Can Haiti Really Be Saved?
By Roxanne Wieman
July 7, 2010
Originally hailing from rural Colorado (via Fort Collins and Chicago) and an avid runner, Roxy works as the editor-at-large for RELEVANT Media Group, leading the editorial for RELEVANT magazine, as well as writing the occasional award-winning cover story. Follow her on Twitter: @roxy_composed
The following is the cover story from the July/August 2010 issue of RELEVANT. Since it has now been one year since the earthquake, we wanted to take a look back at what we learned when we went to Haiti. Click here to subscribe.
“We Need Help”
It’s a simple phrase, even an obvious one.
Simple because of its directness and obvious because, well, it’s spray-painted on a pile of rubble in the middle of Port-au-Prince. This one and countless other messages like it were painted throughout the city in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake—one of the largest natural disasters to ever affect the Western Hemisphere. We need help. But how? How can we even begin to help? How did it get this bad? And, perhaps most pressingly, where is God in all this?
Standing on a hillside overlooking Haiti’s nearly destroyed capital city, that spray-painted phrase feels as accurate now, six months after the earthquake, as it did then. Even though money poured in from all sides (remember the $10 donation to the Red Cross via text message? The telethon with every celebrity ever known?), it seems like nothing has happened—as if this tiny half-island nation has somehow become a hope-free zone.
No one can prepare you for Haiti. Sure, as the buzz cause of the year, there’s certainly no shortage of articles to read, organizations to interview and experts to analyze. But to try to understand Haiti, to try to understand why it’s still this bad after so much time and, perhaps most difficult of all, to try to find hope in the entire mess, you have to make sense of a nation with a brutal history, a country that was a mess of corruption and poverty before a 7.0 earthquake destroyed its capital city. To understand what’s being done, where money is going, what the outlook of the country is—well, you need to go back to the beginning.
Crippled from the start
“I want you to remember three dates so we can really make sense of 2010,” says Edouard Lassegue, a native Haitian and vice president of the Latin American and Caribbean region for Compassion International. “The first date of Haitian history is 1804—the date of our independence in Haiti.”
To go so far back may seem unnecessary. Surely, more recent events—like the U.S. occupancy in the 20th century, the Duvalier revolution or Aristide’s rise to power in the 1990s—are what affect Haiti today. But Lassegue is insistent. On that date, “after 300 years of slavery and 10 years of war, finally, the slaves got their independence from France.”
The second date is in 1825, the day Haiti signed a contract with France for their independence. After spending more than 20 years defending their freedom and preparing themselves for a renewed attack from the French, Haiti agreed to purchase its independence from France. The Haitian leaders signed a contract to pay 150 million francs (later reduced to 90 million) to guarantee its continued freedom. It was an amount based on France’s calculated financial losses during the war for independence—including the loss of their slaves.
“The next date to remember is 1947,” Lassegue says. “That’s when the last penny of the debt of independence was paid. So it took Haiti 122 years to pay back that debt. The Haitian government had to close all schools and stop all investments in public infrastructure in order to make the first payment and all the payments thereafter. My parents still remember standing in line as schoolchildren to bring their pennies and their few dollars into the collection baskets because there was that motivation, ‘Let us pay the debt of independence.’ That was just over 60 years ago, so one cannot say, ‘Haiti has been independent for so many years, how come there has never been change in the country?’ We have been crippled from the beginning.”
When you consider Haiti’s lack of infrastructure—there are no public schools, very little access to health care, no real sanitation system—in light of this history, it makes more sense. And it partially explains why everything still, even six months later, seems to be in such bad shape.
Of course, Haiti’s challenges are not limited to those created by distant history. A cycle of political unrest and government corruption has plagued Haiti since its inception.
In its 200-year history, Haiti has suffered 32 coups, several foreign occupations and an extremely tenuous and occasionally violent relationship with its neighbor on the island, the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s current president, René Préval, took office in 2006 following an interim president and the 2004 Haitian rebellion, in which the divisive two-time president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted and sent into exile. Préval, though occasionally demonstrated against, is expected to be one of the first democratically elected presidents to go full-term in Haiti. Elections are set for November of this year.
“Haiti has come very far,” says Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois, Haiti director for the Catholic Medical Mission Board. “We have been independent since 1804, but our leadership was never good. People were selfish, they were thinking only about themselves.”
This lack of forward-thinking is perhaps no more obvious than in the bald mountains surrounding Port-au-Prince—ones that were once covered in lush trees and vegetation.
“One of the issues you have in Haiti is severe deforestation,” says Russell Porter, the USAID deputy coordinator for the Haiti Task Team. “And that’s come about over years and years of a lack of a sufficient energy supply.”
