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).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

the money

We have all seen the appeals for Haiti, five months ago, and we have all been impressed by the generosity of individual people giving whatever they could spare. The national action in The Netherlands generated more than 60 mln Euros, and with a government match of 41 mln, that brings the contribution of a small European country to well over 100 mln Euros, say 125-130 mln US$. Other countries have similar tales, and then you have the institutional donors, the European Union, the Worldbank, USAID, and many individual governments that have pledged to contribute to the rehabilitation of Haiti. All of these people came together end March, and the collective total promised was 9.9 billion US$.

Let's put this into perspective. Haiti's GDP was 7 bln US$ (2008, latest figure available). With a little under 10 mln or so inhabitants, that is 716 US$/person. So the average Haitian earns 716 US$ per year. The aid pledged is 130% of the country's GDP. Let's say 1000 US$ per person. I wonder what individual Haitians would say if we offered them the choice of 1000 dollars each, ie more than an average annual salary each, or 3000 NGOs helping them rebuilding their country.

Of course it doesn't work that way, we all know that. Collectively, aid money goes further and achieves more than if spread thinly - that is true, by the way. Aid money has to be well spent, responsibly, transparently - and we also want Haitian government leadership, it should not be the foreigners deciding. So the international community created what has become known as an MDTF, a multi-donor trust fund, which pools international funding for the reconstruction. And they have also created a committee that oversees this fund, with both international and Haitian representatives (initially 9 internationals and 8 Haitians, but after a public outcry the score is now 9-9). This committee, created for 18 months, is to decide what the fund can spend its money on. Nobody knows what will happen after 18 months. At the same time, a steering committee has been created, for the same fund, with different members (you qualify if you have contributed at least 30 mln US$ - actually contributed, not just promised -, and guess what, Brazil is the only member so far). Why two committees who do almost the same? On one, Venezuela is represented, and hey, it would be unacceptable to the US to have Venezuela have a say over spending of US money. Hadn't we just agreed that collectivity was the best way forward? And that this needed to be Haitian led? Right.

In any case, the MDTF, recently renamed the Haitian Reconstruction Fund, is only going to receive a fraction of the 9.9 bln, perhaps 5-10% of it. And it is no yet clear what share is going to be spend on long term rehabilitation projects, and what on direct budget support, to allow the government to operate, pay civil servants, essentially. Anybody can apply to the fund for money, for projects doing infrastructure, social services, clean-up, job creation, as long as it is aligned with the overall Haitian Reconstruction Plan, as long as you do so through a 'partner', either the Worldbank, the Inter American Development Bank, or UNDP. The fund is set up to ensure rapid disbursement - there is a five day turn-around promised once a project has been submitted for funding -, but since you can only apply through one of those partners, all organisations not known, shall we say, for their ability to approve anything rapidly, it may still take a while before you see your money. This is probably why the mandate of the fund is until December 2017. Most of the money is anyhow still going to be managed outside the fund, by NGOs, by individual government donor, who have no intention giving up their control over the money they have raised or promised. For good reasons, I would think.

Sometimes I think we should abandon the politics, just offer each Haitian a 1000 US$ and go home.

Friday, June 25, 2010

the insecurity

It has been raining a lot, lately, and life in the camps must be miserable right now, more miserable even than been before. But something else is happening, too, that makes camp life miserable. There are international standards that determine how much space each individual should have in an IDP camp, they are called the SPHERE standards. In Haiti, and especially in Port-au-Prince, we are nowhere near that standard, tents are side by side, without any room in between. Many camps are unlit. Bathing areas and latrines are separated for men and women, but they are next to each other. You can see where I am going with this: camp security, or rather, insecurity.

Where to start? Some of the camps have been used as refuge for criminals, including some of those who escaped from the Titanic, the high security prison in Port-au-Prince, the day of he earthquake. In an unprecedented action last week some 140 police officers, from the PNH (Police Nationale Haitienne, I don't have to translate that) and UNPOL, the UN Police Force that assists the PNH, have raided one of the camps near Cite Soleil and arrested no less than 30 ex-prisoners. Cite Soleil itself, the most crime-prone and gang-infested slum in town, is subject to gang violence, with rivaling gangs fighting for territory, and some of these fights spill over into camps. Crime, armed robbery or petty theft, occurs in the camps, fights break out, and rape is all to common, opportunity driven, no doubt.

