Friday, July 9, 2010

the end

Yesterday I got on a plane Port-au-Prince to Paris, and then on to The Netherlands. One way ticket. Leaving Haiti was just as familiar as arriving was, five months ago. Barbancourt rum, Haiti's most famous export product, is still being sold in the yellow five-bottle packs, which then have to be checked in with the airline!

(photo) Haiti's most famous export product, for sure!

So this is it, no more contributions to this blog, no more - what did I call it? - random contributions to the better understanding of Haiti in the aftermath of an earthquake. I have to say, though, I have enjoyed blogging; it makes you being alert to things around you so you have something to write about, and it makes you want to take photos to illustrate. Well, sort of, I never got a picture of the rat in our apartment, he was too quick, neither of the intruder in my colleague's house, let's say it was too dark. Sometimes I got scared that I would be running out of subject matter, but the reality was that any gap in keeping the blog up to date was related to too much work, rather than lack of inspiration.

I had expected to write for family and friends, but I have the feeling that I had a somewhat wider audience at times (whilst many friends and family no doubt never read the blog: in April I got an email from one hoping that I had safely returned from my Haiti adventure). I suspect that quite a few of my colleagues were reading some of it, and I know for sure that total strangers have been to the site, too. One of my colleagues in Westport, where Save the Children US has its head office, commented on my haircut - can't be coincidence! -, and the CEO of the Dutch office referred to my blog on the visit, the one that he had been part of, too! Right, so much for anonymity, being one website in millions. However, I have to admit that I have since adjusted my approach a bit, and written less on Save the Children and more on Haiti - probably a change for the better, who wants to hear about my work frustrations, anyhow?

What else had I expected? A more lively comments section, perhaps? Even when I wrote that I was taking a specific paragraph off-line I had no angry reactions, nobody protested. Or maybe nobody really read anything I wrote, that is another possibility, of course! In any case, it was fun doing - and there wasn't a whole lot else to do, in my spare time. Perhaps I find something else to write about, sometime later. For friends and family, mostly.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

the last day

The last day for me in Haiti, that is, the reconstruction work will go on for a long time to come, as long as the international community remains committed to this, and can keep the attention focused on Haiti.

Five months it has been, well within the window of three to six months that I originally agreed to with Save the Children back in January, when we first started talking about joining their team. Five months well spent, I don't regret having come back. I have seen the emergency program taking shape, and getting better integrated between various sectors. Operations have been established in three of the worst affected areas of the country, and have been stabilised. And I'd like to think that I have made my modest contribution to this.

I also have seen Haiti pick up the pieces. I have seen a remarkable transformation, from when I got here first in February, and the place was subdued - almost dead, literally -, to what it is now, a vibrant society, back to its active self, colourful, noisy, smelling. I have been amazed with the resilience of Haitians, I have said that many times in the past five months; I have been amazed with the determination with which rubble is being cleared from plots, and with which people have started to rebuild their houses, even if only tents and transitional shelters on their own little plots of land.

Mind you, I have also sometimes been appalled with the pride of Haitians, which in my view was often misplaced, not taking into account the reality of the task ahead of them, not willing to accept that they cannot do that alone, and that they need an enormous amount of support if they want to succeed in rebuilding their country to a better level than what was a dysfunctional society before. The price for that support is to share the leadership of that rebuilding with others, with non-Haitians who provide the cash, but who also provide unique experience. Like it or not, you cannot expect, given the history of graft and corruption, that the international community is going to hand over billions of dollars, just like that, and good luck with using it. I have also been appalled with the short-terminist, often opportunistic attitude of some of the Haitians. Predictably, this includes the political opposition - even though the current government is not demonstrating a huge amount of initiative, it is unlikely that others would do better, and political instability is the last thing this country needs right now. Also: the gangs, who have regrouped remarkably quickly, and have wasted no time to get back to business as usual - it is really unhelpful to have a bunch of criminals targeting the new money, and those who have come to deliver it, through kidnappings and car jackings, but anyhow, I don't think any crook has ever listened to reasoning of this kind. Sadly, opportunism is not limited to politicians and gangs, many others fall prey to the attraction of short term advantage.

