Rebuilding effort in Haiti 'at standstill'

Six months after the earthquake, frustration grows as rebuilding efforts seem stalled.
A man pulls a cart filled with merchandise in downtown Port-au-Prince on July 1. ((Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press))

Claude Sterling was in his office when the earthquake rocked Haiti on Jan. 12. "Within 30 seconds, everything went down," Sterling remembers. 

He and his employees at the SOBE Enterprises shipping business all managed to get out just before a taller government office building collapsed onto their building, destroying it. Many of those working in the government office did not escape.

Six months later, speaking by telephone from Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, Sterling tells CBC News that now, "as far as recovery, things are at a standstill."

Haiti earthquake by the Numbers

  • 222, 570 deaths
  • 300,572 injuries
  • 1300 camps, or "sponaneous settlements" (peak)
  • 1,500,000 people live in the camps
  • 604,215 people left Port-au-Prince and the West Dept.
  • 188,383 houses destroyed or badly damaged
  • 80 percent of Port-au-Prince schools destroyed or damaged
  • 60 percent of hospitals in the affected region destroyed or damaged
  • 70 percent reduction in Haiti's GDP
  • 7,000 babies per month delivered since the quake

from UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs  (Sources provided here)

(Haiti: facts and figures)

The biggest concern, now that the hurricane season has begun, is getting proper shelter for the 1.5 million people living in makeshift camps across Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.

Immediate needs met

The relief effort has been effective in meeting the immediate needs of the affected population.

"By the first of May, everyone had emergency shelter. We had done a massive food distribution. There were no major outbreaks of epidemics," Sarah Muscroft, acting head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti, told a meeting of aid organizations on July 5.

For the moment, medical care in Haiti may now be even better than it was before the earthquake. That's the view of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders), one of the key medical aid groups in Haiti. 

"Numbers of poor people who before the disaster were effectively excluded from the public and private systems are now able to get attention," the group writes in a major report released July 8.

"The range of medical care in new, temporary structures and in some of the surviving hospitals and clinics is substantially greater and nearer to the people, although issues of quality remain."

Adequate shelter now most urgent task

A woman, carrying her daughter, walks past a camp in Port-au-Prince on May 20. It is one of many camps for people displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. (Esteban Felix/Associated Press)

The challenge is to replicate that early success as the focus shifts to rebuilding Haiti.

That emergency shelter — tents, tarpaulins and plastic sheeting — is wearing out. Transitional shelters are few. Less than two per cent of the earthquake debris has been removed and there is little sign of Haiti being 'built back better.'

"What we see when we drive around Port-au-Prince is that the situation is pretty much as it was after the earthquake," Hans van Dillen, a head of mission with MSF said at a July 8 media briefing from Haiti.

Half a year after the quake, "the rebuilding effort in Haiti has stalled," according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. That analysis is hardly unique.

Yet the task is monumental. Over 300,000 houses were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, according to the Haitian government. 

Having met the need for emergency shelter, the focus now is on building transitional shelter. Plans call for 125,000 units but as of July 3 only 3,722 had been completed.

The rainy season has been unusually light, but heavy rains in Léogâne and other areas have still flooded camps, destroying tents and other dwellings.

Standards not met

Erik Johnson has seen many disasters in his career as head of Humanitarian Response for DanChurchAid, an international aid group based in Denmark. On a trip to Haiti last month, he was shocked to see that standards were not been met for space per person and space between dwellings in camps.

DanChurchAid was active in Haiti before the earthquake. Now it is working in camp management, reconstruction and agricultural programs. It also has a project to improve the accountability and quality of the humanitarian response by all agencies in Haiti.

Non-governmental organizations and UN agencies have an established set of standards — the Sphere Project — that are supposed to be met in disaster aftermaths. The Sphere standards cover space allocations in camps, water, sanitation and so on.

Meeting those standards in a densely populated area like Port-au-Prince is challenging, there is no doubt. But the Sphere standards "are not at all being observed" in Haiti, Johnson said in a CBC News interview from Copenhagen, where he had returned for his wedding.

