Scripps Howard | Three Years Later, Haiti Still Faces Restoration Challenges

Scripps Howard | Published Jan 11, 2013

WASHINGTON -  State Department officials say Haiti is progressing three years after the earthquake, but complete reconstruction remains a distant goal.

Saturday marks the third anniversary of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that rocked the small island country to its core, claiming 300,000 lives and leaving millions homeless. 

“Almost everyone who visits Haiti on a regular basis agrees that, despite huge challenges, there has been tremendous progress over the past 12 months,” Eileen Smith, State Department deputy coordinator for Haiti, said.

She said Haiti’s inhabitants faced many challenges before the earthquake hit, and the country should not be expected to become a middle-income country overnight. But as medical relief, food supplies and government grants for temporary housing have dried up, the country remains in a precarious position.

At an event Thursday sponsored by the Pan American Development Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center, Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. Paul Altidor said the country still has much work to do.

“Let me say that we are not pleased with the pace of the reconstruction process,” Altidor said.

Altidor mentioned several issues complicating the process of rebuilding the country, whose destroyed infrastructure and political instability have made it difficult to disburse the nearly $7.5 billion in international aid that Haiti has received. In addition, residents suffer from fast-spreading disease such as cholera, food insecurity and an unemployment rate that has remained at 90 percent. As of October, 370,000 Haitians still lived in tent cities, and 58 percent of the population does not have access to potable water.

“The issue we’re facing is not just an earthquake issue. We’re also addressing the housing deficit that Haiti has faced prior to the earthquake,” Altidor said.

In addition, land tenure remains a huge obstacle, according to Liz Blake, senior vice president of Habitat for Humanity International, which has been operating in the country for 27 years. Only 5 percent of the land is properly titled, and the unstable government has been slow to process land grant requests. Former tent dwellers who have been lucky enough to find subsidized housing have discovered that without stable incomes, they can’t afford to pay rent and are soon back on the streets.

Questions regarding the pace of Haiti’s rebuilding process have been raised by donor countries, including Canada, which has given more than a billion dollars. A Canadian government official said this week the country is unhappy with the progress that the Haitian government is making and will review the Canadian aid program.

But Altidor said the country’s slow progress is not a result of the government. He blamed some of the nonprofit, or non-governmental organizations.

“More than 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti were not, and in some cases are still not, being held accountable by Haiti or its people,” Altidor said. “That has to change.”

The Haitian government, which has drawn protests from residents after the contested presidential election in 2010, has also been criticized by the international community, which has been hesitant to donate directly to the government because of its reputation for corruption. Most have chosen to donate to NGOs, whose interests Altidor said may not be aligned with those of the Haitian people. He said the NGO’s direct participation in the rebuilding process has resulted  in the misallocation of resources and duplication of efforts in some cases.

“With the majority of the assistance going to these NGOs rather than the Haitian state or the Haitian government, the Haitian state has actually become weaker in many cases,” Altidor said.

Blake said that some NGOs do not always result in citizens’ self-empowerment. “This has to be done with the support of the Haiti government and its people,” she said. “It can’t be what we think is right. It absolutely has to be the determination of the people that we’re working with.”