But mostly, I am happy that I have been able to contribute to the efforts to get Haiti back up and running again. I probably could not have chosen a better vehicle to do so: through Save the Children I have had the opportunity to contribute to a huge relief, recovery and rehabilitation program, and I'd like to think that I have been able to steer the direction of this program somewhat, towards long term sustainable development - not something that comes natural to most of the emergency response crowd. For three months I have also been part of the Humanitarian Country Team, where the heads of the largest NGOs and the key UN agencies discuss the challenges ahead, and what to do about it. And hey, I even met the president! Now the only thing we have to hope for is that my advice was the right advice - and more importantly, that everybody agrees on that and handles accordingly... right!

The weakest part of the whole story is, of course, that I am not going to hang around to find out, I just don't think I am convincing enough to make everybody fall in line. I also have a life back home, small detail. But I'll watch from the distance.

And even if nothing works, nothing comes from it, at least I'll have cocktail party talk for the next ten years!

the photos

One of the things I noticed in the past five months blogging is that you become very observant, even more so than I usually am. A lot of inspiration comes from the things you see around you, which makes you want to write about. Not all the photos I took necessarily fitted in any of the contributions, though, and others I took after I had already written about the subject.

So allow me to present you with a random selection of pictures that never made it, but that I still think should be part of my reporting on Haiti - some in fact, will only mean something to those of you who have been here before. I am wrapping up, obviously!

(1) I have written about landmarks and damage, but not yet shown you the Villa Creole hotel, damaged but still operating, even though now the kitchen has been destroyed, they do only simple breakfast, and order dinners from nearby restaurants (most guests survive on Domino's pizza).

(2) I also wrote about the rain, and the shower caps - witness the lady on the motorbike -, but then I hadn't yet seen the way umbrellas are being used on the taptaps when it rains.
(3) but even if it doesn't rain, downtown Port-au-Prince is somehow always flooded, this was the case ten years ago, and hasn't changed.
(4) what is new, though, are the styrofoam boxes, and I am not sure that this is only a result of the need to provide packed lunches to so many after the earthquake - I suspect this has been an earlier introduction, that just got a boost with the post-disaster demands. One of the uglier side effects, surely.
(5) another favourite subject of the past few months, Cash-for-Work programs, and the enthusiasm shown by the average Haitian. Note especially the use of the wheelbarrow!
(6) this guy is moving more earth on his own than the entire CfW crew! Isn't it brilliant, how quickly new toys are introduced? I am sure six months ago Caterpillar miniatures were unheard of in Haiti.
(7) I have written about schools: this is just an extra photo to the subject, geography lesson on the blackboard, under the tarpaulin.
(8) and I have written about new business, and Haitian resilience: my favourite, an internet cafe in one of the IDP camps!
(9) and with so many camps, there is more new business, at a certain moment these porta-latrines are going to get full....

(10) and another familiar sight, for those who have been here before: this is how a traffic jam is created.

(11) a Fresco cart, I have a special relationship with them, I just love them: shaven ice with syrup, a poor man's ice cream, but how much nicer street view that an Italian ice cream parlor (not that I have tried this, mind you, my courage is limited).

(12) and then the kids: Haitian kids are the cutest in the world!

(13) a suitable message to finish, as part of the standard Haitian transport system.

Monday, July 5, 2010

the report

After every emergency - humanitarian speak for disaster - there will invariably be the look-back reports, one month on, two months on, three months on, one year on etc. We are busily preparing the six months on, at the moment, collecting facts, photos, case studies, to inform the public and especially the donors about what has happened with their generous gifts. Each and every organisation does its own report, of course, but all will tell very much the same story.