Whose land is it?

An aerial view of camps set up by earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince on April 12. ((St-Felix Evens/Reuters))

When flying into Port-au-Prince, seas of blue between destroyed city blocks are visible from the air.

Those are some of the more than 1,200 camps — with their UN blue tents and tarps — that dot the city. Many sit on private sites and on land whose ownership is now unknown, a result of destroyed records and the deaths of an estimated 220,000 people in the earthquake.

Aid groups are understandably reluctant to build transitional or permanent shelters where land title is unclear.  And the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations claims that "key land-policy decisions have been inexplicably delayed."

Meanwhile some landowners are evicting camp dwellers, or trying to. This is happening despite an agreement in April between the government and the UN for a moratorium on forced evictions. However, the agreement has not been publicized and there is no one to enforce it.

Adding to the challenge is the debris from destroyed houses and buildings, estimated at 20 million cubic metres. The rubble both occupies much-needed space and makes transportation difficult, especially for heavy equipment needed for construction and to clear that rubble.

Removing the debris will take years.

Frustration rising

According to MSF, "frustration and anger are rising because too little has changed in the living conditions since the quake."

Residents react to tear gas canisters thrown by the police during a protest near the national palace in Port-au-Prince on May 27. Hundreds of people gathered near the palace to demand the resignation of Haiti's President René Préval, according to local media. ((St-Felix Evens/Reuters))

Anti-government demonstrations are a daily event. The graffiti of choice these days is "aba Préval," or "Down With Préval." René Préval is Haiti's president.

Dealing with the government is frustrating for businesses, too.

"It has always been a challenge running a business in Haiti, now it is even harder," Claude Sterling said in our interview. The deaths of so many people who worked for the government and the destruction of government buildings certainly worsened the situation.

Erik Johnson of DanChurchAid adds: "To say that they are frustrated and disappointed by this pace of recovery and the way things are going is true, but it's also a population with chronic frustration and disappointment."

Meanwhile, the international NGOs are said to be adding to the Haitian government's frustration.

Haiti rebuilds

(three-part series)

  1. Donors' conference: The next challenge in Haiti (March 26)
  3. How social media is changing the aid business (March 30)
  5. Architects on a mission (April 21, 2010)

The heads of government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) met last week and issued a statement expressing their concern about "the unwillingness of the resource-rich non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active on the ground to align and co-ordinate their operations with the priorities of the government of Haiti."

The number of aid groups operating in Haiti is estimated at 8,000 to 10,000.

Elections set for November

Elections for Haiti's Chamber of Deputies and for a third of the Senate seats were supposed to take place in 2009 but were postponed to early this year and postponed again after the earthquake. The terms for the politicians holding those seats have now expired. 

Add to that the experience with Senate elections that were held in April 2009. Turnout was just 11 per cent, possibly less, after Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) excluded candidates from the largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from taking part.

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean meets President René Préval of Haiti in Huntsville, Ont., on June 25, ahead of the G8 meeting. Jean will become UNESCO's special envoy in Haiti after her term as Canada's governor general ends in September. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

The international community, including Canada, criticized the exclusion.

Elections for president, the chamber and a third of the Senate are now set for Nov. 28, but their legitimacy is being challenged.

The CEP, whose own constitutional legitimacy has been challenged, has again barred Fanmi Lavalas, and other smaller parties, from taking part when the elections were set for earlier this year.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, in a report  for the U.S. Agency for International Development, writes that, "Giving the mandate of organizing the upcoming elections to the current CEP would mean that the electoral process would be considered flawed and questionable from the start."

Another 6 months

Will things turn around for Haiti by the first anniversary of the earthquake? In Erik Johnson's experience, disasters tend to follow a fairly consistent trajectory.

He expects that after another six months true recovery will still not have taken hold.  It will have started for housing, schools and other public buildings. People will still be in camps but numbers will have started to thin out.  And he says there will still be a large international presence.

Claude Sterling says right now "people are just waiting because they don't know if something is going to happen for them."  But he also says they "are getting used to the fact that that's the way it is going to be for a long time."