From the first aerial views of Port-au-Prince and then past the chaotic welcome of Haiti's only international airport, there are the blue-and-gray tent cities. More often, rather than camp tents, the structures are flimsy wood frames standing 6 feet or so, wrapped with vinyl tarps, everywhere you go. These carry the stamps of USAID or the Canadian maple leaf, emblems of UNICEF or other United Nations organizations. Milling about the enclosed spaces of 30 to 50 square feet are children and adults — washing, playing, transacting and erecting more structures.
The tarps were to have been handed out at no cost. But the fiercely efficient distribution system of the informal economy has priced them. And in stalls along crowded and muddy streets, tarps hang for sale, brand new and neatly folded, right next to shower curtains and vinyl tablecloths. Heading south out of the city, you cannot miss still more tarp-covered shelters clustered in the highway median, the same structures that have so moved Deborah Sontag of The New York Times.
There begins the unavoidable two-mile stretch to exit Port-au-Prince that takes nearly two hours to navigate in each direction. So dense is the traffic of cars, trucks, motorbikes and pedestrians in the narrow two-way lane that vehicles can only inch along. This is also true for the original Carrefour road, dangerously potholed, as are nearly all streets in the capital; in other towns the roads are rarely paved at all. Blue-gray clusters of shelters repeat occasionally along the route, interrupting the eventually soothing green scenery all the way to Miragoane, 50 miles away.
Heading north on the coastal road, Nationale #1, past the city dump, eight miles or so from downtown Port-au-Prince, one encounters planned tent cities in neat rows adorned with fluttering flags of international organizations. And on the surrounding hills opposite Source Puante, the sulfur-emitting marshes that delimit the metropolitan expanse from the beach-house region, more tents have sprouted on ad hoc lots, scattered in no particular pattern, as if breaking free from the tidy organization below.
The environment is dry and barren. There is no water or utilities of any sort. There are no schools or shops for miles around. Yet there exists the widespread belief that the clusters and shanties will soon be replaced by cinderblock buildings, that there will be a permanent improvement to the situation.
Temporary or Permanent?
The notion that international monies will rebuild the country and sustain it in years to come is a widely held opinion in Haiti. A companion dream is that enduring life in a tent city will somehow lead to a spanking new 600- to 900-square-foot home — bathroom and kitchen included — in a well-planned community. Dozens of architects from throughout the world have, in fact, visited the city. John McCaslan & Partners, a British architectural firm, has been retained to organize a design competition and housing "expo" slated for later this year. Countless American, Canadian, French, British and Dutch websites display renderings of ideal communities and homes priced at $5,000 to $25,000. The expectation is that the Haitian government will contract out a mammoth housing-development project with money it does not presently have but expects imminently.
One line of thinking is that the population under tarps and in shanties is impermanent. By this reasoning, thousands will return to the countryside. Meanwhile, rural regions that have been ignored for years as completely as the shanties are truly in need of assistance. Pretty much on their own, Haitian farmers continue to provide fresh vegetables and fruits for domestic consumption. There is even a little left over for export: $5 million in mangoes, less in coffee and cacao. But to suggest that an economic revolution will spring from an energized rural landscape is as cynical a ploy as the promise of new suburbs for the homeless in Léogane, Jacmel and Port-au-Prince.
U.N. and World Bank data document that well over 50 percent of the 10 million Haitians live within and adjacent to the country's six major urban agglomerations. The greater Port-au-Prince area is estimated to hold nearly 3 million people. The metropolitan areas of Cap Haitian, Gonaïves, Les Cayes, Jacmel and St. Marc are in the 250,000-to-1 million range. These 5 million-plus urbanites are firmly connected to the world via multilingual media and a global telecommunications system. Haiti's present critical mass — the one likely to shape its political and social destiny — is in the 2 million largely literate and young people who reside in the shanties and tarp cities of these agglomerations.
The argument regarding the country's urbanization could well have been settled 60 years ago when Making a Living in the Marbial Valley was published in 1951 (well known under its French title: L'homme et la terre dans la vallée de Marbial). The lead researcher, Alfred Metraux, was a widely respected anthropologist, born in Switzerland and raised in Argentina, who studied in Europe and, on occasion, lectured at Yale and other universities.