Start with the successes, of course, and there are plenty (at the urging of my wife, I add photos in between, instead of all the way at the end, so keep reading...). Shelter materials like plastic sheeting and other goods have been distributed, probably to almost all who needed them, and quite likely to a few more who didn't. The spontaneous camps have been provided with latrines, drinking water, garbage disposal; it is amazing that there have not been any serious outbreaks of epidemics, given the squalid living conditions in the camps, and the mud, the stagnant water. Health services in the earthquake affected areas have never been better, with the many new temporary clinics and hospitals that have been set up by NGOs. They provide free primary medical care, as well as nutrition support for the severely and acutely malnourished, breastfeeding support for lactating mothers and prenatal care for pregnant women, services that were not common in Haiti before. They also somewhat undermine the pre-existing system, however dysfunctional, of user fees for public health provisions (and of exorbitant demands for fees from often very poor quality private health care). Schools are operating again, mostly out of tents, but a start has been made with building transitional schools. Yet not all children benefit. In Leogane Save the Children works with around 100 schools, which before the earthquake served some 30,000 pupils; last week, we had perhaps 14,000 of them back in the class rooms. Every week it gets a little better, but we are still far away from pre-earthquake enrollment rates. I don't know exactly why, some children died, obviously, others may have moved away. I fear that many simply have no money to attend the schools, many of which are private institutions. Those who are not back in school yet, will fail this year, despite the adjusted curriculum, and the extension of the school year to August, to make up for lost time after the quake.
(1) a school yard, cleared from rubble, is being used as transitional school with tents as classrooms, and tarpaulins if there are not enough tents. In fact, many prefer the tarpaulins because the tents tend to become very hot.

(2, 3) two stages of the construction of a transitional school in Leogane. Once the walls, initially with plastic sheeting, are completed, the structure is what we call semi-permanent, and the school can at a later date improve the building themselves, by adding plywood. Big, concrete two story schools are not very popular, so shortly after the earthquake - they were the ones that did most damage to life.

So the economy is perhaps not as booming as I sometimes think it is? Yet everywhere around me small and micro-enterprise activity seems to be mushrooming, markets are busy as ever, camps are teeming with business. Cash-for-Work, I have said it before, provides a steady income for many, at least for a while. The thousands of new and old NGOs offer employment to so many others. Previously non-existent business sectors, like demolition, have taken off, and construction is not far behind. The large amount of money flowing into the country must have a positive economic effect. Having said so, inflation is becoming part of life - no accurate figures are available, but food prices are probably 25-40% higher than before the earthquake.
(4, 5, 6) a new business sector, demolisseurs de maison - house demolishers - has established itself, including advertising. It is extremely tedious work, taking down a house to make space for a new one, or for a transitional shelter; knocking out the concrete to salvage the metal; dump the rubble on the street for future collection.

I have commented earlier on the ever-present rubble; yet, visual progress is being made for the alert observer, the mountains of rubble in the streets change, which means that old rubble is being replaced by new - which is good. Demolition is in progress, and some high profile sites as well as many individual plots have been cleared.

(7, 8) just one illustration of progress in rubble clearing: remember the Palace de Justice, which I showed you in one of my very early contributions (top photo)? Four months later - in fact, this was already the situation one month later, but I took the picture last week, same spot - there is nothing left on the site. Similar progress is being made with other ministries, churches, and even the presidential palace.
It is estimated that some 188,000 houses have been destroyed or badly damaged. Detailed building assessments are in progress, and so far about half of the remaining houses visited by the teams are deemed to be structurally sound, and can be inhabited without danger of imminent collapse at a further aftershock. But there are still some 1.5 mln people living in the camps - or plus or minus a couple of hundred thousand, whatever the real number is. The plan is to build 125,000 transitional shelters by Summer 2011; so far around 3000 have been completed. Poor performance? Six months after the 2004 tsunami only 700 had been constructed in Aceh, so everything is relative.

Yet there is a strong sense that progress with clearing the camps is stalling. I have written before about the safer shelter strategy, and the attempts to get people back into their houses, or in proximity sites in their own neighbourhoods, and both haven't been successful yet. Neither has the plan to encourage people to stay with host families: there are very few ideas on how to make this work, how to incentivize host families without risking immediate eviction after the incentive has been received - not an unthinkable process in Haiti. For the last six weeks or so, the humanitarian community has been working on a settlement strategy which incorporates much more than moving from the camps, and tries to address issues like land tenure, what to do with renters who lost their homes, how to handle IDPs on private land (and the question of compensating land owners rather than evicting IDPs). Unfortunately, one needs government buy-in for such a strategy; instead of working together with international agencies, the government has now, through the president himself, hijacked the settlement strategy, taken the further development of it in their own hands, and use it for political ends. Thus we now have the Presidential Commission for Resettlement. Their sole objective, for the moment, is to empty the large IDP camp on Champ de Mars in the town centre, highly visible opposite the presidential palace, and relocate the people to a place called Fort National, in one of the dodgier parts of town - a recipe for creating the next slum, the next gang breeding place. This process has now taken well over a month, and there is still very little visible progress in Champ de Mars, and neither is there in any of the other, totally neglected, 1199 camp sites across Port-au-Prince. And we are not even talking about Leogane, Petit Goave or Jacmel yet, equally hard-hit areas or worse, although because these places are smaller and lower profile, there is actually more being achieved here than in the capital.

