Friday, April 30, 2010

the bad day

I am writing this on a piece of paper.

It has been one of those days. The outlook was already not good. I had to sack somebody in Leogane, and give somebody else a warning letter, never a nice thing to do. Then I needed to continue to Jacmel to discuss various projects and demands to which I was almost certainly going to say no. How to make yourself really popular in one day.

We left really early from Port-au-Prince this morning, to avoid the rush hour. Yet, even before 7 am we were well and truly stuck in traffic in Martissart, one of the slum suburbs south of town. We thus arrived late in Leogane, where I conducted my unpleasant business - even more unpleasant because the warning letter was related to breaches of security measures to which I personally have some doubts about their needs. There was no coffee in Leogane.

On to Jacmel, where we also arrived late, but still unexpectedly early, as the local field director had misunderstood my email, a euphemism for not having read it well. Somewhere between Leogane and Jacmel my Blackberry packed up, or perhaps somebody just forgot to pay the bills: I cannot get it to work anymore.

The field visit was totally unprepared, none of the technical staff that could have made such visit interesting was notified, and thus they were unavailable - in fact, many have not been recruited yet. The project I wanted to question - cancel, really - had already advanced much more than I had expected, based of far more miscommunication - non-communication, rather - than I had ever thought possible.

When I finally got to the hotel it turned out that I would have the share the room - a closet in which one person could hardly breath - with a colleague; I just about didn't have to share the bed. In the end we did manage to find another room for him. I then had a shower, only to discover that there were no towels in the bathroom - after I had had the shower. The restaurant had a menu that listed well over 20 dishes, of which only three were available, all fried, and served by possibly the most un-Haitian Haitian waitress I have ever seen, throroughly unfriendly. That somebody can be so miserable! Back in my room, doing emails, I found that my computer battery was almost empty, and when I wanted to plug in the power cable, I discovered that the Ozana Hotel (really!) in Jacmel is probably one of the very few hotels in Haiti that uses, for no apparent reason, European sockets instead of the American type.

Which is why I am writing this on a piece of paper.

Monday, April 26, 2010

the apartment (2)

Things have changed somewhat, since I last wrote about my living conditions.

Firstly, my flatmates changed. Shortly after I wrote about my apartment, way back then, I got an American colleague to stay. At the same time, Save the Children was promoting a wellness program for its staff, from openly talking about your traumas to dealing with excessive workload and stress. From here it was just a small step to developing our personal wellness program, complete with copious quantities of wellness consumables. This was also the time that we were a male-only crowd, which became instantly visible in having the pans on the table, instead of proper serving dishes. Men are just so much more pragmatic. Luckily, we then had, for a brief spell, a female colleague, whose main contribution, in terms of wellness, was the reintroduction of avocados, and guacamole. An excellent combination with some of the other wellness consumables, it must be said. Then, with further staff changes, our security adviser came to live in the apartment, a friendly fellow from Lebanon. The wellness program was immediately dropped, and replaced by a daily survival package, incidentally with a conspicuously similar contents in terms of consumables. I wonder who is next. (We also have, temporarily, another colleague at the house, but he is a bit of a hermit, locks himself in his room for most of the time).

Another change is that Legrand, our domestic cleaning helper, has left. I never understood why he had to clean under the breakfast table every day whilst we were having breakfast, as in theory he had the whole rest of the day to do so, no? Right! He has been shipped off to another house we opened, which created a place for Fleurissant, the guy who used to work for us 10 years ago, and who I found back by accident. The world is small, indeed. Not Fleurissant, he has grown a lot fatter, but for the rest he hasn't changed much, he came 20 minutes late on his first day of work, and is just as lazy as he always was. At least he doesn't clean under the breakfast table whilst we are having breakfast. But he is good fun, an he deserves another chance. On the positive side, after I told him off on his first day, he has been showing up in time every day since, a full three days in a row.

