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Forging Past Frustration in Haiti

By Susan Carey Dempsey on January 15, 2011No Comment

One word rings like a relentless knell through the reports of progress on the one-year anniversary of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake: frustration. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, many leaders who had been actively involved in developing extensive plans for the country’s economic development shook their heads in disbelief, as the fragile underpinnings of Haiti’s GDP disappeared in a matter of minutes.  Faced with over 200,000 deaths, the loss of thousands of buildings, and the loss of civil servants, international workers and an entire class of nurses in training, a cadre of humanitarian leaders took a deep breath and pressed on with a can-do attitude, vowing to rebuild Haiti better than before.

President Obama had called on the two former P...
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As many of those leaders marked the painful anniversary this week, there were recitations of numbers given shelter, doses of vaccines administered,  a growing percentage of children attending school. Nevertheless, from executives of the UN Foundation, to leaders of humanitarian organizations, to former president Bill Clinton, the UN’s Special Envoy for Haiti, no one could give a credible assessment of the year’s progress without noting that it fell short of where they’d hoped to be today. Haitians themselves, remarkably strong and resilient in the immediate aftermath of the quake, have grown weary and angry as the government has failed to carry out an orderly, legitimate election process, and the promised rebuilding has begun to look more like endless makeshift shelter programs.

In a press conference this week, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Nigel Fisher spoke of the encouraging developments he has seen through increased collaboration among major NGOs such as Oxfam, World Vision and PLAN, with each concentrating on their area of expertise. On the other hand, he told the BBC in an interview, the nation was once again feeling the effects of being a “republic of NGOs,” with countless small humanitarian aid groups unwilling to collaborate and following their own course.

Just before the quake last January, Fisher recalled, there was a growing sense of optimism about charting a new, comprehensive course of economic development for Haiti, which remained the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere despite countless attempts to develop its infrastructure over the years. ”We had a sense of optimism, with a direction for growing Haiti’s GDP. Then, the quake wiped out 120% of the annual GDP in less than a minute.”

Still, after mounting a massive humanitarian response to aid the country that had suddenly lost more than 200,000 lives and needed to shelter more than a million homeless, Bill Clinton and other leaders felt they could build on those plans and help Haiti come back stronger. Governments around the world pledged billions to accomplish that, and individuals, corporations and NGOs stepped up to help. As survivors were pulled from the rubble long after hope had been lost, a feeling of optimism grew and aid workers overcame initial chaos to begin meeting immediate needs.

The worst of the dreaded hurricane season did not materialize,  but the scourge of cholera did. Tent cities were erected, but stable, permanent dwellings have not yet made it to the drawing board. Sexual violence continues to plague women in unstable camps, and legal protection or remedies are all but non-existent. Citizens vote in presidential elections but voice increasing anger when the results are unclear.

And yet, the work goes on. In a typical small scale project on the outskirts of the city, Tabarre Issa, tents have been replaced with 1,500 hurricane-proof  homes will house 9,000 people. Small cash-for-work projects have employed Haitians, mostly women, in cleaning up their streets and building sanitary facilities to reduce disease.

“No one is more frustrated than I am,” Bill Clinton said, in an interview with theGrio’s Mara Schiavocampo. He said in the last year, 60 percent of financial pledges made to  the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund created by him and former President George W. Bush  to help rebuild the nation by delivering economic opportunities to its people.

“I think we’ve got a lot of things going,” he told Schiavocampo. “I think now we need to resolve the presidential election, let the parliament take their seats and then go back to what I was doing before the earthquake.”

Clinton noted progress made in the effort to move displaced Haitians out of tent camps — but was insistent that those camps should not serve as a long term solution to the nation’s housing crisis.

“If they’re here in five years, I’ll be really disappointed,” Clinton said. “But I didn’t think we’d get a third of the people out in a year … There are more people out of those camps than I thought there would be [one year later].”

“In the end, we outsiders can’t do this for the Haitians. We have to empower them … so that when this is done, they can do this for themselves,” Clinton told theGrio. “Every day, there is hope and there is frustration, but I’d say the hope still outweighs the frustration. I can’t find any donor who’s given up.”


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