Everybody expects a lot from these six months on reports. And there is plenty to report on, that is no problem. But however important it is to highlight what has been achieved, I think it is in fact more critical to highlight what an enormous task there is still ahead. And that this can go two ways, we either work all together as hard as we can to make this a success, and then we may, just, succeed in creating a better Haiti, in the long run. Or we keep on frustrating each other, between the government, UN agencies and Haitian and International NGOs, which may create some short-term political gain, but will ultimately wither away some 9.9 bln US$ in donor funds with little to show for in the end. Let's watch whether we see any of this back in any of the six months on reports.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

the worldcup (2)

Just when the atmosphere around the Worldcup started to approach what it had been eight years ago (and probably four years ago, too), with more and more serious expressions of support in the streets, more and more cars decorated in green and yellow or blue and white, more and more people wearing their favourite's colours on match days, just when expectations were raised and a final between Brazil and Argentina appeared to become a possibility, the country was hit by another tragedy. Brazil lost in the quarter finals!

Two casualties have already been reported, a suicide and a heart attack.

A third casualty was narrowly avoided. I was watching the match in our beach resort yesterday, surrounded by around 40 or 50 others, mostly Haitians, all loudly cheering for Brazil, of course. For the first time during the Worldcup, I couldn't hear the commentators, neither the omnipresent vuvuzela horns. When the first goal was scored, for Brazil, the noise was deafening, everybody jumped up and celebrated. When the second goal was scored, for The Netherlands, I jumped up, to look around, and to find out that I was the only one..... No deafening cheering, in fact, total silence, angry looks. By the time Holland scored another goal they had grudgingly accepted that, because I was Dutch, I had the right to cheer for Holland, but I still thought it prudent to be somewhat less expressive, shall we say. In the end, they let me live, but the loss of Brazil obviously does have a disproportional effect on the Haitian psyche. The country is in mourning.

And today Argentina was also eliminated from the tournament. Not as traumatic as the Brazilian exit, but the Worldcup is well and truly over for Haiti.

(1, 2) a Fresco cart or a fancy 4-wheel drive, it doesn't matter, it has been re-painted "Brazilian" - for how long?

(3, 4) I told you about the plastic bottles, the latest decoration craze. Here a rather explosive expression of support, in Delmas, a major traffic artery

(5) even the division between the lanes on Delmas have been painted green and yellow, although after a few weeks Worldcup, they have faded somewhat - no doubt they will fade further in the days to come, to erase all memory of a failed football year.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

the beach

One of the pillars of the Haitian Government's Reconstruction Plan is to develop tourism, the obvious choice for a Caribbean island when it comes to creating jobs and generating revenue in foreign currency. All the others did it already.

To say that I went to the beach today to test the reality of this concept would be pushing it, we just came here to relax, but I cannot help thinking about this - and judge my experience against the tourism ambition.

Of course, there are formidable hurdles to overcome. Haiti does not have a great reputation as holiday destination. There are the security issues - many foreign governments give a negative travel advice; reports that four Americans in three separate incidents have been shot and killed recently during robberies whilst traveling into town shortly after having arrived at the international airport - ie clearly targeted travelers - don't help. There are the logistics: the beach hotels, for instance, are along the Cote de Arcadien well north of Port-au-Prince, but how on earth are you going to get there, without reliable transport. And there are the infrastructure challenges. It took us two hours today - an absolute world record - to reach the coastal strip where the hotels are, but usually it takes much longer, negotiating the traffic jams of Croix-des-Bouquet and Croix-des-Mission, and then on a dusty, potholed road populated by kamikaze drivers and killer trucks.