The only one who has returned after having been away for a while is our four-footed, long-tailed, sharp-snouted grey-coated friend the rat. Or maybe he never left, just kept a low profile for a while. If I ever under-estimated a rat's intelligence, I apologise. This one is just unbelievable. Never mind that he eats half a mango, and a quarter avocado (there goes another good guacamole). Last night he managed to pull two Snicker bars and a Kitkat to his hiding place, which we found out is behind the stove. Seriously! My flatmate had bought them, that afternoon, and the next morning the were missing. Did I eat them? No. The hermit? No chance, he would have had to leave his kingdom. And sure enough, we found a little paper trace next to the stove, and after pulling the stove out, there they were, half opened, half eaten. In the mean time all the traps we have set remain untouched, apart from the food that we have strategically placed inside the trap, which has miraculously disappeared. I don't question a rat's intelligence anymore.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

the schools

All the time there was something missing in the streets of Port-au-Prince, but I didn't know what. Now I remember. The schools have opened for the first time since the earthquake, and in the mornings the streets are filled, once again, with children, in colourful school uniforms, carrying their books in backpacks - the smallest kids seem to have the biggest packs.

Initially, the government had decreed that schools had to open by the 1st of March, but this proved unrealistic. One of the biggest problems was that children didn't want to get back into the buildings, even if they were deemed safe: fear is a powerful driver. Then the date was postponed to 5 April, immediately after Easter, and even if not all schools made this deadline, two weeks later most have opened. And it is noticeable, and not only because of the children in the streets. Morning traffic jam has returned with a vengeance, as parents will still bring their kids to school in the car if they can - I think it is actually something of a status symbol. Did anybody mention fuel shortage, recently?

But what does it mean, "schools have opened"? Many schools, especially the bigger ones, have collapsed, so somehow we need to create alternative learning space. In some places we have installed tarpaulins, in others we have set up school tents - we call them emergency schools, they are not going to last long with heavy rains and hurricanes coming, but it is a start. We are contemplating temporary schools, wooden or metal structures with plastic sheeting as roof and walls, or perhaps we should move straight away to transitional schools, similar structures but with more durable walls and roofs. The main considerations are time - if we go directly to transitional schools, children will need to stay longer in the emergency tents - and costs, obviously taking out the temporary schools phase saves money. And then there are the schools that have no room, especially urban schools suffer from this inconvenience: there is only limited space available, and if we want to replace, say, the emergency tent with a more durable structure, we need to pull down the tent first, ie interrupt classes for a while - and children have already missed so much school in the past three months. Not easy!

A minor issue I have not yet mentioned is that 80% of the schools in Haiti are private schools, not like the top level schools you have in some countries, hugely expensive but better than the government schools, no, these are mostly very basic for-profit institutions that spring up in places - and there are many - where there are no government schools, and can thus charge hefty fees without providing the quality. Supporting the rebuilding of those schools may serve children's interest, but will mostly serve the school director's interest. Not easy! We would mostly try to negotiate with the school that they forfeit school fees for a while, in return for our support, but who is then going to pay the teachers? Not easy! Yet, you cannot NOT work with them, because you would disadvantage so many children, who after all are not to blame. Not easy!

And all of this is not helped by some of the attitudes we experience in schools. Last week one of our staff members was threatened by some of the school directors that have not been included in our program, after all, we can only do so much (and only if you agree to our not unreasonable, and fairly generous terms). The director of the school where this happened then stepped in and talked the others out of the school again, only to demand a fee for his protection services afterwards. A fee as in 'if you don't pay up, I don't let you go'. In another school one of our staff members was asked to pay for the salaries of four security people, brought in specially to protect her during the visit to the school. Not that we had asked for the protection, this was at the initiative of the school director, but paying she did, in the end. All very unpleasant, and obviously jeopardizing our ability to work. And in the long term, jeopardizing children's opportunities to attend school.

But, for the time being, children are back in school, some form of school, and the streets of Port-au-Prince have returned to normal, again. I suppose any of the above challenges are considered normal, too.

