In Reviving Haiti, Lofty Hopes and Hard Truths


This lengthy report by DEBORAH SONTAG appeared in The New York Times. Here are some excerpts. For the full article and a photo gallery follow the link below.

A few days after the Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake, Reginald Boulos opened the gates of his destroyed car dealership to some 14,000 displaced people who settled on the expansive property. Seven months later, eager to rebuild his business, he paid the families $400 each to leave Camp Boulos and return to their devastated neighborhoods.

At the time, Dr. Boulos, a physician and business magnate, was much maligned for what was portrayed as bribing the homeless to participate in their own eviction. But eventually, desperate to rid public plazas of squalid camps, the Haitian government and the international authorities adopted his approach themselves: “return cash grants” have become the primary resettlement tool.

This represents a marked deflation of the lofty ambitions that followed the disaster, when the world aspired not only to repair Haiti but to remake it completely. The new pragmatism signals an acknowledgment that despite billions of dollars spent — and billions more allocated for Haiti but unspent — rebuilding has barely begun and 357,785 Haitians still languish in 496 tent camps.

“When you look at things, you say, ‘Hell, almost three years later, where is the reconstruction?’ ” said Michèle Pierre-Louis, a former prime minister of Haiti. “If you ask what went right and what went wrong, the answer is, most everything went wrong. There needs to be some accountability for all that money.”

An analysis of all that money — at least $7.5 billion disbursed so far — helps explain why such a seeming bounty is not more palpable here in the eviscerated capital city, where the world’s chief accomplishment is to have finally cleared away most of the rubble.

More than half of the money has gone to relief aid, which saves lives and alleviates misery but carries high costs and leaves no permanent footprint — tents shred; emergency food and water gets consumed; short-term jobs expire; transitional shelters, clinics and schools are not built to last.

Of the rest, only a portion went to earthquake reconstruction strictly defined. Instead, much of the so-called recovery aid was devoted to costly current programs, like highway building and H.I.V. prevention, and to new projects far outside the disaster zone, like an industrial park in the north and a teaching hospital in the central plateau.

Meanwhile, just a sliver of the total disbursement — $215 million — has been allocated to the most obvious and pressing need: safe, permanent housing. By comparison, an estimated minimum of $1.2 billion has been eaten up by short-term solutions — the tent camps, temporary shelters and cash grants that pay a year’s rent.

“Housing is difficult and messy, and donors have shied away from it,” said Josef Leitmann, manager of the Haiti Reconstruction Fund.

[ . . . ]

Foreigners Take Over

In the months after the earthquake, foreigners, arriving by the planeload, took over. They did not mean to; nobody in the humanitarian world wanted to sharpen Haiti’s dependency on foreign assistance. But Haiti’s government was as shattered as its people, and old patterns of interaction are hard to break.

Coordinating the disaster response, foreign humanitarians met on the isolated, gated United Nations logistics base and divided into clusters dealing with issues like shelter and health. Something was missing, though: “In the initial confusion and loss of life after the earthquake, the clusters effectively excluded their Haitian counterparts,” Nigel Fisher, humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations, said. “Little by little, we brought them in.”

Still, many Haitians never shook the feeling that they were an afterthought and that their institutions and businesses were being bypassed and undermined. Many of the best-educated Haitians were lured away from government and private-sector jobs by the far higher salaries offered by foreigners.

“We called it the second earthquake,” said Jean-Yves Jason, mayor of Port-au-Prince at the time.

In retrospect, the numbers tell the story: Donors provided $2.2 billion of humanitarian aid in response to the earthquake. The United States Department of Defense got nearly a fifth of that aid to carry out its relief operation, which involved 22,000 troops. The Haitian government got less than 1 percent.

More of the recovery aid — 15 percent — has been channeled through the Haitian government, and the United States ambassador to Haiti, Pamela A. White, says that a shift in approach has led international donors to align “our investments with Haiti’s priorities in a truly country-led manner.”

But thus far almost all contracts have been awarded to foreign agencies, nonprofit groups and private contractors who, in turn, subcontract to others, with each layer in the process adding 7 to 10 percent in administrative costs, as noted in a paper published by the Center for Global Development.

“All the money that went to pay the salaries of foreigners and to rent expensive apartments and cars for foreigners while the situation of the country was degrading — there was something revolting about it,” Ms. Pierre Louis said.

In a sentiment that many Haitians share, Dr. Boulos said that foreigners in Haiti “do everything at a cost five times higher.”

Dr. Boulos said he spent $780,000 to close Camp Boulos and 6 percent went to administrative costs — essentially the salary of a pastor who oversaw the resettlement. Following in his footsteps more than a year later, international groups have done things more carefully, inspecting apartments before handing out rental subsidies and conducting follow-up visits. But they are ringing up operational costs of about 35 percent.

