Haiti: Rising from the Rubble

Michèle Pierre-Louis (second from left), former Prime Minister of Haiti, speaking at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council

Five years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed some 100,000 people and destroyed more than 250,000 buildings, the country has still not fully recovered, and a lack of leadership and wide-scale inefficiencies in the delivery of aid have meant much of the rebuilding remains to be done, according to Michèle Pierre-Louis, a former Prime Minister of Haiti. “I’m always very moved when I have to talk about Haiti,” Ms Pierre-Louis told a roundtable LAWAC lunch on Wednesday. “I want to tell the truth, but it’s hard to talk about a country that has so many problems.” However she said that despite the lingering poverty and social problems, Haiti retains its unique creative and artistic flair, and is currently undergoing a type of artistic renaissance. “We would love to change the image that Haiti has – even if we are poor, we are a dignified and creative people.”

The quake struck shortly before 5 pm on January 12, 2010, and many of the victims were killed in their offices, including many senior government officials. The authorities were overwhelmed, and looked overseas for help. Emergency aid was quick in coming, and ultimately international donors pledged to give $13 bn to “rebuild Haiti better”. But by mid-2014 just $7.45 bn had been disbursed. Most was given for short-term relief, rather than for longer term development needs, and less than 10% was channeled through the government, largely because donors feared that the money would be stolen by corrupt officials. Instead most of the money was funneled through Non-Governmental Organizations, (NGOs), of which there was no shortage. “We were swarmed by NGOs – Haiti was called the Republic of NGOs”. Many came with good intentions, she said, but there was little or no coordination between each aid organization on what projects they would carry out, which led to both waste and duplication. Now the NGOs are going, and “leaving behind a vacuum.”

Apart from a lack of centralized planning, Ms Pierre-Louis said Haiti suffers from a perception problem – known as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”, it is seen as a destination for emergency humanitarian aid, not so much for development aid. “The big picture is lacking.” The longer term problems of poverty will never be solved without putting effort into building schools and other capacity-building institutions. She told the story of one man who was frustrated that he could not get funding from any donor to rebuild a library that had collapsed. He complained to her that “they see Haiti as a poor country that needs to eat -- why can’t these people see that we need to feed our minds?” She said that Haiti suffers from a chronic brain drain of its talented people, who leave to pursue careers overseas. Today many of the middle managers in Haitian businesses are from the Philippines or India, “because there are no educated middle managers in Haiti.”

Today the streets of Haiti may have been cleared of rubble, but many of the buildings remain in ruins. “The population that bore the weight of the earthquake was the middle class – it took 20 years of their life savings to build their houses, but after they collapsed in 38 seconds, they couldn’t get credit from the banks to rebuild their homes.” Of the 1.5 million people who were living in tent cities immediately after the quake, most have been resettled – only 170,000 remain in tents. But for many of those who were resettled, “the problem is where and under what conditions – in fact we have created new slums.”

Asked about the reports of abuses in orphanages and adoption agencies post-quake, Pierre-Louis said that there were many children who lost both parents and became orphans, “and unfortunately it became a business.” The Haitian government simply didn’t have the organization or the manpower to monitor all the orphanages that sprang up, even though they knew that there were some who were exploiting the international adoptions as a way to make profits. She said that 12 orphanages have been shut down because of bad conditions and the way the children were treated, but that the problem was far from solved.

Ms Pierre-Louis was not without hope – her own foundation, FOKAL, helps with education, and there are many other groups who are doing good work in local communities. The challenge, she said, is “how to connect these local projects and bring them to a higher level?” That requires centralized leadership, and so far that has not been forthcoming from Haiti’s political class. That is where the “big picture” needs to come in.