(1) for the moment we do emergency schools, in tents, or (2) under tarpaulins. I know he pictures are rather disappointing, given the subject - very photogenic in Haiti; I'll try to improve on this. Check out the extra pictures under "the fuel shortage".

Sunday, April 18, 2010

the criminals

Much has been made of the fact that the main prison in Port-au-Prince collapsed after the earthquake, which allowed more than 4500 prisoners to escape. My first reaction at the time was that there were in fact far more criminals outside the prisons in Haiti than that there were inside, but I may have to adjust this somewhat. It does appear that in 2006 and 2007, at the height of the kidnapping wave, a joint effort of the Haitian Police and MINUSTAH, the UN stabilisation force here, was very successful in rounding up many of the gang leaders and putting them behind bars. Apparently, Brazilian MINUSTAH troops fought an urban battle in Cite Soleil, from street corner to street corner, and gradually took control of this neighbourhood, Haiti's most famous slum.

So the prison population did include the worst criminals. And they did escape, even though the prison - locally known as the Titanic - doesn't seem to be that badly damaged (see photo). In fact, there is a lot of suspicion about the mass escape, as it appears that the inner walls, those that immediately surrounded the blocks of cells, have held up pretty well. Guards may have panicked, leaving their weapons behind, but that still doesn't open the doors: it may well be that some guards actually helped the prisoners escape.

Whatever happened, the heavy criminals are outside again, and not many have been recaptured. One of the problems is that all the prison records have been destroyed after the earthquake, including photos of the criminals - just as strange as the escape: if most of the prison held up so well, why would the records have been destroyed? There was no fire, no cupboards or computers crumbling under collapsing walls, like what happened in some of the ministries. In any case, criminals are re-establishing themselves again, re-taking their territories - not always peacefully, as increasing number of gun battles in the slums seem to testify, after all a gangleader position doesn't stay vacant for long (unlike some of the positions in our office, strangely enough). There is also a noticeable increase in crime, although I am not sure whether the explanation often used in newspapers and magazines writing about Haiti, simply blaming this on the great escape, is correct. The upturn in kidnappings is indeed likely to be the result of gangsters taking up their old trade again, armed robbery and car jacking too. Yet, the increase in petty theft is probably more related to the fact that people have a far more difficult time to make ends meet after the earthquake than before. And the high incidence of rape, once again blamed on all these escaped gangsters, is perhaps more to do with something that has been rampant in Haiti society from long before the earthquake: lack of respect for women, and for young girls, and plenty of sexual opportunism, currently enhanced by the fact that so many people live close to each other in densly populated and poorly-lit camps where many are strangers. Another reason to work on strategies to empty these camps as soon as we can.

(photo) this is it, the Titanic, by far not as badly damaged as its more famous namesake!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

the fuel shortage

It was bound to happen, one day - in fact I remember this from the past, when it happened when the Haitian government didn't have money to pay the bills. The country is running out of fuel. Several sources report different reasons, from an incident in Antigua that has delayed a fuel tanker, to unspecified " internal developments in Venezuela", Venezuela heavily subsidizing Haiti's cheap petroleum imports. But the bottom line is that many fuel stations have run dry, and others that still have some supplies have started to ration fuel distribution. Result 1: less traffic, occasionally we wheeze to the office, or back home, without the usual "blockus" at the ever-present rush hour. Result 2: long lines in front of the service stations, causing total "blockus" of some streets in Petionville, not having been designed for long lines in front of service stations. It is kind of ironic that less fuel still manages to cause a traffic jam.

But the real gem occurred this afternoon, when a water truck, one of these real heavy ones that you don't just push aside, broke down in front of our office gate. Broke down? Not exactly, it actually ran out of fuel! And in the process, it blocked our office gate, preventing any movement in or out of our compound. Unfortunately, I had to leave for a meeting outside. No problem, of course, because we have just as many cars that cannot get into the compound as that cannot leave, so just take one of the cars that are outside. Except that all of those had also almost ran out of fuel.