It is difficult to ascertain precisely what the hundreds of nongovernment groups in Haiti spent on their response to the earthquake — at least $1.5 billion, probably much more — and how they spent it.

Among the more visible and transparent groups, Oxfam, its name emblazoned on thousands of latrines, provided water and sanitation to the camps and Doctors Without Borders ran field hospitals, mobile clinics and cholera treatment centers.

The services they provided were vital, but, as both groups make clear in their public reporting, they were costly, too. Oxfam spent $96 million over two years and devoted a third to management and logistics. Doctors Without Borders spent 58 percent of its $135 million in 2010 on staff and transportation costs.

Not all costly foreign initiatives were equally valuable — or appreciated.

One American taxpayer-financed program, scrutinized by the Agency for International Development’s inspector general, was intended to provide short-term jobs for Haitians and to remove significant rubble. But the program, and in particular the work carried out by two Beltway-based firms, was less than successful on both fronts, the inspector general said: It generated only a third of the jobs anticipated and it appeared to demonstrate that using manual labor to clear debris was so inefficient as to slow the rebuilding effort.

One of the firms, Chemonics International, which was awarded $150 million in post-earthquake contracts, built a $1.9 million temporary home for the Haitian Parliament. The American ambassador presented it as a gift to Haitian democracy, but many legislators were more irked than thankful because the building was delivered devoid of interior walls and furnishings, as The Global Post reported, and it took almost half a year to scrounge together the money to finish it.

Occasionally toward the end of that first year after the earthquake, the Haitian government succeeded in pushing back against internationally imposed agendas it did not like.

The American Red Cross had pledged to spend $200 million of the nearly $500 million raised for Haiti by the first anniversary of the disaster. That presented a real challenge for an organization with limited experience in the country . So it operated primarily as a financier, issuing grants to other organizations with greater capacity here.

But a linchpin of its own programming was a plan to dispense $50 million in cash, no strings attached, to 400,000 household heads in the camps.

Other humanitarian leaders considered the idea of a broad, unconditional cash distribution misguided. But it was not until the Haitian government formalized its opposition in a letter — “It would unfortunately encourage a massive exodus from the provinces, thus increasing the number of people living in the camps and making conditions even worse” — that the Red Cross dropped the plan.

Dr. Boulos said he proposed an alternative. “I told the head of the American Red Cross, in front of Bill Clinton, ‘Let’s put the entire money in housing construction. Let’s repair the houses.’ But they had all kinds of reasons why not.” Shortly after the earthquake, international advisers proposed different ways that Haiti could manage its reconstruction, including a Haitian-owned recovery agency embedded in the government. But a United States proposal to establish a stand-alone commission jointly led by the Haitian prime minister and “a distinguished senior international figure engaged in the recovery effort” won out.

[. . . ]

A New Pragmatism

The new pragmatism was born. Mr. Martelly secured international assistance to close six highly visible tent camps and repair 16 neighborhoods and to shut down the Champ de Mars settlement. Some Haitians felt he was just trying to sweep the homelessness problem from view without resolving it — indeed the neighborhood repairs have lagged far behind the camp closings — but others expressed relief that he was taking action because a temporary solution was better than none at all.

From the start, grand ambition had gotten in the way of tackling what was doable.

“Early on, it seemed fairly clear that the only viable approach was to rebuild existing neighborhoods,” Ms. Phelps said. “But it took six to eight months to get the government used to that, and another four to six months to make the donors comfortable. Nobody wanted to think reconstruction might be a giant slum-upgrading project. They wanted little pastel houses and kids with ribbons in their hair to put on the cover of their annual report.”

Idealistic discussions after the disaster were not just about building back better. President Préval expressed a keen interest in using the initial exodus to the countryside to decongest Port-au-Prince permanently, and decentralization became the second mantra, guiding early commitments to spend significant reconstruction money outside the disaster zone.

“There were all sorts of fantasies about shutting down the mess that is Port-au-Prince before people started to understand that there is a huge amount of capital built up in the city and chaotic as it is you don’t throw it out,” Mr. Leitmann of the Haiti Reconstruction Fund said. “Another fantasy was, ‘Oh, we’ll just invest in export processing zones and that will keep people from migrating back to Port-au-Prince.’ ”

That first year, the United States government and the Inter-American Development Bank set aside $220 million to finance the new Caracol Industrial Park, which is 175 miles north of the disaster area, and to build a power plant, port and housing development nearby.

Mr. Clinton, who joined Mrs. Clinton at the Caracol inaugural ceremony this fall in a rare public fusion of their diplomatic roles, has long emphasized Haiti’s need for jobs. Some here applaud his support for subsidies to private companies; others, though, question what they see as a trickle-down theory of development, pointing skeptically to decisions like those of the private Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund to make a $2 million equity investment in a new luxury hotel, the Royal Oasis.