With well over 1200 camp sites, large and small, in Port-au-Prince, not all have NGO camp management; many have their own camp committees, and sometimes separate security committees. In many cases this works very well, but invariably there are also abuses, camp committee members using their power over food distributions, for instance, to demand favours - all too often sexual favours. Some of these committees are infiltrated, and are not more than extensions of gangs operating in the neighbourhood. The committees, also the good ones, lack equipment, but given Haiti's history of militia violence, the humanitarian community is understandably reluctant to provide too much support - you wouldn't want to be associated with creating the next generation of Ton-Ton Macoutes, or the Chimaires of the Aristide era.

There is a program that brings police in the camps, joint patrols on foot of PNH and UNPOL, either on a continuous basis in some of the larger camps, or on-and-off in others. These patrols, if and when they happen, supposedly inside the camps, where officers can directly interact with IDPs, are well appreciated, and are creating a sense of security amongst camp residents. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work. Often the PNH is reluctant - afraid, perhaps? - to enter the camps, and prefer to stay at the perimeter only; UNPOL cannot independently patrol, they have to be with PNH staff, so they, too, stay out. At night, with so many tents close to each other, ropes crossing, and no lights, patrols can anyhow not enter the camps, and that is when they are in fact most needed.

Any hope? IDPs feel neglected, so much is certain. Frustration is high, and so is unemployment, and the temptation to revert to crime - not to mention rape - is there. Bored young men are easy targets for gang recruitment. More police may be a temporary solution, but the real need is jobs, to give people something to do, and houses, so that we can close the camps. Unfortunately, these are two of the most difficult, and time consuming commodities to provide. We may be in for a long wait, and for a seriously deteriorating situation before things get better.

(1) would you want to enter this gate when on patrol?

(2) or would you patrol in between these tents at night?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the worldcup

It was bound to come up: the Worldcup. We are talking about football, as in the game played with your foot, soccer thus.

I have been in Haiti before, during a Worldcup, so I was prepared. A country normally divided, between black and mulatto, between very poor and very rich, even between north and south, and certainly between government supporters and opposition, forgets all these differences for four weeks, and becomes divided... between supporting Brazil and Argentina. Slightly more than 50% of the population supports Brazil, slightly less that 50% Argentina, the rest doesn't really matter. Political demonstrations - we had quite a few in the past few weeks, invariably small and not gathering popular support, demanding for Preval to resign and Aristide to come back, and one group is even demonstrating to bring back Jean Claude Duvalier, better known in his time as Baby Doc -, political demonstrations have all but died down, and instead there was a demonstration, a real big one, and growing throughout, in front of EDH, Electricite d'Haiti, the local power company. To demand electricity during the Worldcup!

Haiti's own Worldcup fame is restricted to the 1974 tournament, when they - briefly - led against Italy, Emmanuel Sannon, Manno for his friends and fans, scoring against the legendary Dino Zoff (make no mistake, Manno is locally just as, if not more legendary, still, even though he died two years ago). They went on to loose 3-1, and their next two games, and exit, never to return again.

So they support somebody else, and what better then to choose a potential winner. The country changes beyond recognition. Flags appear on cars, and across the streets. The newest thing is plastic bottles, painted in the favourite's colours. Walls are decorated in either green and yellow or white and blue, football shirts and other merchandise becomes widely available, and finds plenty customers. Just a shirt won't do, you have to have a couple of flags and a headscarf, at least. During the matches it is markedly quieter in the streets - that's when we do our errands, now, much more time efficient. People are huddled around small television screens, in kiosks around the town, or in the camps - no large screens, like eight years ago. My earlier suggestion to put screens in the neighbourhoods, so that people would return to their houses, has not found much support, but putting screens in the camps would create yet another pull factor, so small scale TVs is the best we can hope for, this year around. Those who have no TV listen to the radio, which for 2 times 45 minutes produces a continuous stream of names of players who touch the ball, in Creole, occasionally interrupted by "Gooooooooaaaal", and more often by advertising messages, read out by the same reporters in the same monotonous voice. Enthusiasm knows no boundaries: yesterday after Brazil's narrow 2-1 win - against emerging football giant North Korea, of all contenders! - the celebrations went on until late at night (the matched finished mid afternoon, local time). Those included small arms fire, the use of semi-automatic guns for an uncomfortably long time, and the burning of I don't know what, probably - hopefully - rubbish and not cars. And this was only the first match of Brazil, nothing has been decided yet. But hey, it doesn't happen every year!