Very little has been done to regulate the forests in Haiti, and with a very complicated system of land rights, no one has taken ownership over making sure Haiti’s trees are regulated and replenished.
“I don’t think they truly understand the lasting consequences,” says Kevin Rose, the Haiti director for Convoy of Hope, a faith-based nutrition distribution and disaster relief organization. “Haitians don’t live for down the road, they live for today. ‘I need to feed my family today. I need charcoal today to cook my food. I’m not going to think about cutting this tree down that’s not going to grow back, and the consequences.’ It’s easy on paper to think about that stuff, but you’re changing a culture, you’re changing a mindset. People have always done it this way.”
Deforestation is but one example of Haiti’s existing development struggles. “Haiti has been a country of instability,” Lassegue says. “In the past we’ve seen governments come and go, and people have been used to that unfortunately. There’s a sense that nothing is going to change—it’s only going to get worse. It’s very difficult to get a sense of hope back into the country.”
“There is so much to do”
And in the midst of all that history and tragedy, the earthquake hit. People were shocked the earth buckled with such a ferocity—images upon images of the destroyed Port-au-Prince flooded our televisions.
At first, of course, giving to Haiti is all anyone wanted to do. The constant stream of reports—the rising death toll, the incomprehensible property damage, the orphans—prompted people all over the world to open their wallets and give in unprecedented amounts. But such generosity rarely comes without strings attached. And now—six months after the earthquake and with hundreds of thousands still living in tents amidst a city of rubble—people want to know, just where is all that money going?
It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is both very simple and extremely complex.
The simple answer: We’re not done yet.
“There is so much to do,” Imogen Wall, a communications officer with the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says as she walks hurriedly through the jumble of U.N. log base buildings. “Oh my goodness, there is so much to do. Usually at this stage in the operation, you’re getting at least Saturdays or Sundays off. Not here. Everybody is working absolutely flat out, and it’s hot and exhausting, but it’s so necessary. It’s so huge, this thing, so overwhelming. There is also a necessity to get things right, as well as do things fast.”
And it’s there, in that last bit, that the answer to the question of where the money is going becomes complicated.
“We need to make sure everything is done right,” Wall continues. “Particularly in a disaster like this where a large portion of money has come from people’s pockets. People have actually donated money. I think everyone here is acutely aware of the need to make that money work as hard as it can.”
“It’s a lot longer-term process than people think,” says Scott Sabin, the director for Plant with Purpose, an agricultural aid organization that’s been working in Haiti for more than 30 years. “You’ve got just a very short time in which you’re doing the immediate, handing out food and digging people out of the rubble. And that’s what everybody envisions the money all going for. I’m almost offended by some of the headlines: ‘Three months after the quake, Haiti still has rubble.’ Providing adequate shelter and rebuilding infrastructure takes time. It takes a lot more time.”
To drive through Port-au-Prince is to see the effects of the earthquake everywhere you look. Tents fill every open space—no matter how small—rubble spills onto the road, buildings lean perilously over crowded walkways. It’s easy to see the physical needs of the city all around you—and easy to wonder why it’s taking so long to meet those needs. What is harder to see, however, is the milieu of historical, cultural, spiritual and psychological influences that make up Haiti. And each of those must be taken into consideration as the massive rebuilding efforts continue.
“We surely do not want to give the impression that money is going to be easy in and easy out, and no effort,” Lassegue says. “Organizations have to be extremely careful to spend the funds in a way that is constructive. When it comes to actually building lives and to making a difference for the long-term, that is when it becomes more of a challenge. You have to take into account people, and change the mindsets and their hearts.”
A bad situation made worse
It’s not only the politics that make bringing relief to Haiti so complicated. Every seeming solution comes with 10 reasons why it won’t work or it isn’t a good idea. Bring in heavy equipment to remove the rubble? Well, sure ... but the roads (unpaved alleys many of them) are too narrow. There are a limited number of skilled workers in Haiti who can operate the machines—and it’s critical to give the work (and the money) to Haitians rather than bring in foreigners. And where would all the rubble go, anyway? The existing dump sites are quickly filling up, and land in Haiti is at a premium.
“You’re looking at a lot of shovels and a lot of stuff being done by hand,” Wall says. “Plus, every time you start clearing rubble, you find a body, and then the whole process has to stop while someone comes in and moves the body. It’s dangerous moving rubble, there’s a lot of metal and things in it, so you have to be properly equipped to do it, vaccinate everybody and get them hard hats and stuff.”