Initially, Mr. Clinton and Haitian leaders thought the private sector would play a larger role in rebuilding Haiti’s devastated housing stock, and they were courting international firms to design innovative tract housing for tracts of land that never materialized.

One relic of those aspirations is the abandoned site of a 2011 housing exposition held in Zoranje, where scores of colorful prototype homes now sit empty, some padlocked, others plundered and used as toilets.

Dreamed up at a meeting at Mr. Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, the expo cost millions in public and private money. Competing firms spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in the hopes of winning sizable contracts. But by the time the exposition took place, the thinking about housing had already shifted and most contracts were going to be awarded for urban fix-it work instead.

Adjacent to the expo site in Zoranje is the only large new housing project completed so far. With $8.3 million in financing, mostly from the Inter-American Development Bank, most of its 400 small pastel houses remained unoccupied for half a year, except in some cases by squatters, because the authorities could not figure out how to connect the complex to water. Eventually, the beneficiaries were allowed to move in anyway.

Fertilia Bien-Aimé, a wiry, scrappy, 65-year-old, said she won the keys to her house by accosting President Martelly during a public event in October. “I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. President, I’m too old for a tent. What are you going to do for me?’ ”

Squatters had ripped out the electrical wiring, sinks and toilets, she said, and rain leaks into her house as into others. Some homes lost their roofs during Tropical Storm Isaac, and the complex has had unreliable electricity since Hurricane Sandy.

“But even with all the problems here,” she said, “it’s still so much better than being a displaced person.”

The largest new settlement under construction takes the same exurban approach. A $48 million Haitian government initiative, located about 10 miles east of Port-au-Prince in Morne à Cabri, the project’s thousands of houses are rising on a barren, isolated site. Ms. Pierre-Louis, the former prime minister, described it as looking like “little tombs in the desert.”

Critics have also questioned the location of the American-subsidized new housing settlement in rural Caracol, far from the disaster, as well as the high cost of its one-bedroom homes. They are being built by a Minnesota company on a site prepared by a Maryland firm for $31,400 a house.

That includes site preparation, internal wiring, individual water hookups and flush toilets. But current thinking among humanitarian officials is that those are all extras. A small, simple one-family house in Port-au-Prince can be built for $6,000, they say, and more people can be helped.

Although the Caracol houses were supposed to be occupied by December, only 70 of 750 had been finished by the end of November because of severe weather and logistical problems, an American aid official said.

Progress has been even slower on the other American-built settlement, which is on a large, flat swath of gravel in Cabaret. Only about a dozen of the 156 houses there had a completed structure, minus doors and windows, in early December.

“Lots of money, few results,” said the deputy mayor of Cabaret, Pierre Justinvil. “Look, I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of those houses and more quickly. I think we Haitians need to take the wheel.”

In the earthquake-ravaged slum neighborhood of Campeche in Port-au-Prince, Dieudonne Zidor, an elected official, agreed. Gliding gracefully up a rocky pathway, she pointed out the anarchic jumble of condemned homes, makeshift shanties and corroding shelter boxes. “As you can see, conditions are calamitous,” she said. But it is not rocket science to figure out what is needed, she added: houses, streets, electricity, water, health clinics, schools, women’s centers.

Yet, though the local authorities have already approved an urban plan for the neighborhood, the American Red Cross has engaged in a lengthy process to determine how best to spend its $20 million budget to improve Campeche.

Sandrine Capelle Manuel, the organization’s representative in Haiti, said it had been a productive process. “We prioritized all the issues and created a consultative group that is representative of the community fabric,” she said. “We did a strong and deep assessment, and now we need to do a master plan with the community.”

But Ms. Zidor said: “All they do is hold meetings and hand out juice. In the end, they will have spent the whole $20 million giving juice to the people.”

Many other neighborhood reconstruction projects have gotten stuck in the planning stages, too. The reconstruction adviser to President Martelly, in fact, recently asked a World Bank official if millions of dollars could be diverted from that slow-moving $65 million reconstruction program to pay for additional return cash grants.

“He said, ‘Can you help us because we don’t want to go to the third anniversary with so many people still in camps?’ ” Dr. Abrantes said.

Although so much money allocated for reconstruction languishes in the bank, humanitarian financing for Haiti has all but dried up while needs remain acute, said Mr. Fisher, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator.

“The donors have made it clear that they feel the humanitarian crisis is over and that development is their focus,” Mr. Fisher said. “But it’s a false dichotomy. Of course, the country needs long-term solutions but until they are in place we still need resources to deal with the problems at hand.”

Current projections, he added, are that 200,000 Haitians will still be living in camps a year from now, on the fourth anniversary of the earthquake.

For the original report go to

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