiti’s prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Disappointingly, it has met just three times in 10 months, few projects have been confirmed, and there’s poor coordination between the sponsors. Haitian civil society has been spurned. The donor states, which have yet to match their promises, show a strange tendency to “place” their own firms. They seem a long way from the $10-15bn target announced: just 10% of donations have materialized. In these circumstances, projects – from land registry to training key people, from supporting agriculture to hospitals – are only part-financed, rarely signed and sealed.
As for elections, preoccupations have shifted: shelter, a job, health. The feeling is that Haiti no longer belongs to Haitians. And in the future, “se blan ki desid” (the foreigners will decide). Reconstruction, rebuilding society, reform? The future is more likely to bring a patching-up of the old order. But how can you help rebuild a state which barely works or help a political system based on clientelism, which guarantees a two-speed society? Stuck in traffic, you understand everything. Gleaming, air-conditioned 4x4s with tinted glass and smartphones for some; foot or wheelbarrow for the rest. The politicians, despite a few elements of modernity, have not changed. The earthquake shook the houses but has not touched the fundamentals of Haitian society.
Translated by Robert Waterhouse
More by Christophe Wargny
Christophe Wargny is a journalist
(1) The most recent state budget was barely $2bn – or the cost of five days of war in Iraq during the mid-2000s. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, the Haitian Diaspora accounts for 16% of GDP.
(2) United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Unesco, Unicef, World Food Program, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
(3) According to a 2007 report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), for every 100 new graduates in Haiti, 80 who have already graduated immigrate, mainly to North America.