Haitians face endless cycles of recovery while aid groups come and go

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Corail-Cesselesse, Haiti - The word "recovery" is being uttered a lot in Haiti right now.

The prompt? Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti on Oct. 4 and killed more than 1,000 people. That storm is the latest in a string of disasters that has hit the island nation in the last decade, and with it has come a familiar dynamic: promises of assistance — some fulfilled, many not — dependence on outside assistance, dashed hopes for something better.

In areas where nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have worked, particularly after the devastating 2010 earthquake, words like "recovery" are viewed warily. Disappointment with NGOs is a common experience in Haiti, a country where people are proud of their national identity and are keenly aware of a history of interference and control by outsiders.

Just a few weeks before Matthew struck, I caught up with residents of Corail-Cesselesse, an area just outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, where after the earthquake in 2010 thousands were relocated to a camp that was supposed to be temporary shelter.

This was my fourth reporting trip to Haiti. I went twice in 2010 and once in 2011 as a writer for an ecumenical humanitarian agency while also freelancing for National Catholic Reporter and a few other publications.

I last visited Corail-Cesselesse in 2011. Residents who had been moved to this windy, rocky, desolate area in foothills about 10 miles from the capital were relieved to be out of the crowded tent cities of Port-au-Prince and happy to have more durable shelter than tents.

But even then, they worried whether the housing would become permanent. Residents noted that the camp is far from the central city — maybe too far, given that so many jobs are in Port-au-Prince and people are dependent on buses and taxis for getting to work.

And then there was the wind, the dust, and the heat. There were few trees in the area, and shade was at a premium.

Unfortunately, I heard many of the same complaints during my recent assignment, and a few more. A number of residents, including Remy Libeis, 56, a carpenter, and Marie Ange, 34, a nurse, spoke of ongoing frustrations with the lack of regular electrical power: two to three hours of power a day, and then nothing.

"A lot of misery," Libeis said.

As a worker in the camp's health center, Ange sees a lot of hunger. Cholera is also common: Ange said there are dozens of cases a month.

Hunger and cholera are problems throughout Haiti and are getting worse in the wake of Matthew. Ange and others became most passionate on the issue of promises broken by the NGOs with a hand in running the camp, including the International Organization of Migration (IOM), Oxfam and World Vision.

"They give us sweet words, but they don't keep their promises," Ange said.

Resident Gilles Deniése, 27, agreed. "We were promised after the three years, the houses would be improved. Well, it's close to seven years now, and there's still a lack of water, little power, no work, no permanent electricity. It's windy, it's dusty. This is a very vulnerable area."

And when it rains, as it did recently when the hurricane struck Haiti, the area becomes submerged in mud, and water leaks into homes.

Among the promises residents say were broken: access to running water, improvements to housing, and access to factory jobs.

The lack of running water makes life particularly difficult. People have to purchase water and can only get it every two to three days, when the water trucks make their rounds. Many families still share latrines.

The homes are still primarily wood, with tin roofs, though some people have added concrete additions of their own. Residents said they were told that if their situation became permanent, the homes would be converted to sturdier concrete structures. This area of "temporary" housing is becoming a permanent settlement, which often happens after a disaster.

The issue of nearby jobs is perhaps more nebulous. NGOs aren't in the business of promising jobs off-site, but in the wake of the 2010 quake, government officials and others spoke optimistically about luring factory jobs to Haiti.

NGOs are not the only targets of criticism.

"It's always a fight with the politicians," Ange said. "The president ignores us. This is the way it always happens."

Neighbor Zidor Louidor, 47, said that the government, which owns the land on which the camp is built, shifts responsibility.

"The government says it's the problem of the NGOs," he said.

Another neighbor, Francoise Poussely, 38, agreed, saying she is mistrustful of promises made by either Haitian politicians or outside NGOs.

"We're very frustrated," she said. "I don't trust anyone."

The suspicion toward outsiders seems particularly acute, with residents saying they suspect NGOs benefited from the money raised after the 2010 earthquake and didn't spend funds where most needed.

