Haiti quake camps still home to 500,000

While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and others vowed that the world would help Haiti "build back better," and $2.38 billion has been spent, Haitians have hardly seen any building at all.

Political standoff continues to hobble government's response

In this Jan. 5, 2012 photo, a woman wears a T-shirt with the name of President Michel Martelly as she walks through the Beaubin camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake in Petionville, Haiti. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

Days after the earthquake killed their little girl and destroyed much of their house, Meristin Florival and his family pitched a makeshift tent on a hill in the Haitian capital and called it home. Two years later they're still there, living without drains, running water or electricity.

A few kilometres away, Jean Rony Alexis has left the camp where he spent the months after the quake and moved into a shed-like shelter built on a concrete slab by the Red Cross. But he's not much better off. The annual rent charged by a landlord who lives in a nearby camp jumped from $312 to $375, and he too has no running water.

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"This is misery," said Florival, whose four-month-old daughter was crushed to death in the quake-stricken family home. "I don't see any benefits," said Alexis, whose shed is flooded with noise at night from a saloon next door that's appropriately named the "Frustration Bar."

The two men are among hundreds of thousands of Haitians whose lives have barely improved since those first days of devastation, when the death toll climbed toward 300,000 and the world opened its wallets in reponse.

While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and others vowed that the world would help Haiti "build back better," and $2.38 billion has been spent, Haitians have hardly seen any building at all.

Haiti numbers

  • The quake killed 316,000, according to a government estimate.
  • The cholera epidemic has killed 7,000 and sickened another 515,000.
  • Tent cities still house about 550,000.
  • Only about half the quake rubble has been cleared.

At the time, grand ambitions were voiced for a Haiti rebuilt on modern lines. New housing would replace shantytowns and job-generating industry would be spread out to ease the human crush of Port-au-Prince, the sprawling capital with its three million people.

But now the government seems to be going back to basics, nurturing small, community-based projects designed to bring the homeless back to their old neighbourhoods to build, renovate and find jobs through friends.

The reasons for the slow progress are many. Beyond being among the world's poorest nations and a frequent victim of destructive weather, Haiti's land registry is in chaos — a drag on reconstruction because it's not always clear who owns what land. Then there's a political standoff that went on for more than a year and still hobbles decision-making.

After the quake, a disputed presidential election triggered tire-burning riots that shut down Port-au-Prince for three days. The international airport was forced to close and foreign aid workers had to hunker down in their compounds.

Even after the vote was resolved and Michel Martelly was installed as president in May 2011, there were further snags. The former pop star, new to politics, took six months to install a prime minister, whose job is to oversee reconstruction projects. He infuriated opposition politicians because his administration jailed a deputy without following the law and named a prime minister without consulting them first. They retaliated by trying to thwart him at every turn.

No home-building agency for months after Martelly win

For six months, Martelly was running a government with ministers of the outgoing administration. "It created a situation where it was difficult to take off," the new foreign affairs minister, Laurent Lamothe, told The Associated Press.

Another victim of the impasse was a reconstruction panel co-chaired by Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti. Lawmkers refused to renew its mandate, complaining it contained too few Haitians, though they may have been using it as a pretext to punish Martelly. But it meant that for the next six months there was no agency in place to co-ordinate home-building.

Meanwhile government employees could be found napping at their desks while awaiting orders from their bosses that never came.

The government and international partners say there has been some progress — 600 classrooms for 60,000 children to return to school, almost half of the 10 million cubic metres of rubble cleared, and roads newly paved in the capital and countryside.

New housing is still the most critical objective, yet the biggest official housing effort targets just 5 per cent of those in need, and the encampments of cardboard, tarps and bed sheets that went up to cope with 1.5 million homeless people have morphed into shantytowns that increasingly look permanent.

More than 550,000 people are still living in the grim and densely packed camps that are squeezed into the capital's alleyways and pitched on the side of rural roads. And many of those who left the camps, often being evicted or paid to go, say their new conditions are little betterand sometimes much worse.

"I certainly wouldn't call (reconstruction) a success," said Alex Dupuy, who has written books about Haiti and teaches at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "Other than putting a government in place ... I haven't seen any concrete evidence of recovery under way."