And rubble removal is only one among a host of troubling issues in Haiti: land rights, lack of sanitation, dense and unstable tent cities, gender violence, an imminent hurricane season. Each with its own series of possible solutions—and inherent in each of those solutions, a complicated list of pros and cons.
“I think one challenge President [Obama] and others have pointed to is that even before the disaster, the infrastructure was significantly challenged,” says Joshua Dubois, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration. “There was a tremendous amount of work to be done even before the earthquake, and obviously that disaster then exacerbated the level of difficulty there. You’re not starting from a base of significant infrastructure, but you have to rebuild, you have to bring an infrastructure that was never there in the first place.”
Of course, not everything has been bad news. Even with a difficult start and admitted confusion in the early parts of the relief efforts, there are victories to celebrate.
“I think the two biggest [victories] probably are shelter—the vast majority of people now have tarps or tin or waterproof shelter—and that we haven’t had a secondary wave of deaths from infections and transmitted diseases,” Wall says. “It’s very hard to prove a negative, but I cannot tell you the amount of work that’s gone into making sure waterborne diseases do not spread in these camps, making sure people have access to clean water. And people have had access to food, as well. There are no mass food distributions going on anymore because they are no longer needed, and the government is worried about them damaging the agriculture sector, as are we, so that transition is happening now.”
“There was a lot of confusion at the very beginning,” Lassegue admits. “We lost a lot of time trying to understand and coordinate efforts. There could have been much better networking and cooperation between organizations, but each one was learning on their own. ... We were not ready for such a thing. But now you see more and more organizations coming together to say, ‘How can we pool our strengths together?’”
Where are the churches?
Lassegue points to the local church as a critical component to organized and successful relief efforts—as well as being a challenging force for integrity.
“The disaster is a result of the [earthquake], but also it is a result of years and years of bad decisions,” Lassegue says. “And that is why we want to challenge the Church to have a voice, to stand up and say, ‘There are things we will not stand anymore, there are some ways and practices of corruption, of injustice, of lack of integrity that have resulted in these 237,000 deaths, that we as a Church and we as a people of God do not want to accept anymore.’ If the culture of Haiti had serious leadership and serious citizenship, a lot of the deaths would have been avoided. We want the Church to be the Church. If there is hope for Haiti, it is not in the billions of dollars promised. The hope of the people resides in the Church of Haiti.”
The Church in Haiti has its own troubled history. Like most colonized islands, Catholicism is the primary religion—more than 80 percent of Haitians identify themselves as Catholic—but (as televangelist Pat Robertson was infamously so quick to point out) voodoo has a significant spiritual and cultural place in Haiti. For many black Haitians, voodoo represents their ties to Africa and is a symbol of pride in their heritage.
“The voodoo stuff is still here,” says pastor Jacques Louis, who works with Churches Helping Churches and is on the faculty for the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Port-au-Prince (STEP). “You don’t see it as much as you used to, but it’s still here. It’s like a big syncretism thing. We can say 80 percent of people in Haiti are Catholic, but maybe we have 85 percent of Haitians doing voodoo.”
Louis says that while voodoo practices are something almost all churches teach against, it’s not an easy thing to fight because it’s so embedded in the country’s cultural history.
“People in Haiti, they have a lot of belief, strong belief,” Jean-Francois says. “After the earthquake, people thought they were being punished for their sins—that our own sisters were so much involved in voodoo, so that’s why we were being punished. The day of the earthquake, there was one word you heard out in the streets: Jesus. Jesus! Jesus is coming back! Haitians know there is one God up there, and they know you have to turn toward Him when you have a problem.”
The Church makes a difference
“I was first invited to Haiti in 1995 by an Episcopal priest,” Sabin says. “His home church was this beautiful stone church way out in the countryside. And it’s utterly crumbled now; not one stone on another. I was there just before Easter and ... amidst the rubble, a choir of 30 or 40 people were [singing] Easter hymns. That vignette of faith amidst that devastation was so poignant. The whole country dedicated three days to prayer and fasting about a month after the quake, and that’s just the one thing, over and over again, I keep hearing. The faith goes on. I would have expected [the earthquake] would really shake people’s faith, and I haven’t seen that, I haven’t heard that.”
It’s a trend most in the Haitian church agree with—saying the earthquake has united people in faith and caused many to return to church.
“Many people came to church after the earthquake,” Louis says. “There were more converts after the earthquake than maybe one or two years of evangelism. ... I know most of the time people will think, ‘Where is God in this?’ But I don’t hear that much in Haiti. I hear people saying, ‘I’m thankful to the Lord because I’m still alive.’”
