Telling the full story in Haiti

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 • by Sarah Wilson

In Haiti, the 12th of January was declared a national holiday, so that people could spend time with their families and commemorate the lives of those who died in the earthquake exactly two years before.

For the world’s news media, the day was yet another chance to revisit the country and express outrage at the frustratingly slow pace of the reconstruction effort.

Driving into the centre of town from Port-au-Prince airport, journalists faced the depressing sight of the dozens of encampments still home to thousands of people. But this very obvious ‘failure of the reconstruction effort’ is more nuanced than it seems.

In the first place, fears of corruption have made major donors slow to release funds to the Haitian government.

The Guardian reports that, “Figures released by the UN special envoy for Haiti show that only 53% of the nearly $4.5bn pledged for reconstruction projects in 2010 and 2011 has been delivered.”

Of the money that has been transferred to Haiti, only a tiny proportion has gone to the government. This means that the Haitian government has a limited capacity to provide the level of health care, education and sanitation to communities in Port-au-Prince that are being provided by private agencies in the camps. There is currently a perverse incentive to stay in a camp even if you have a habitable home.

International NGOs, although very visible in the capital, are not set up to rebuild cities. They can provide basic sanitation, health and education services in the camps, but it is much harder to do the same thing in communities. That is the role of the government.

Nor is what you see in Port-au-Prince the full story. Before the earthquake very few journalists ever visited Haiti and those that have arrived since rarely venture outside of the capital.

It is a much better story to say that “Haiti is still in the grip of despair and chaos and the aid effort you funded is to blame,” as the Mail on Sunday did last week.

It requires a lot more research to accurately report what it going on in Haiti in a balanced way, as The Guardian has been doing in its ongoing series on rebuilding Haiti.

From the beginning, ACT Alliance members like Christian Aid and Church World Service have focused their efforts on helping people to resettle in the countryside. Before the earthquake, many people lived in the capital out of economic necessity rather than choice. Unfair trade rules that allowed other countries, particularly the US, to undercut Haitian farmers by dumping subsidised rice on the market, made it difficult to earn a living outside the capital.

Christian Aid partners have been building permanent homes at various sites around the country so that people who were forced by the earthquake to leave the capital and return home are able to resettle there permanently.

The home-building programme is integrated with various initiatives to help people earn a living. In one fishing community, solar-panelled refrigeration units have been provided to enable the fishermen to sell their catch over a longer period and thereby command a higher price.

In other parts of the country, partners are planting trees that help to reverse deforestation and make people less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Also, when the trees start to bear fruit, they are another source of income for the family.

A great deal remains to be done, and the pace of re-building is frustratingly slow, but the lives of thousands of Haitians have genuinely improved in the two years since the disaster.


Sarah Wilson is a senior international journalist for ACT Alliance member Chrisitian Aid.

Haiti: after the earthquake

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