Anyhow, all of this is external, and as hotel owner you must hope that the government, as part of its ambition, will sort these problems out. What you, as hotel owner, can do is ensure that once the guest has arrived, he enters paradise. Right! We have booked ourselves in Club Indigo, the absolute top-end on the Cote de Arcadien, and by extension Haiti. This used to be Club Med, successful in the 1970s and 80s in Haiti, when Baby Doc ran a tourist- friendly, and everybody-else-unfriendly, regime. It recently opened again, but Club Med it isn't. Check-in - we were the only ones - took well over 15 minutes. Once inside, in our rather spartan-looking very small room, still with the bed lamps from the 70s, we quickly changed and got to the beach. Deck chairs were all chained up, and it took a while before we could interest somebody to unlock the chains and give us some. Towels are not provided. A drink? A vague pointing towards the bar, on the other end, and when I asked if they could go and get it for me, I got a blank stare, from all three waiters who were all not doing anything. Breakfast with artificial orange juice in plastic cups. Mind you, as I said above this is top-end, and for sure we are paying top-end money here.

I suppose at the moment, with so many UN and humanitarian workers in the country, who have little else to do than work and go to the beach on a Saturday or Sunday, Club Indigo and the others make good money, and get away with substandard accommodation and service. But there is no sign of all these earnings being invested in improving the place - finding some modern bed lamps, for instance -, or training the staff and explain customer focus to them. And at a certain stage the aid workers will be leaving again: the choice now is between having made a quick buck, or having established a viable beach hotel. Looks like the buck is going to win.

Is there hope? Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic, same beaches, same warm sea, same coral reefs. Different people, though. I just don't think the tourism thing is going to fly. Haitians are hospitable, don't get me wrong, but then they choose themselves who they serve. Doing something extra for a stranger, just because it is your job, that doesn't feature in the culture; being client oriented, that is totally alien. Perhaps something to do with misplaced pride related to having thrown off the slave yoke more than 200 years ago? I don't know, but it doesn't help. It remains a fabulous country, with absolutely wonderful people, but if you are a tourist you are getting much better value for money elsewhere. Just across the border, in fact. Same beaches, same sea, same coral. And I don't see that changing anytime soon.

(1, 2, 3) Nice enough beach, nice enough pool, nice enough palm trees, nice enough company, but altogether, I prefer to take my company somewhere else, next time (not necessarily the DR, though, think Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands, Bahamas - plenty competition)

(4) sorry, who was complaining about the tourism in Haiti, again?

Monday, June 28, 2010

the road

I have been very serious, the last week, and I didn't post many pictures, so let me change tack a bit, and share one of my funnier photos of the last few weeks. If you remember I have been talking in an earlier contribution about concerns regarding the road to Jacmel, which goes through the mountains, and has in places been badly damaged by the earthquake. The big issue was whether slices of the road would go, and even if not, whether we could keep the road open throughout the rainy season, as many expected landslides from the weakened hills - and that would effectively cut off Jacmel from the rest of the country (remember my adventure getting to Jacmel via an alternative road? Well, trucks wouldn't be able to do that, I think, given some of the rivers we crossed must have swollen beyond recognition by now).

So I collected some pictures of the damage - the worst part, which I am happy to say has not yet collapsed -, and some pictures of the efforts to clear the road. With so much UN equipment in the country the road in fact has been open all the time, although it has been hard work. Whether the individual Cash-for-Work crews have contributed much, is the question, but then, the strange thing with CfW is that it does not necessarily need to achieve something other than putting money in people's pockets. So they can buy food, replace lost assets, and stimulate the economy again. In any case wheel barrows cannot compete with heavy equipment, of course. But telling it is. Remember the need for Haitian leadership?

(1) this is the worst piece of damage, which still may slide away one day, but so far it has been holding up. Not that anybody would test the left lane!

(2) and this is from the early days, March or April, when big boulders were still blocking the road. These have now been removed.

(3, 4) heavy equipment helps, of course, and there was plenty available from the UN, and earlier from the Canadian and American armies (who have all but left in the mean time)

(5) so we announce the next stage in road clearing, beware of wheel barrows! Isn't it brilliant, the creativity of Haitians?
(6) and sure enough, there they are, a Cash-for-Work crew with wheel barrows - but the idea of the second man putting something in them, that hasn't caught on yet!

(7, 8, 9) Really, I didn't do it on purpose, but I jut never saw a CfW crew that was working full steam ahead. On the top photo (7) you can just make out one guy in the distance with a pick axe, and another guy pushing a wheel barrow in the front, but everybody else is looking at what others are doing. And that is pretty much the impression I have from all CfW crews (but it doesn't matter, as I explained above - really).