Still, the atmosphere, despite all the flags and all the shooting, is less abundant than eight years ago. People have other concerns, not just the Worldcup, they are preoccupied with the coming hurricane season, and their own feeble existence in camps. Perhaps that is a good thing, however much we all grant them the entertainment - more serious business is at hand for most.

(1) preparations are underway to create a Worldcup watch corner in Petionville, equally popular with Brazil and Argentina fans.
(2, 3) streets decorated with flags, large and small; another way of decorating is with painted plastic bottle, painted in blue and white or green and yellow, obviously, must have been an enormous task. I will try to get a picture of this, too.
(4) apologies for the poor quality photo, but you get the idea: shirt, headscarf and matching flags.
(5) and the merchandise, somehow shirts nr 10 are the most popular, whichever country
(6, 7) and huddled around a small television in the camps. By the way, the fact that the camps are mostly blue and white is unrelated to the football rivalry.... more to do with prevalent colour of plastic sheeting.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

the clearing

Somebody asked me the other day - not just somebody, it was the chair woman of the SHO, the collective representing the Dutch emergency response agencies - why the humanitarian community had not collaborated all together to clear the rubble. Let's all of us mobilise heavy equipment, and put our resources towards clearing, and in no time the city of Port-au-Prince will be spring-cleaned. After all, the presence of rubble hampers the recovery and rehabilitation efforts. Like, we cannot build schools, and houses, because the urban plots on which we need to build are still covered with rubble. The roads are clogged, because many people clearing their plot dump the rubble on the road. And, perhaps less obvious, continuing to have rubble all over the place will do little to relief the trauma that many still carry.

Well, firstly because the humanitarian community has organised itself in a cluster system, where everybody is represented and is asked to contribute to what they are best at. NGOs sign up with the cluster, or clusters, that best cover their activities. Save the Children is represented in the education cluster, the health cluster, the nutrition cluster and many others, with like-minded, or rather, similarly-focussed NGOs and UN agencies, to ensure there are no overlaps in what we do to provide relief, and there are no gaps. This works relatively well, certainly better than before, when this system was not in existence. There is also an early recovery cluster, and I imagine a rubble clearing workgroup is part of that. And that is where this effort should be concentrated - let's not all of us go and do te same thing. In any case, I would imagine that the people who gave money to Save the Children would expect that money to go, slightly more directly, to children's issues - like those who gave to Oxfam want it to go to what Oxfam stands for, etc.

Secondly, it is difficult, perhaps, to appreciate the enormous task ahead of us. One of those specialist agencies, UNDP, has estimated that it will take 1000 trucks per day, for three years, to clear all the rubble in Port-au-Prince. A nice round figure, but it gives you an idea what we are facing. We now do only 150 trucks a day. Only! I think that is still quite a lot, and is largely limited by the fact that there are not enough places available to dump the stuff. There are currently some eight sites approved, but there is a need for 15-20 more, in convenient locations; you don't want to drive all the way to the other side of town with a truck full of rubble.

Of course is doesn't help that, totally unprovoked, some unnecesarily add to the rubble: the mayor of Petionville, at the edge of Port-au-Prince, decided to clear the cemetery, the famous cemetery at the end of Route Delmas (for those who know the area) even though it was hardly affected by the tremor, in order to build a new bus station. Quite apart from sensitivities about dead bodies, so shortly after the earthquake, I am not sure whether this was really the highest priority, and as I said, it just adds to the rubble.