Months of intense field investigation between 1947 and 1949 led to the realization that to "maintain a tolerable standard of life, the Marbial peasant needed to cultivate ever-increasing areas of land." But for quite some time, the report noted, "there has been no more virgin soil available." The hilly terrain and customary inheritance rules yielded ever smaller holdings on ever steeper hills. The net effect was that soil nutrients washed away, and any new farm equipment introduced was "out of all proportion to the actual level of profits."
It is still the case today in Haiti that except for rare crops and in certain locations, modern planting techniques are both impractical and unaffordable. The garden-size rice paddies along the Artibonite River cannot match the economies of scale achieved in rice fields that meet the horizon beyond the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi River.
By the mid-20th century, the residents of the Marbial Valley confronted conditions that Metraux suspected prevailed throughout the country. "The flight of starving and landless peasants to the towns should be a grave warning," he explained. "Uprooted and unable to draw a living from the land, these unfortunates swell the urban proletariat and will sooner or later become a formidable social danger."
There are more lots cleared of debris in downtown Port-au-Prince than one would expect, especially those facing well-traveled streets. Throughout the city, private removal operations proceed with equipment of varying sizes and types. Men equipped with hacksaws and sledgehammers pry out steel-reinforcing bars at every turn, destined for metal recyclers. The straight bars find their way into new construction projects.
Take, for example, the slow and quixotic management of the nation's principal port. For nearly everyone wanting to pull a container out of the Port-au-Prince port, it takes walking the documents from office to office to secure an unspecified number of signatures. The exercise can last three, four weeks, sometimes more. The uncertainty, the high cost of legitimate and illicit duties, and the charges from the shipping companies for failing to free the container in a fixed period — about 10 days — constitute a substantial and arbitrary financial drain on all sectors of the national economy.
Poor Haitians have always responded to the economy with their feet. Residents of tarp cities are likely kin to those who began streaming out of the country's Marbial Valley in earnest in the 1960s and at a faster rate in the 1970s. Once in Port-au-Prince, displaced peasants grabbed what land they could on steep hills, on the edge of ravines and wherever a lot proved to be without evident ownership. Some cunning large landowners facilitated the construction of slums and grew wealthy extracting rents for substandard housing.
But even as their numbers grew, residents of shanties remained largely invisible. When, on occasion, they secured employment in the capital as domestic workers and laborers, they continued to be ignored. Nothing in the conduct of government agencies and in the shape of social and commercial institutions accounted for their presence. The public infrastructures — health care and utilities facilities — that might have served them were built with barely 100,000 human beings in mind during and shortly after the American military occupation of 1915 to 1934. And these structures became largely non-operational after the earthquake.
In their daily pronouncements, government officials speak of billions of dollars and euros that the international community will deliver to Haiti. Some seeking office in the forthcoming November elections echo the conviction that world philanthropy is the country's way out of poverty. Of course, the detailed plans and budgets that multilateral banks and foreign aid agencies have requested have yet to be supplied. No matter, many insist, money will be provided anyway.
Those who share this perspective also relish making fools of others who insist that sustainable prosperity requires hard work, effective planning, and the production of goods and services that people around the world need and want. And then there is a long pending list of legal and regulatory reforms that a duly elected parliament must enact. The profile of a nation of 10 million relegated to the status of an international welfare case is a very poor risk even for the most intrepid of institutional investors.
In June 2009, the IMF and the World Bank forgave $1.2 billion of Haiti's debt. The widely applauded decision will actually worsen Haiti's credit rating and make it nearly impossible to raise capital for infrastructure projects in the $500 million-to-$1 billion range, such as the modern industrial parks, port facilities and airports that can take advantage of trade preferences like the HOPE Act, enacted four years ago by the U.S. Congress. Properly implemented, HOPE is intended to spur the development of world-class industrial parks where work for 150,000 in apparel and electric wiring assembly can materialize in less than a decade.
Much of this sounds like déjà vu. What is new is that the old misery index bumped up in January and continues to rise. Meantime, the hills are denuded. Free cash from remittances will not flow forever. The population grows yearly. The old peasants in blue denim, straw hat and clay pipe depicted in countless paintings are all but gone. The people who matter at the moment are the millions of residents in urban shanties and under blue-and-gray tarps. They are invisible no more and can never be again.
Yves Savain, a native of Haiti, is a Maryland entrepreneur who has been a consultant to Haitian companies and business associations.