Perhaps it is this type of incidents that could demonstrate to the world why it is in fact very difficult to quickly deliver the necessary help to earthquake victims in Haiti. We, the humanitarian community, are sometimes being criticised for the slow progress of aid delivery, for the fact that, with the rainy season upon us, there are still people in camps that have not received shelter materials. In the mean time, we need to deal with the specific challenges of Haiti, this fuel shortage just being one minor one, but oh so illustrative!

The government has promised that the next ship will arrive coming Sunday, and that within a few days more there will be plenty of fuel available again. So, no need to stock up then, everything will be OK in no time. Except that the Haitians themselves don't believe it, and line the streets in front of the few service stations still selling fuel....

(photos) lining up in front of the service station, or for those less lucky, just bringing your jerrycan on the back of a bicycle.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

the R&R

I know, all these acronyms! R&R stands for Rest and Recuperation, is a short holiday for those who have been working 6-7 days a week, long hours, and under difficult circumstances. Typically something you give your employees who work in a post-disaster environment, to avoid burn-out.

Our rules at present are a week of R&R within every six weeks period, but so far I had seen no opportunity to slip away. However, with management redundancy on the ground in Haiti - we are changing Country Directors and just to make sure, several interim CDs have been mobilised, to the extent that we probably make the Guinness Book of Records for having the most Country Directors in the shortest possible time frame, no less than four in an eight day period! - anyhow, with so many managers, and with a long weekend over Easter - in Haiti Thursday and Friday are the days off - I thought nobody would miss me. And having a ten-day window would make a trip home worthwhile.

So off I went, to The Netherlands, via Santo Domingo, Philadelphia and Frankfurt. With no tourists flying in and out of Haiti, only people who don't pay for their own tickets, it is in fact more economical to fly via the Dominican Republic. Incredibly, it is also more economical to then fly via the US to Europe, rather then direct, because the numerous charter flights depart only from the resort areas in the east of the island, not from Santo Domingo.

But the one drawback is that I had to fly via the US, probably the least welcoming country on earth for visitors. Nowadays you have to obtain an ESTA, which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, if you haven't got that you cannot even check in for your US-bound flight. Getting an ESTA goes pretty quickly, online, but you do have to answer questions like have you ever been involved, or are still involved, in espionage, sabotage or terrorism, or were you ever associated with genocide, or Nazi Germany. I wonder if anybody ever ticks 'yes' in any of those boxes. But that is not all. Before actually entering the country, you have to fill in your visa waiver form once again - just in case you joined a terrorist group in the last few days -, and also a customs form. What a waste of paperwork, I cannot believe anybody ever looks at those documents again (and if they do, I know a easy way to reduce the American budget deficit). Mind you, I consider myself lucky: those who do need a visa have far more strenuous procedures to go through, long before they even book their tickets! I could still live with the paperwork, but what strikes me most is the utterly unfriendly attitude of American customs officials, or security staff, for that matter. I wonder if this does not reflect the true nature of the American. Every waiter or shop assistant is always nice and smiling, after all, they need something from you, a tip, a purchase, but an American in uniform is universally miserable: you need something from them, and by letting you into their country they are doing you a favour, let there be no misunderstanding!

Anyhow, I managed to get into the US, and leave two hours later again - a holding pen for transit passengers? Nah, why bother making life easy? -, and I enjoyed almost eight full days at home. Highlights, apart from seeing my wife again, and seeing friends? Every day a power shower. A week without rice and beans (we did have some chicken, though). Long walks in the forest, probably seeing more trees than there are left in entire Haiti. A round of golf, on a course much easier than the Petionville Club. And doing all the things that I normally don't have time for anymore, even although I did only half of what I wanted to do, and spent only half the time I planned doing them, and saw only half the people I wanted to see. This back-to-a-full-time-job business seriously compromises my remaining ambitions in life, so much is clear.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

the trip (2)

The road from Leogane to Jacmel is badly damaged in several places. Now was this road never very good, as it runs through the hills and is subject to frequent landslides, but after the earthquake large cracks have opened in the tarmac. Canadian army engineers that have surveyed the road fear that, once the rainy season gets underway, the road may actually disappear in one or two places, isolating Jacmel from the rest of the country. Other road options are simply not serious options, they are - and always have been - in an even worse state than the main road. Let's just hope that the rains are not going to be too bad, this year.

