Posted by: Jeff | January 12, 2011

Haiti, One Year After

Photo: Tequila Minsky for The New York Times

One year ago, a devastating 7.0 earthquake ravaged Haiti, killing upwards of 200,000 people and displacing millions more.  The earthquake absolutely and fully destroyed the country’s fragile government and infrastructure, leaving millions of survivors homeless and without access to help or shelter.  International organizations descended on the country with tents and pledges of support and money, offering some semblance of hope to those who needed it.

One year later, many still live in tents, and Haiti is still not able to perform basic civic functions and provide social services common in even most developing countries.  Cholera has swept the country – possibly introduced by those very U.N. soldiers relied upon to maintain some picture of security.  Access to clean water and shelter is not universal, and education is on indefinite hiatus for many of the country’s youth.  One year later, Haiti is still a disaster zone.

In the past few weeks floods have ravaged Australia and Southern California, a reminder that humanity will always face dangers from a chaotic environment.  But it is difficult to chalk up the calamity in Haiti as the result of just another faceless natural tragedy.  The depth of despair and destruction wrought on the island in the wake of a massive earthquake remains unsettling, and yet nothing has changed.  NGO’s continue to operate on under-funded budgets, rubble is still strewn on the streets, and the tent cities sprawl everywhere.

Reflecting on a year of false promises, The Economist details the lack of progress:

This landscape of neglect and degradation mocks the widespread hope in the weeks after the quake that Haiti could “build back better,” as Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to the country, put it. The government’s promising reconstruction plan, unveiled at a donor conference in March, envisioned moving many people outside the swollen capital and injecting economic life into rural areas, as well as rebuilding Port-au-Prince.

Little of this has happened. The only official relocation site is a barren wasteland on the outskirts of the capital which shelters fewer than 10,000 people, many of whom feel they were tricked into moving there. Donors pledged $5.8 billion for recovery and reconstruction until September 2011. But less than half of that has been disbursed, and a big chunk has gone on debt relief rather than fresh funds.

A year ago I observed that it was difficult to envision much success in Haiti given the level of destruction.  With zero institutional capacity for basic services, education, and health care, there isn’t much a country can do.  But it is still disappointing to look back on the promises made and the false hope given in the wake of the disaster.  Maybe that’s what we were looking for to salve our conscience in the early days of 2010, but in 2011 it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth knowing what help was promised and how little arrived.  After all, it was the American President who issued an address directly to the ears of the Haitians affected by the earthquake:

Finally, I want to speak directly to the people of Haiti.  Few in the world have endured the hardships that you have known.  Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle.  And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some to look up and ask, have we somehow been forsaken?

To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten.  In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.  The world stands with you.  We know that you are a strong and resilient people.  You have endured a history of slavery and struggle, of natural disaster and recovery.  And through it all, your spirit has been unbroken and your faith has been unwavering.  So today, you must know that help is arriving — much, much more help is on the way.

Perhaps given that the tragedy did not fall on American soil, President Obama will dodge direct comparisons to the plight of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  But given his words in the days after the tragedy, can anyone avoid the conclusion that Haiti has indeed been forsaken?

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