Haitians still await rebuilding after 2010 quake

Three years after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, reconstruction has barely begun — and in the capital, Port-au-Prince, 358,000 people still live in the encampments that sprouted throughout the city after the disaster.

Authors Amy Wilentz and Jonathan Katz on the slow progress in Haiti

A group of boys sit on the rooftop of a home damaged by the 2010 earthquake, across from the Jean Marie Vincent camp where they now reside, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 9. Saturday marks the third anniversary of the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake. There are 358,000 people still living in the encampments that sprouted throughout the city after the earthquake. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

Three years after the worst natural disaster in the history of the Americas — the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti — reconstruction has barely begun.

So far, the promise by aid groups to "Build Haiti back, better" remains just that, with hope fading.

That's the feeling that emerges from interviews with two journalists who have written books about what's happened since the earthquake.

The titles of their books hint at why.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, gets its title from a conversation author Amy Wilentz had in 1986, the first year she reported from Haiti. Fred Voodoo was foreign correspondents' jargon for what might now be called a streeter (from the old phrase, "man in the street interview").

For Wilentz, the name "sums up outsider attitudes that are ongoing to this day, of lumping all Haitians together and considering them as one downtrodden mass that is superstitious and weird and alien to the outside world."

That Fred Voodoo attitude, she tells CBC News, leads to many decisions being made by aid organizations without input from Haitians, and to the problems that then result.

'The big truck that went by'

A number of things led to Jonathan Katz titling his book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He wants the title to resonate with readers as an image of aid caravans driving by and continuing on their way but it's also from an early name for the 2010 earthquake in Creole that translates as 'the big truck went by.'

In the very first moments, "a lot of us mistook it for a big truck going by," he tells CBC News. The sounds and sensations of trucks were part of life in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, before the quake devastated the city, he says.

Katz was The Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2012, when he left staff to write his book.

Of course, there has been some progress. The UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says in 2012 about 161,000 left the camps and 262 camps were closed. However 358,000 people are still living in camps in conditions that are rapidly deteriorating, according to OCHA.

Some families left camps because aid agencies gave them $500 in payments called "return cash grants," to pay rent to live somewhere else. That money can cover the cost of non-camp housing for about a year.

Appalling conditions in camps

Wilentz, who recently returned from Haiti, writes heartbreakingly about conditions in a camp in downtown Port-au-Prince that is still home to about 600 families.

People were angry and confused, she writes in the current issue of The Nation magazine, because the $500 grants were offered to residents in some camps but not others. "So the St. Anne residents are hanging on, unwilling to start up a new life elsewhere for fear of missing out on that $500, to which they understandably feel entitled, if only for the incredible suffering they've endured."

About $7.5 billion has been disbursed but what there is to show for such a huge sum in Port-au-Prince and the other hardest hits areas is at best disappointing. Half of that money went to relief aid, which of course is important but that only sustains, and does not build. And nearly $500 million of the relief funds went to the Pentagon (for security and relief transport) more than double what went to Haiti's government.

A large amount of the other half went to things other than post-quake reconstruction, including highways, industrial parks, schools and hospitals and a university outside the earthquake zone, and even hotels in Port-au-Prince. The number of hotel rooms in Port-au-Prince will soon be double the number from before the quake, according to Wilentz.

Little spent on permanent housing

Only $215 million has gone to building safe, permanent housing.

"One area where the reconstruction money didn't go is into actual reconstruction," Jessica Faieta, the senior country director for the UN Development Program in Haiti for two years, told the New York Times in December, shortly after leaving that post.

A significant portion of the $7.5 billion that has been disbursed has not been spent yet, especially the funds set aside for housing. According to the Times, the U.S. Treasury still has more than $1 billion allocated for Haiti.

Wilentz and Katz describe a pattern at the root of the problem that for both the Haitian government and the aid agencies, existed before the earthquake. "The path since the earthquake is not substantially different from beforehand," Katz says.

Wilentz says that for nearly a century the Haitian government has been a "dysfunctional organization that has basically been turned into a corruption sieve."

"Money goes into it and disappears and that's why the international community was reluctant to deal with the Haitian government, but in order to fix Haiti the Haitian government has to become a responsible entity."

Then there's that Fred Voodoo attitude that has a led to what little housing is getting built being done so without consultation from Haitians.

"You get camp depopulations without really the input of the Haitians who are being repositioned, you get these now outlying townships outside of the areas hit by the earthquake that are not the kinds of places that Haitians want to live in — but they're living in them now," Wilentz says.

Fantino blames Haiti

Julian Fantino, Canada's Minister of International Co-operation, expressed concern in a Jan. 8 statement about "the slow progress of development in Haiti, in large part due to weaknesses in their governing institutions," adding that there needs to be "greater leadership, accountability and transparency from the Government of Haiti."

Katz takes issue with Fantino, saying, "it's much easier to say at the end of the day, 'well, you know whose fault it is, it's them, it's the ones we were giving this stuff to, they must have misspent it, maybe they stole it.'"

Katz then adds, "You aren't spending as much as you think, they aren't receiving as much as you think and the people who really are responsible for the failures aren't allowing themselves to be held accountable."

With Haiti, he noted that "in the humanitarian relief phase, so much of the money went for logistics, for jet fuel and hotel rooms, repairs to helicopters and ships." Katz estimates that in the year after the earthquake, only seven per cent of the humanitarian relief money went to Haiti.

"Foreign aid is not given to foreign countries. Foreign aid is usually spent in our own countries on stuff that we then send to them. Or don't send," Katz explains.

For Wilentz, the root problem in Haiti, before and after the earthquake, has been the lack of jobs, an issue the aid programs have failed to give much consideration.

There have been commendable efforts on the aid front. Wilentz mentions the U.S.-based Partners in Health, which has a substantial history in Haiti and a mostly Haitian staff on the ground. The group is also building what's considered the biggest reconstruction project in the health sector, what will become a public, not private, teaching hospital 50 kilometres outside Port-au-Prince.

American actor Sean Penn's work in Haiti has also impressed Wilentz. "He's become a dedicated development worker, so I'm hoping he'll prove that, by staying for a long time in Haiti and keeping his interest there and not flitting from one disaster to another."