However, the most important reason to go slow, or slower than perhaps possible if we all go flat out, is that people need to clear their own rubble, step by step. Their possessions are under it, they want to salvage whatever possible. At one stage there was even the debate about the value of rubble, people didn't want to part with "their" rubble without being paid for it. Really! By now, it has been established, and mostly accepted, that the value is in fact limited. But in quite a few places, we expect that there are still a few bodies under the rubble, another reason to go slow - even though the recovery and rehabilitation efforts may suffer. Even though traffic in Port-au-Prince will be badly affected for quite some time to come, with people adding more and more rubble to the streets everyday. Even though people will be reminded of the earthquake, day after day - as if they ever would forget.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

the politics

Why is progress so slow in Haiti? I mean, after the earthquake, but in fact the question can also be interpreted in a general sense, like what happened in the past 200 years in this country; the answer is the same: politics.

The standard view is that the Haitian government, as so many other institutions in this country, lacks capacity, which means that there aren't enough sufficiently trained people to do the work. And up to a certain level this is the case, there is surprisingly little leadership stepping up after the earthquake, there is worryingly little creativity in the rehabilitation plans put forward by the government, and there are alarmingly few solutions being put forward for the many problems that the civil service is dealing with.

Yet, capacity can be built. It is not easy because you will have to convince the Haitians, a very proud people, that they need to accept outside help - guidance and coaching -, especially now that they have to cope with one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in living history. Many Haitians, at all levels, don't understand this; for instance, our own Haitian staff don't see why an international NGO wants to bring in specialist staff that have dealt with large and complex programs before, they think they are perfectly capable of running such program themselves - they aren't, or at last most of them aren't! Obviously, at government level there are even bigger egos to deal with. I heard that the Clinton Bush Foundation, specially set up for this emergency, had offered to bring in and pay for 300 specialists to come and work together with government officials in several ministries to help with the work, and to coach the ministry staff. This has now been negotiated down to 30! By the Haitian government, which doesn't think it necessary to be coached. The same government that presided over a totally dysfunctional society, a failed state, even before the earthquake. A state where the highest achievable success is deemed to be legal emigration to the US or Canada, and the second highest achievable success illegal emigration.

Or could it be that the Haitian government is not really interested in improving this state of affairs? The Haitian government? Who is the Haitian government? Since I arrived here I have been perplexed by the fact that the Haitian government, with elections looming, did not do the populist thing, and expropriated land close to Port-au-Prince quickly, to let the NGOs build better camps, more of the Corails, spacious and with adequate facilities, but then closer to town, to ensure people continue to keep access to urban livelihoods. Perhaps individually smaller camps, easier to manage, safer and less prone to gang dominance and violence. Instead, it took the government months and months to finally come up with one piece of land, far away - admittedly, coincidentally close to Cabaret, one of the identified decongestion spots, the poles de croissance I wrote about earlier, but not a popular decision. Apparently, keeping the landowners happy, likely belonging to the 5 or 10 or 20 or so rich families that have controlled Haiti for as long as anybody can remember, is more important than wooing the voters, and we don't want to upset them through expropriation, now, do we?

Perhaps it is these people behind the scene, those few rich families, who hold sway over the government, who manipulate what happens in this country. Perhaps they don't want that capacity to be built, because hey, it is easier to manipulate the uneducated. It is easier to exploit chaos. Maybe there is a vested interest in keeping customs inefficient; we have more than 20 cars stuck in customs, they arrived early March, three months ago, and have not been cleared and registered yet. In the mean time we are renting cars, and pay handsomely for it as long as we cannot use our own vehicles. And we are not the only ones. I wonder who owns the franchises of Hertz, Avis and Budget business here in this country, no, I think I know. The same people who wield all the power behind the scenes, the same people who block customs reform. Maybe there is a vested interest in frustrating the international humanitarian community, by procrastinating with the rebuilding of Haiti, by undermining the efficiency of collaboration mechanisms, by insisting on government approvals, by paralyzing the decision making processes through simply not turning up for meetings. Who knows, perhaps the humanitarian community will fail, and withdraw, leaving the spoils for, guess who?

