One year on, Haiti is still in the grip of despair and chaos. And the huge aid effort you funded is to blame
Published in the Daily Mail (January 13th, 2011)
The rows of tents seem to stretch on for ever, a symbol of Haiti’s hopelessness. Each one has been home to a family since their country was struck by a massive earthquake one year ago. Small boys and girls, their ribs clearly visible on stick frames after months of grinding hunger, play in the filthy puddles of water amid piles of stinking rubbish.
Armed United Nations soldiers march down the lines of tents to stop rioting when emergency medicine and water is delivered, while charity workers hand out soap in a desperate attempt to keep at bay the cholera that has come to the island for the first time.
Each one of those tents marks the betrayal of a people whose lives were blighted even before those devastating tremors left more than 250,000 people dead, 300,000 injured and 1.5 million homeless. And indeed, of the people around the world who responded to the disaster with such generosity.
For one year on from the earthquake, the most powerful in the region for two centuries, nearly a million people are still trapped in a living hell, squeezed into these squalid encampments while armies of politicians, dignitaries and charities bicker over reconstruction.
The presidential palace in Port-au-Prince remains a wreck, while the landmark Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption still lies in ruins, although church services have restarted amid the rubble. Yesterday, people gathered there to pray as the nation marked a minute’s silence at 4.53pm, the moment disaster struck a year ago.
Those harrowing scenes that played out on TV of rescued children and ruined lives led to a massive global response, with £6.5 billion pledged to help the shattered island recover. Britons donated £100 million.
But for all the charity singles and cycle rides, so little seems to have been achieved. Even Oxfam has admitted there has been little progress in reconstruction.
Indeed, so inept was the response and so slow the rebuilding of this tormented nation that when it was hit by a cholera epidemic there was a fatality rate higher than normal in a disaster aftermath, despite the armies of relief experts on the ground. The aid community failed to prevent unnecessary deaths, said the head of Medicins Sans Frontieres.
Yet the real tragedy is that we have been here before. Each time there is a massive disaster, the world reacts with rapid offers of support. And each time, experts flood into the disaster zone and waste incredible sums of money on bureaucracy, in-fighting, inertia and incompetence, while the people they are ‘saving’ remain trapped in misery.
Once again, the aid machine stalled after an impressive start that saved countless lives by providing clean water, food, sanitation and shelter.
We saw the same thing after an earthquake flattened the Iranian city of Bam in 2003. We saw it again after the 2004 Asian tsunami. And again after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans a year later. The experts always vow to heed lessons and speed up reconstruction, but never do.
After the Boxing Day tsunami, which prompted the world’s biggest aid effort, inquiries later found huge sums wasted by competing agencies. More than 500 relief agencies descended on Sri Lanka alone. When I visited the worst-affected regions a few months on, I was regaled with stories of how charities had fought with each other for recognition.
In one village, I was told of how a convoy of lorries was stopped, had banners from a rival organisation draped over it, was photographed for publicity pictures and then sent on its way.
In Haiti, it is estimated there was a higher density of non-governmental agencies operating before the earthquake than in any other country. In the previous decade, more than £3 billion was handed over in aid, but the people remained locked in a desperate struggle to survive, underlining the failure of aid to lift people out of poverty.
Now there are thought to be an astonishing 12,000 aid agencies operating on the ground — and it is estimated they have helped only a quarter of the people needing assistance.
The Haitian government has been ineffective, and the Haiti Recovery Commission, set up under former U.S. President Bill Clinton to distribute the huge sums donated by international bodies, has met just four times. Only half the money promised for reconstruction has turned up, with the U.S. government among the worst offenders. Meanwhile, Mr Clinton walks around wringing his hands.
There have been stories of rescue groups fighting for the best pitches, sexual abuse in camps and endless tales of money wasted. The largest hospital in the country, for example, had expensive equipment donated, such as cardiac monitors and defibrillators, that were abandoned when foreign doctors went home without training local health workers. A U.S. reporter found them in a cart.
Part of the problem is the sheer numbers involved in relief efforts. As governments turned on the aid fountain in recent decades, huge numbers of new charities were set up to tap into the cascade of cash.
It is thought there are about 1,000 major aid organisations that attend every major disaster, compared with about 40 that were active in the camps set up for refugees fleeing Pol Pot in the Eighties.
And some of the smallest charities do more harm than good. There have been instances of starving Somalis given laxatives and electric blankets, for instance, and Kenyan children offered canned dog food.
There are scores of these smaller groups operating in Haiti, many of them with questionable results. Only 450 of the charities in the country are formally registered with the government, and only 150 regularly send reports to the planning ministry, as required by law.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Despite all the lessons from the past, the government, the international agencies and charities large and small are failing the unfortunate people of Haiti, as they have been failed so often before.
As Marie Siane, using disinfectant to scrub the latrines that serve thousands in her tent city, says bitterly: ‘I know a lot of money came into Haiti, but let’s face it — I live in a house made of blankets.’