Louidor put it this way: "NGOs come, raise money, pretend they do something, and say good-bye. There is a reason the country is like this. The poor people never see the money; it never touches the people who need it most. The NGOs say they spend millions, but we don't see the results."

Perhaps the most-talked-about example is the American Red Cross, which critics say raised half a billion dollars after the earthquake and built only six homes. To a lesser extent, people talked about the widely publicized efforts of former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, a subject that came up during the Oct. 19 presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Michael de Vulpillieres, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, told GSR the allegations made about the organization are "persistent myths circulating online" and could "cause generous donors to question whether to give and make it harder for us to help the Haitian people [following Hurricane Matthew]. That would be a tragedy for Haiti."

"While the American Red Cross did raise $488 million in donor money for Haiti, it is false, misleading and irresponsible reporting to state the money was only used to build half a dozen homes," de Vulpillieres said. "We did so much more than that. Among our more than 100 projects in Haiti, the American Red Cross has reconstructed, repaired and built thousands of homes."

He said the oft-cited "six homes" were "part of a very small pilot project outside of Port-au-Prince, the smallest of multiple projects that the American Red Cross completed requiring new construction. Among numerous projects, plans for three new communities funded by the American Red Cross were developed, two of which were outside of Port-au-Prince. "

De Vulpillieres said the charity's "operating principle has been to provide solutions that were in line to people's needs and preferences." Altogether, the Red Cross's work "included rental subsidies, home repair, and home expansion, resulting in the provision of safe housing solutions for more than 22,000 households. In total, over nearly seven years, we have helped more than 135,000 people through housing and neighborhood recovery efforts," he said.

The Clinton Foundation said in a statement: "All of our work has focused on helping the people of Haiti in a time of urgent need — including getting aid onto the ground in Haiti as quickly as possible." The foundation criticized a recent ABC News story, which said that "special access was given to people and organizations that wanted to help in the wake of the earthquake, simply because they had worked with us or supported our efforts previously."

The foundation said, "To be clear: in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti and left hundreds of thousands dead, President Clinton and President George W. Bush worked with a wide range of partners to mobilize relief efforts immediately, and many people they had previously worked with responded to this call to help. "

As for the situation with the Corail-Cesselesse camp, Amàlia Torres, a project officer with IOM, told GSR that the shelters were built as temporary housing only and were "never made to be permanent housing, but they are made to last around three years."

Since these are temporary shelters, camp committees "were supposed to establish a system to buy water trucks and sell the water to the inhabitants," she said. In other words, there were never plans to place running water in the Corail-Cesselesse settlements.

Regarding the promises about factories in the area, Torres said there were rumors that the Haitian government "had mentioned that factories would be placed in the area and were looking for investors willing to invest. Unfortunately, that did not materialize, and IOM and, I am sure, no NGO ever made those promises, and we do not have any additional or concrete information to the rumored government project on using the zone for industrial purposes."

A World Vision staff report provided to GSR by Sheryl Watkins, a senior communications officer for the agency, said that World Vision's work also focused on the transitional shelters, as well as construction of a school. The report said that World Vision "was very careful to not over-promise what can be done to the beneficiaries. At that time, there was a lot of uncertainty about how long the camp in Corail would last, so the transitional shelters [homes] were designed in a way that they could be taken apart, relocated, and re-erected if there came a need to do so."

The report noted that the temporary shelters, as well as a school building and community spaces were "built to resist earthquakes and hurricanes," and had withstood rains and winds from recent hurricanes and storms, including Hurricane Sandy of 2012, though the report did not mention the recent effects of Hurricane Matthew.

World Vision said one of the challenges at the camp was that those living there were not, at first, a "socially knit community, but were strangers coming from different parts of the city," resulting in an initial "lack of social cohesion [in] working together for the common benefit."

However, the report said that, now, those living at the camp "have a home and are protected," part of overall conditions — including jobs training, schooling, access to water, small gardens around homes, creation of small shops — that the agency said are signs of "a functioning economy."

It added: "The indicator of success for us comes from looking at where the families were at the beginning of the earthquake and where they are now. Yes, a lot more needs to be done, but resources are drying up and there are still a few gaps that need to be filled. Most of the major donors have moved out but the camp in Corail is still surviving and surviving well.  To us this is definitely a success."

