In Port-au-Prince, every moment of every day is marked by the 12 January earthquake. Even six months on, just the act of driving through the Haitian capital can be a trial. In some neighbourhoods, rubble from countless destroyed buildings still lies strewn across the roads and pavements.
At times, cars and buses have to edge over the remains of shops and businesses and homes, often tipping on their sides as they go. Hour-long queues build up in a flash, and tempers fray.
But the grid-locked traffic, and the rubble, are just two of the many reminders of Haiti’s worst natural disaster in over 200 years. The full reality of what is going on here is far, far worse.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people are still living in makeshift camps. Most are in exactly the same tents they were given, or found, or managed to share, just hours or days after the quake struck.
Life under canvas is tough. Most camps – some home to 7,000 people, some to 75,000 – provide little or no food or water, few showers, limited toilets and no electricity. The tents, which wouldn’t look out of place on a European campsite, are tiny. Some are better than others, but most are not designed to provide a comfortable quality of life under a beating Caribbean sun - or in a hurricane zone. And certainly not for months on end.
People are understandably frustrated. They talk of being forgotten and abandoned. They ask why nothing is being done and they want to know how long they will have to live this life of misery.
As one man, Claude Douge, asked me: “Why don’t people just come and talk to us and ask us what we need? How come nobody in the international community is saying anything?”
Claude would probably be pleased to know that over recent months, and particularly over the past week, we have heard no end of criticism about the lack of progress in Haiti.
Questions are being asked. And rightly so. After the quake, Britons donated money in their hundreds of thousands to help the Haitian people in the immediate aftermath, raising a total of more than £100 million. Nations from around the globe pledged short and long-term support, and most chimed in agreement that the international community would never again turn a blind eye to Haiti’s plight.
So what has happened since January? There have of course been a catalogue of problems which, in their own small ways, have contributed to the slow progress.
In the days and weeks following, international agencies from around the world flew in to assist. There were logistical problems; from the airport becoming backlogged with aid deliveries to the fact that most roads and thoroughfares throughout Port-au-Prince were blocked by fallen buildings.
There were problems of coordination between agencies and the UN, and between the Haitian government. And then there were issues of the very organisations who were trying to lead the relief effort losing tens, and in some cases hundreds of staff themselves. As people will still tell you today, this was a disaster that paralysed all layers of society – including the international presence in Port-au-Prince.
But, despite all the rhyme and reason as to why things have moved so slowly here, over the last six months it has become increasingly apparent that there are simply no ‘quick fixes’ for Haiti. For Haiti is a case all its own, and a complex one.
Yes, the hundreds of thousands of people in camps still clearly need urgent humanitarian assistance – and fast. People must be fed – and they must have access to water and medicine. Immediate needs – including providing better shelter for those who continue to live under tarpaulins held up by little more than wooden sticks – must be met.
However, this is also the moment to lay the foundations for a new Haiti, and tackle the key barriers to the country’s long-term development which, to a large extent, have kept Haitians poor for so long. Now is the time to get the ball rolling. That means, making sure that the plans for reconstruction and ‘building back better’ are watertight.
Building a strong and well supported Haitian state is clearly the first priority. Ask people living in the camps today what they think of the government and most will shake their heads or laugh. “We don’t have a government here”, one man told me. “The people from the government have never been here to find out what life is like for us.”
It is little wonder they have no confidence. Haitian Prime Ministers have come and gone at an alarming rate over the last century. Instead, many people told me, they want stability and to have strong leadership and a government which can show its people that things are being done.
Another critical issue is decentralisation. A piece of jargon, perhaps, but devolving power and services from the Haitian capital are both desperately needed. To get anything done here, a taxi driver named Don Lucas tells me, you have to come to Port-au-Prince. He points out the queues of people waiting outside a nondescript building. “They are all waiting to get their new tax disc for their cars,” he says. “Many of them will have travelled for miles – or days – to get here. Most will wait all day, and probably tomorrow too,” he says. “And even then they might not get it, if there’s a problem with the system or the computers,” he adds.
These scenes are repeated across the capital – for tax discs, ID cards, birth certificates. Town and city mayors even have to come to Port au Prince to collect their salaries. If people were able to do these administrative tasks locally, that in itself would be a huge leap forward.
Then they are issues of employment. Among the many thousands of people living in squalid conditions under canvas, are numerous graduates, school leavers and professionals. They all want to work. Very few have ever managed to find a stable job.
Agriculture and environment are critical to longer-term development here, too. During our short time in Port-au-Prince, we were amazed to see eggs which had been imported from Florida. Arun, a popular Haitian version of smoked herring, is said to come from as far away as the Mediterranean. Rice comes from the States. Even chicken is bussed in from the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Instead, Haiti needs urgent investment in its own agricultural systems to enable it to produce its own food.
And many of these issues are just the tip of the ice-berg. As Lizzette Robleto, Progressio’s Advocacy Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean said just a few days ago, securing long-term development here is “no easy task” which is not just about new houses and new roads, important as those are.
It is about some of the biggest and most complex development challenges, many of which could take several generations to overcome. So, while criticism is valid and progress has indeed been painfully slow, the aid effort is just part of the picture. Haiti’s reality – and its long-term needs – are sadly far more complex than they may appear. Development here will undoubtedly take time.
Photo: Haiti's cash for work scheme employs local people to help clear rubble. (Photo © Natasha Fillion/Progressio)
Jo Barrett is Progressio's Media Officer. She travelled to Port-au-Prince and the bordering areas with the Dominican Republic in June to visit Progressio linked development work, and spent many days in the camps talking to ordinary people about their concerns and frustrations.