At present it takes about two hours to reach Jacmel. The road winds its way up, with pretty views over the plains back to Leogane, then drops down on the other side of the mountains with a spectacular view of the southern coast. The town seems to be less affected than either Leogane or Port-au-Prince. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that many of the grand old houses - already in a state of disrepair ten years ago - will probably have to be pulled down, and many of the smaller houses are badly cracked, too. Once again many people live in tents in the streets, outside their houses. And once again the local stadium provides additional space for provisional shelters, although the camp population here is a lot less, perhaps 8,000 people. To make things more difficult, there seems to be some international rivalry going on in the camp, with factions favouring the Americans, others favouring the Canadians, and a large following for the Venezuelans, who have come out in a big way here (see the flag in the photo below). A distribution of cooked food was being organised, this time by the WFP, the World Food Program, targeted at children. Why on earth someone would go through the trouble of cooking food is incomprehensible to me, just distribute it and let the people decide for themselves what they want to do with it. But it makes for photogenic scenes. As for the rest of the camp, just imagine what this is going to look like on a rainy day.

Our activities in Jacmel are very similar to those we do elsewhere, with clinics, transitional schools and child-friendly spaces. One especially close to my heart is restoring markets, specifically rebuilding market stalls in a food court on the beach, so that this can start operating again in the next few weeks. Jacmel is famous for its fresh fish and lobster, but it needs to be prepared and served somewhere to be enjoyed, no? Another important activity is supporting the farmers in the days running up to the rainy season, making sure they have access to seeds so that agriculture and food production does not suffer in the aftermath.
I've got quite a lot of pictures, today.

(1) large cracks have appeared in the road surface

(2) this truck illustrates the criticality of the road link to Jacmel, as well as a lot of other things, like the reality of trade in Haiti, the reality of intercity transport, and the ingenuity of transporters.

(3) The Jacmelians have identified an alternative way of drains clearance, although I am not sure how well these pigs handle the multitude of plastic bottles.

(4, 5, 6) The tent city of Jacmel is situated in the stadium, complete with big army tents (as opposed to plastic sheeting in most other camps), a Venezuelan flag, and all the daily business of people, from laundry to market stalls.

(7, 8, 9) Distribution of cooked food to children - who also need to be guarded by UN troops; just look at the logistics of camp cooking!

(10) And the showers in the Jacmel stadium, for boys and girls - another exercise in Haitian Creole (think French aloud)

Monday, April 5, 2010

the trip (1)

With so much of the attention post-earthquake going to Port-au-Prince one would almost forget that the epicentre was actually some 35 km south, near a place called Leogane, and that a much larger area, stretching all the way to Jacmel at the South coast, has been affected. Early on in the planning - even before I arrived - we had decided to include these two towns and their surroundings in our operations, as well, and thus it was about time for me to visit Leogane and Jacmel and see for myself the challenges here. I knew Jacmel well, from ten years ago, when the organisation I worked for then had a large program in the South East, which was serviced from this charming little old town.

It takes about 1.5 hours to get to Leogane, most of that time is spent getting out of Port-au-Prince. I though Port-au-Prince had been badly affected, but driving south, from Gressier onwards (about halfway in distance) there is almost no single house standing along the road anymore. It is absolutely devastating, comparable to the tsunami damage. In Leogane itself it is estimated that some 85% of the buildings have been destroyed, most of them totally collapsed. Almost everybody lives in camps, or under plastic sheeting close to their plots, even in tents on top of the rubble. Here too, the centre of town has been turned into a tent city. Because it is so much smaller than Port-au-Prince, and much more rural, the situation is however much more overseeable. Fewer agencies work here, so it is easier for us to integrate our work, have mobile clinics and water and sanitation activities in the same area as where we have our child-friendly spaces and our temporary schools.

