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Haiti: Two Years On…

January 18, 2012

Last Thursday marked the second year anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that caused horrific casualties and damage in Haiti. The reconstruction progress has reportedly been slow on many fronts. However, the expectation for tremendous results in two years in a country that has historically been divided along racial lines and rocked by political conflict is unrealistic and discouraging for development workers.

The outlook on Haiti appears frustrating. With the fate of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) still up in the air, there is no governmental apparatus in place to determine which reconstruction projects will be awarded funds from international aid.

President Michel Martelly, better known as Sweet Micky to the locals, has done little to inspire confidence in the Haitian government. During his short term, his choices for Prime Minister were dismissed twice and he was unable to persuade his Parliament to extend IHRC’s mandate. The unemployment rate remains high at 40.6%, and tent cities remain the only housing option for 500,000 Haitians. Local Haitians complain that international aid is funneled directly to foreign nongovernmental organizations or contractors, bypassing local labor. When government projects are overlooked in favor of foreign firms, Haitians end up losing out as fewer jobs are created locally.

However, one needs to take a closer look to see the buds of progress. Half of the rubble as a result of the earthquake has been cleared. President Martelly has devoted government funds to provide free education to about 1 million children, highlighting his dedication to Haiti’s future generations. The United States government has supported several initiatives, among them, the construction of the Caracol Industrial Park in the north. One of the largest South Korean garment producers, Sae-A Trading Company, has agreed to set up shop in Haiti, providing an estimated 20,000 jobs for the currently unemployed population. Even more revealing, are the statistics for the country’s growth – an impressive 8.6% in GDP growth in 2010.

More importantly is the country’s move towards investments in long-term initiatives. International aid is decidedly focused on programs that promote education and the construction of infrastructure such as waterwaste treatment plants and roads. There is also a shift towards agricultural programs, with the World Bank providing Haiti an agricultural grant of $50 million. The initiative would increase Haiti’s food security in the long run, which is highly important. (Haiti was a food exporter before natural disasters and political initiatives turned it into a food importer.) The recent implementation of the 16-6 program targeted at moving squatters out of the tent cities provides homeless Haitians with a year of rent. The program has seen the numbers of people at these camps decrease from a peak of 1.5 million to the current 500,000. While the conditions at these camps remain squalid, President Martelly and his government are working to return the country to some semblance of normalcy.

The progress has been admittedly slow. Yet, should there be any surprise? As one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, Haiti has been plagued by disaster after disaster, both political and natural. While the reconstruction work is slow and at times frustrating, the IHRC’s slogan, Build Back Better, has taken form. Ken Marten, U.S. ambassador to Haiti at the time of the earthquake says it best,

“We need to be careful not to hold Haiti to different standards, or higher standards, than we hold other countries to. If you look at European cities after World War II – places like Cologne and Rotterdam – they took 10 years-plus to rebuild. I don’t see why we’d expect it to happen a whole lot faster here.”

Haiti is a work in progress. In a world where immediate gratification is the name of the game, it is much easier to focus on the negative aspects of Haiti today – the squalor of the tent cities, the slow progress of reconstruction work and its political troubles. Yet, the trajectory that development in Haiti has taken is nothing short of encouraging.

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