Haiti's Yearlong Aftershock

One year after a monstrous earthquake rocked the small Caribbean nation, progress is glacial -- and in many ways, things have gotten worse.

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Haiti one year after the earthquake (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

What has Haiti done to deserve this? A year after the devastating earthquake, many Haitians and Haitian Americans can't help asking themselves what this poor little Caribbean nation has done to suffer such an unbroken string of calamities. The earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, was the most brutal, of course -- killing some 230,000 people and leaving thousands more badly injured in a country where the infrastructure was already fragile, and medical care a luxury for most.

Then there was hurricane season last fall, with several powerful storms battering a country with more than 1 million people living in flimsy tents. And then came cholera, a disease unknown in Haiti within the last hundred years, taking 3,500 lives so far and mounting -- amid suspicions that the disease might have been brought in by South Asian United Nations troops.

Even good deeds seemed to get punished. The country held elections in November that had been postponed from February 2010. Many observers warned that it made no sense to hold elections when much of the country's infrastructure had been destroyed and hundreds of thousands were still homeless. But Haitian President René Préval's term was running out, and foreign donors wanted a legitimate government to deal with. Rap artist Wyclef Jean -- maybe the best-known Haitian living abroad -- joined a crowded field of presidential hopefuls but was disqualified from running.

There was some violence, widespread charges of fraud and voter intimidation, and finally, a first-round result that no one accepted. From 19 candidates, two remained: Jude Celestin, backed by Préval's party, and Mirlande Manigat, a law professor whose husband had served briefly as president a couple of decades ago -- before being ousted in a coup. Third by less than 1 percent was Michel Martelly, a musician better known as Sweet Micky, and infamous for his outrageous onstage behavior. Martelly objected vigorously -- and his supporters took to the streets. For several days, protesters swarmed the rubble-filled streets, set up barricades and burned tires.

Now a special delegation from the Organization of American States has reviewed the election results and will reportedly recommend that Martelly and Manigat be the candidates in the runoff. Celestin, backed by Préval and his party, would be cast aside. So far, Haiti's much discredited elections council, known as the CEP, has not reacted to the report. But a runoff between the candidates most Haitians believe won the first round could calm the anger and result in a chief executive with the credibility to lead Haiti out of this continuing streak of bad luck.

The winner will need it. After a year, just 5 percent of the rubble from the powerful 7.3 earthquake has been cleared and Haitians see little evidence of large expenditures. The UN Special Envoy for Haiti's office says that $1.28 billion was disbursed last year by governments and multilateral agencies- but it does not yet have a way of measuring how much was actually spent. Thousands of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), from the massive Red Cross to tiny volunteer religious groups, are on the ground.

No doubt, many of the NGOs saved lives and provided badly needed care. But their efforts are uncoordinated and often at cross-purposes with government policies. For example, the flood of volunteer doctors providing free emergency care has forced several Haitian hospitals into bankruptcy, weakening an already fragile medical ecosystem. Camps run by charitable organizations or celebrities like Sean Penn have discouraged some Haitians from leaving the overcrowded capital or returning to habitable homes.

Haitians have taken to calling their country "the nation of NGOs" and begun to wonder if foreign aid is bad for them in the long term. It's an important question: Thousands of organizations, many of them well-meaning, have toiled in Haiti in recent decades; they have made little discernible difference in the lives of most Haitians.
 
Two nights ago, I attended a fundraising event in New York for
Fonkoze, the largest micro-lender in Haiti. (Full disclosure: A cousin in Haiti is on the board.) The organization has received much praise in nonprofit circles and from people like the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof as a model for development in Haiti. Fonkoze takes on the poorest of the poor, those too poor to benefit from a micro-loan, and works to lift them to a level where they can handle money and pay back a loan. Fonkoze's leaders estimate that the organization touches the lives of 200,000 people. But with a population of 10 million, Haiti needs 10 or 20 Fonkozes, a feat that may not be duplicable.

Haitians have often been praised for their resilience. They came up with the revolutionary idea that black people were not doomed to be slaves, decades before the rest of the world came around. They survived embargoes, boycotts and occupation. They had the misfortune -- that bad karma again -- of bad, brutal and corrupt governments over two centuries. Yet they have survived with an intact sense of who they are and a rich culture that belies the easy label as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere."

Economic advancement for the majority may be their biggest challenge yet. Haitian émigrés have done well in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Until now, Haitians in Haiti have resisted the involvement of these successful Haitians abroad.  Assuming a new democratic government comes to power later this year, one of its first steps should be to pass pending legislation allowing the Haitian diaspora to participate in the country's political life. Maybe they can help Haiti overcome the economic hurdle that the NGOs can't.

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