I don't think I have explained the child-friendly spaces yet, or espas-timoun in Creole (space for little people, as children are called - try saying it aloud with a French accent). These are areas, mostly tents in the camps, where parents can leave their children, a place where they don't have to worry about the children's safety, where children are, depending on their age, kept busy with the appropriate games or learning activities. Also, a place where children can deal with their traumas - although we haven't really developed that aspect very well yet. In the mean time parents can get on with their work, with what has to be done, and that is usually a lot after a disaster. Good concept. Particularly interesting is the centre that has been set up inside the football stadium in Leogane, where the seats from the sky-boxes (well, sort of) have been ripped out to serve as chairs for the children!

Tomorrow more about Jacmel.

(1) Leogane is totally destroyed, although I am not sure whether the damage to the local undertaker's equipment is earthquake-related.

(2) At least the marie - the townhall - is still standing, but whether it still can be used is another question.

(3) the open square in the Leogane town center has turned into tent city.

(4) espas-timoun in a camp outside Leogane, next to a water point, and (5) stadium seats being used in the espas-timoun in the camp in the local stadium.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

the ghost town

There are 1.16 mln people living in the spontaneous camps that sprung up around Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, according to the latest registration figures from the UN agencies in Haiti. Just think of that for a moment, 1.16 mln on a total population of perhaps 8-9 mln, that is almost 15%!! One in 7 Haitians are currently living under some plastic sheets, and that is if they were lucky enough to have received this from any of the aid agencies, otherwise their shelter is likely to be not much more than a piece of cloth, a blanket, or anything else makeshift that is unlikely to be waterproof.

Of those 1.16 mln, up to 200,000 are living in so-called high risk sites - camps at risk from flooding and mudslides when the rainy season starts. Out of this figure, 37.000 have been identified as most at risk (don't ask me what the exact definition is), these are people that potentially will have to be evacuated. In order to make the high risk camps safer, through essential clearing of drains and other relatively simple engineering works, 9000 people must be moved in the next week, to provide access to the work areas; if they don't, the work cannot be carried out, and all 37,000 will have to move, so, from a utilitarian perspective, we better get on with the job of the 9000.

However, for the individuals that have to move things look a little different. If they can return to their houses, or to a host family nearby, this move is not so bad, but if they cannot, the only option left is to move to a new site, which is currently being prepared near Cabaret, a village some 40 km north of Port-au-Prince. There is nothing in Cabaret: camp services, especially in the beginning, will be absolutely minimal, livelihood opportunities non-existent, and forget about transport back to the city. These people are going to have a miserable life, for the foreseeable future, and I cannot imagine them looking forward to this adventure, never mind that they are being bribed with the prospect of more food distributions, a cash hand-out and an extra tarpaulin. Yet, what can we, as humanitarian community, do? There is no land allocated closer to Port-au-Prince, there are no other camps where space is available, and there is no time to develop a better service package at the site in Cabaret ahead of the relocation. It is a really difficult question, but whatever happens, the government is going ahead with the relocation, trucks and busses will transport all those that have no other option to Cabaret starting next Monday.

Of course Cabaret is, coincidentally, also one of the four places identified as Poles de Croissance, growth poles, in the Haitian government's rebuilding strategy. These Poles are to become attractive cities in their own right, designed to decongest Port-au-Prince. Right! Seeing is believing. An interesting detail - also coincidence?- is that Cabaret was also, in the 1960s, destined to become Duvalierville, a project by the late Francois Duvalier, better known as Papa Doc, to create a model city. The project failed. Would a weak government in the aftermath of an earthquake achieve what a cruel dictator didn't?

There is always a chance, with the help of the international community. In fact, the relocation package offered could be so attractive that more people will want to move than the 9000 currently targeted; totally unexpectedly, squatters have already put up their tents on the new site, just days after the location had been officially announced, in anticipation of new hand-outs. Perhaps this has nothing to do with the aftermath of a disaster, but is just the expression of abject poverty?