The dynamics of aid in Haiti have long been troubling, and the gulf between the residents' experiences and the statements by the NGOs are not very surprising. Part of the problem at Corail-Cesselesse — on the permanent housing question, for example — may be due to misunderstandings stemming from cultural differences and expectations. Language barriers could also be a factor.

I heard the Red Cross example cited numerous times while in Haiti, and sometimes the narrative began to feel conspiratorial. And yet in a country where outsiders have been given carte blanche to act in a vacuum with little or no government assistance, suspicion is understandable in the context of Haitian history.

French traders began controlling the country in the mid-1600s, and France formally took control of what was then called Saint-Dominigue in 1697. Colonizers brought hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa to the colony to work on large plantations. In 1804, after a slave revolt, Haiti became an independent country.

More than a century later, the United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. This occupation morphed into U.S. support for repressive governments during the Cold War. In more recent years, Haitians have experienced  the comings and goings of numerous outside NGOs without, it is commonly heard, any long-lasting, permanent effect.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian on the aid business and Hurricane Matthew, Jocelyn McCalla, the executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, expressed worries about "aid predators" and said the long-term solution to the country's vulnerabilities to natural disasters is investing in infrastructure, not short-term emergency aid.

"Haiti is a relatively vibrant society endowed with smart and resourceful citizens who have a better idea of the possible than even the most diploma-laden foreign experts," she wrote. "We shouldn't assume that Haitians are so impoverished and weak that they can't fend for themselves. We just need to ensure that domestic resources are supplemented, not supplanted."

The issue of sustainability is absolutely crucial, said Sr. Judy Dohner, an American Sister of the Humility of Mary who manages a medical depot at Nos Petits Frère et Soeurs Hospital.

Dohner and I spent a morning together on my recent trip to Haiti, and she spoke pointedly about outsiders being well-meaning but said more should try to help "create an even playing field" between Haitians and outsiders.

"We have to be partners," she said, noting that outsiders can be obsessed with wanting to help and are less interested in "accompanying" Haitians than in directing them.

Too often, she said, outsiders "come in with our ideas, and we don't want to know what Haitians actually want." She recalled a doctor from the United States who was eager to perform open-heart surgery in Haiti. While well-meaning, she said, that is the sort of thing that cannot be sustained over the long-term.

"People in Haiti need hernia surgery, not heart surgery," she said.

There is a tradition of outside groups coming in but not being able to sustain work over the long term because they are not connected locally. Catholic Relief Services, which has worked in Haiti since 1954, is sometimes seen as a big NGO, said James Beighle, head of programs for CRS in Haiti. But its long-term success, he told me, may be due to its being part of the wider work of the Catholic church, which has deep roots in Haitian society.

"It's an issue of sustainability," he said.

Was it all bad news during my recent assignment? No. Among the cities I visited, both Port-au-Prince and Jacmel (a major outpost on Haiti's southern coast) looked much, much better than they did in 2010 and 2011. The rubble that was evident then was long gone; however, Jacmel was hard hit during the recent hurricane. There were improvements in some roadways, though it is still dismaying that so many side streets in Port-au-Prince remain inexplicably unpaved.

That is also the case at Corail-Cesselesse — though on the bright side, residents acknowledge that even with the lack of paved roads, the area is still largely safe and secure compared to many parts of Port-au-Prince.

Still, that may be small comfort.

"I'm not upset at the NGOs so much as still hoping to see promises come through," said carpenter Jean Claude Bataille, 46. "People here are vulnerable, and no one is confident the government will do anything to help us."

He paused. "One thing we want to see is something sustainable so people don't have to go far away, so people can get out of this situation."

Thermetus Holens, 28, a mason, agreed.

"We need the support of the people who put us here," he said in reference to moving from the tent cities to Corail-Cesselesse. "We need work."

He paused, the dust and wind kicking up in the early afternoon, the sun blazing down. "There is no road, no water, no electricity, no power, and no jobs. That means there is no life."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]