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Haiti's Reconstruction Struggles

Interviewee: Jonathan M. Katz, Journalist
Interviewer: Danielle Renwick
January 12, 2015

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On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, killing as many as 316,000 people and destroying much of the city. Relief and reconstruction in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, continues to move slowly and has been marked by major setbacks, including a cholera outbreak some experts have linked to UN peacekeepers. (While the UN has led anti-cholera efforts, it claims immunity from legal action.) Despite donors' best intentions, foreign assistance has failed to strengthen Haiti's political institutions, says Jonathan M. Katz, who reported from Port-au-Prince during the earthquake for the Associated Press and is the author of The Big Truck That Went By. Five years later, Katz says, the state remains weak.

Downtown Port-au-Prince, where cinder blocks are collected for reconstruction, June 2014. (Photo: Katherine Wise)

The earthquake left an estimated 1.5 million people homeless, spurring the development of sprawling tent camps, some of which remain open. How are conditions today?

Most of the rubble has been cleared—mostly by Haitians, who used it to rebuild their homes. General services and infrastructure weren't there to recover in the first place. The situation before the earthquake was untenable, and it still is untenable.

The camps became the most visible symbol of the destruction caused by the earthquake, so a lot of pressure was put on the various responders to reduce the number of people living in the camps.

But within a month of the earthquake the camps were simply becoming new parts of the housing stock of Port-au-Prince. If you were to go into one of the major camps and then to Cite Soleil, a shantytown that had been there for about thirty years, you couldn't really tell them apart. They look the same, they're made of the same materials, and a lot of the same families had family members living in both.You'd have the same kinds of boutiques, the same guys selling lottery tickets.

That's not to say people didn't want to move back somewhere else. In many cases people had lived in nicer concrete houses before the earthquake and wanted to get out of the camps. The vast majority of people who were registered as living in earthquake camps have now left. Some have gotten rental subsidies, some have been violently pushed out, and some were able to get back to work and could rent another place.

Haiti is embroiled in a political crisis that has blocked parliamentary and municipal elections. Is this a legacy of damages wrought by the quake, or another chapter in the country’s chronic political instability?

The cause of this crisis goes back to the wake of the Duvalier dictatorship. In 1986, Jean-Claude ["Baby Doc"] Duvalier fled, and the Haitian people created a new constitution whose main goal was to prevent a dictatorship from reestablishing itself in the place of the Duvaliers. That constitution created a very severe set of checks and balances that allowed, for example, parliament to dismiss the prime minister with a simple majority in either chamber.

Recognizing the extreme power that the legislature has over its branch, the executive—and this includes all presidents from all parties—has consistently exploited a loophole to prevent elections from being held, to keep parliament weak and allow presidents to rule by decree.

"If another earthquake were to happen today on the exact same fault, the result would be more or less the same."

What's specific to the current conflict is the presidential election that was held in the year after the earthquake, which was about how Haiti would be reconstructed. The United States supported [the challenger, current President] Michel Martelly, who saw reconstruction the same way Washington did—based on foreign investment—over then-President Rene Preval's party's candidate, Jude Celestin. Celestin looked like he was gong to be a continuation of Preval, [whose relationship with Washington was sometimes confronational].

The Organization of the American States (OAS)—and really the United States—came in and all but decided the results of the election. [Editor’s note: The OAS, which oversaw Haiti's election, found strong evidence of fraud and recommended that enough ballots be invalidated to drop Celestin from first place to third, eliminating him from the runoff.]

The effect was to have the president that the United States wanted, but also to allow what became the opposition to remain in power in parliament. Given the proclivities of the 1987 constitution, that created a conflict in which the executive and legislature would be in gridlock. 

Workers scavenge metal rebar from damaged buildings in Port-au-Prince, June 2014. (Photo: Katherine Wise)

Critics have referred to Haiti as a republic of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. What's the most effective use of foreign aid in a country with weak institutions and perceived endemic corruption?

After the earthquake, 93 percent of aid went to NGOs (PDF), UN agencies, donor government entities tasked with responding to the crisis, and Red Cross organizations. One percent went to the Haitian government, and 6 percent can't be traced.

The Haitian government was so weak when the earthquake struck that it wasn't in a position to receive large amounts of money and do anything practical with it. But work should have started within a few months of the disaster to make sure that all the interventions going into Haiti were helping to build municipal and national structures so that next time a disaster struck a more robust state response would be a possibility. But that didn't happen.

We have these conversations about aid which are predicated on the idea of corruption—that the countries in which aid is operating are unable or unwilling to have money, power, or autonomy themselves. But the role of aid could be to move money and power from places that have it to places that don't, and could allow people to make decisions and implement plans and polices where they live.

You have argued that a country’s reliance on NGOs creates a lack of accountability.

The Haitian government has very limited reach, and basic services—like the construction of wells and clinics, for example—are mostly provided by NGOs. There's no democracy in that scenario.

If you live in the quake zone and you’re just an ordinary Haitian citizen who depends on an NGO for services, and the NGO does a bad job, or even an irrelevant job, there's usually no mechanism to communicate it. In the United States—in theory, and usually in practice—if we’re angry enough [about public services] we can vote for the other guy.

The UN has had an important presence in Haiti since 2004, but its record is mixed. Haitians have sued the UN for bringing cholera to island. What's the relationship between the state and the UN today?

UN peacekeeping forces are the most visible element of the UN in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, what people see most often of the UN are the guys driving by with their blue helmets and their white armored personnel carriers. A lot of people in Haiti wonder what exactly the UN is even there to do.

It was always a mixed bag because there were some people who were happy with the UN presence. In the wake of the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, they had pacified some neighborhoods, they had separated the gangs that were fighting, and maybe they made it harder for some of the drug operators to operate. But now it’s been more than ten years. So [the peacekeepers’ presence] was going to start wearing on a lot of people anyway.

But what did the most to change the UN's standing in Haiti was [being linked to] the introduction of cholera (PDF). Cholera in Haiti is a disaster that, while not commensurate with the death toll of the earthquake, has had in many ways at least a comparable impact. It has killed about nine thousand people and infected about seven hundred thousand. It ruined people’s livelihoods. It changed people’s relationships with one another. People were afraid to shake hands, to eat at each others’ houses. Fishermen didn’t want to go out fishing. People who were raising rice crops didn’t want to go out into the rice paddies. It was really destructive beyond the death toll. And the death toll was massively high. If we weren’t putting this in conversation with an earthquake that killed an estimated 316,000 people, a disaster that killed about nine thousand people in a country of ten million would be considered sort of one of the great disasters of its century. And the UN has categorically refused accountability at every step of the way.

[Editor’s note: On January 9, 2015, a U.S. judge ruled the UN had legal immunity and dismissed a suit filed on behalf of Haitian cholera victims.]

If an earthquake were to strike today, would Haiti be any better prepared?

If another earthquake were to happen today on the exact same fault, the result would be more or less the same. There's no robust response waiting in the wings.

Many people have moved back to the same homes they were living in before the earthquake, homes that have been patched up slightly or maybe not at all, or they've moved to new buildings that have been since the earthquake but are just as vulnerable as the ones built before it. There has always been a building code in Haiti, but there has never been an enforcement mechanism to make people follow it. [For example,] the Haitian government still doesn't have the enforcement mechanism to ensure that masons are doing what they are supposed to be doing. That goes back to core structural problems of governance and economy.

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