What can we do about it? Of course we can walk away in disgust, but that is not going to help the vast majority of Haitians who would want a better country, and deserve it, but are powerless to get there without outside help. Instead, we need to keep international attention focused on Haiti, for as long as possible, so that the biggest excesses are being avoided; even the rich, even the Haitian rich can be embarrassed. And insist on joint Haitian/international oversight where it comes to distributing money, even though the proud Haitians will claim that they can do this perfectly well themselves. Right!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

the model camp

A little heavy on photos, this time, but you must see this.

Corail is the relocation camp about an hour's drive north of Port-au-Prince, close to the town of Cabaret. Attentive readers will remember that I have talked about this camp before - the ghost town -, it was created some six or seven weeks ago as an option of last resort for people who had to be relocated from some of the makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince, because they were in danger of flooding and mudslides once the rainy season would start.

Some 5,000 people are now living here; supposedly all have moved voluntarily. This means that for these people they either didn't have an other option, or the bribe was attractive enough, a small cash handout (approx. US$ 50), a new tent, a hygiene kit and the promise of free food for 'a while'. And living in a model camp! Well, camp-wise it is indeed a lot better than any of the camps in Port-au-Prince, spacious tents, with a lot of room in between - still set up in rows, though, whilst there are much better ways to lay out a tented camp, in circles for instance, creating small neighbourhoods that promote more of a community feeling, and better protection against rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Never mind, there is still a sense of space. And there are plentiful new latrines, sufficiently far enough from tents not to be a health hazard - or a smelly nuisance -, and plentiful water bladders, which are being filled by tankers every day. There is a clinic, a child-friendly space, and soon there will be a school, Ministry of Education-willing.

And for the rest there is nothing.

There is nothing to do. There is no transport to town, because there is no town, apart from smallish Cabaret, just down the road. There is no transport to Port-au-Prince, too far. There is no work, and even if these towns people would want to take up farming - which is unlikely, they wouldn't know what to do -, there is only semi-desert, no irrigation, nothing will grow. Total misery.

Total misery? True, the people in the camp have nowhere else to go, presumably their houses have been destroyed, or they may have been renters in the first place, now without money to pay the inflated rents if they can find one. But outside the well-organised, well-lit, well-managed and well-provided Camp Corail another camp has been established, a camp of makeshift tents, - by far not as nice as the Chinese-made cylindrical tents -, pitched on unstable slopes, with no facilities what-so-ever. Camp Obama, say some, in an attempt to beef up its importance, but otherwise referred to as the other camp, populated by anywhere between 5,000 and 8,500 squatters, hopefuls who reckon that sitting so close to the source of distributions, one day they may get in and benefit as well. One day they may belong to the lucky ones in Camp Corail. Really. Total misery indeed. If you have nothing, and you have nothing to loose, even Corail looks a great opportunity.

See for yourself.

(1) the road to Corail, if you look carefully you see the cactuses. This is semi-desert, just some scrub is growing here, but nothing else. Even the donkeys are unimpressed.

(2) and there it is! Coreil! Hurray, hurray. (3) Look at the size of the tents, and the space in between them, the broad avenue. You haven't seen anything like this yet, on the photos of other camps I showed you, no?

(4, 5) Obviously, people feel at home already, and start to distinguish their tents from others, even grow trees in anticipation of shade 20 years from now. They are here to stay, so much is clear!

(6) And Haiti would not be Haiti if somebody would not have started a shop, or some other business, there is a hairdresser (no, I didn't go), a beauty salon, restaurants; how they do it - and how they survive in business - I don't know.

(7, 8) My favourite business here, though, is the mobile phone charger, using a solar panel - plenty of energy there! It takes around 3 hours to recharge, but hey, look at the price, 5 Gourdes only, or 12,5 $ct (last time I wrote about this it was 15 Gourdes, in Port-au-Prince, remember?) .

(9, 10) And the water and sanitation facilities, brand-new and working well - although the first riots have been reported already because the NGO providing this service refuses to pay for latrine and water attendants, they think that should be a voluntary job.

(11, 12, 13) After so much grey camp pictures - never mind the trees - a bit of human touch, our child-friendly space, including some of the children, to add a bit of colour to this page.

(14, 15) and Camp Obama in the back, quite a contrast with the model camp, right? Apparently, the squatters come from villages in the neighbourhood, but also from Port-au-Prince and other towns, chasing the opportunity.