In fact, it’s the Church—both in Haiti and globally—that’s been a central part in the recovery efforts following the earthquake.“[President Obama] believes faith-based groups have a central role to play in meeting the needs of those suffering in the world, including of course our brothers and sisters in Haiti,” Dubois says. “What we’ve done in Haiti is connect local and national/international NGOs [non-governmental organizations] with the federal government so we can work together to serve those in need, and specifically our faith-based office at USAID has done a tremendous job at making sure USAID and NGOs working on the ground are communicating with one another, sharing information and resources.”
Many faith-based NGOs like Compassion, World Relief, World Vision, Convoy of Hope and Plant with Purpose had existing partnerships within the local church in Haiti, and those partnerships have been key to implementing their disaster relief efforts.
“The clergy have such a network of people in their community, whether it’s 10 people or 100 people in that church, who are coming to them with their needs,” says Laura Blank, who works in disaster response with World Vision and has worked in Haiti since the earthquake. “So they’re very much a sounding board for us about what’s happening in the community, and how we can help.”
Lassegue echoes the importance of partnering with the local church. “The Church was active immediately after the earthquake and they did not wait for outside help. The buildings may have been destroyed, some churches may have lost their leaders or pastors, but the Church still stands. Those churches are flooded because the people realize they are the ones who stepped out to provide assistance and love and support during this time. The Church is very strong in Haiti, and needs to be supported and equipped to face this challenge.”
And a challenge it is. Six months after the earthquake, most churches and organizations are in what many have dubbed a “transitional phase”—meant to bridge the emergency relief efforts and more long-term development. It’s a phase focused primarily on sanitation, education and shelter—as well as preparation for Haiti’s hurricane season, which began June 1 but is most severe in the early fall.
“We’ll not even begin to consider this not an emergency environment until after the hurricane season,” Wall says. “From the start, we’ve been planning transitional shelters. I think there’s a few hundred finished now and there’s about 160,000 in the pipeline. We’re transitioning. We would like to get as many people out of tents as possible before the hurricane season, no questions asked.”
But even getting people out of tents is not that simple. Building permanent homes is, in most cases, not feasible yet. The Haitian government is responsible for creating a new building code in accordance with international standards for earthquake-prone areas, as well as identifying safe zones for rebuilding. However, as of press time, that code had not been approved. And until it is approved, no permanent structures can be legally erected.
“It’s up to the government of Haiti to identify places where we could begin building or relocating,” Blank says. “So I think one of the challenges has been for the government to identify those portions of land and then for us to be able to start building.”
Eric Porterfield, the senior press officer for international services with the Red Cross, agrees with the need for the Haitian government to take the lead on a resettlement strategy, but also feels a growing sense of urgency. “It’s going to have to come from the government up to a certain point,” he says. “Then there is a thing called humanitarian diplomacy. And there are talks at every organization right now about how long do you wait until you start putting more pressure on.”
But even once a building code is approved, land rights issues will continue to be a major barrier to permanent reconstruction. Very few records exist of land ownership in Haiti—and much of what did exist was lost in the earthquake—so it’s very difficult to prove ownership. And that’s for people who owned their homes in the first place, which was rare.
“Most people rented, so what do they do?” Porterfield asks. “Do organizations like the Red Cross give into being land tenants and landlords? It’s not something we’ve ever had to do before. Buying land, that’s just not something humanitarian organizations do.”
Not to mention, land in Port-au-Prince is at a premium anyway. Much of the city is still covered in rubble, and there are areas where it’s simply not safe to build again. These government-identified “red zones” are on steep slopes and areas prone to flash flooding—places homes should never have been built in the first place. It’s a safety measure—and a good one—but it further limits available land in an already overpopulated city.
Long-term, there are talks of decentralizing Port-au-Prince—of creating “suburbs” on the outskirts of the city with amenities and infrastructures to support whole communities.
“We want to see Haiti decentralized,” Porter says. “This is a priority of the government and of the Haitian people—to not have everything in Port-au-Prince. This is one of the key areas where we will work with the government of Haiti to improve service delivery outside of Port-au-Prince and in local areas.”
But, in the meantime, people need someplace to go. And—as much as everyone would like to move straight into construction of permanent homes—transitional shelters seem to be the best option.
Life as normal
The thing is, to read about the devastation in Haiti and to hear how hard rebuilding is going to be, is completely different than to walk around and see Haiti. Because when you walk around the tent cities and you talk to the people on the street selling their fried plantains and fresh mangoes, you don’t hear the theories on long-term rehabilitation or the concerns over land rights. What you see and hear and smell is life as normal—albeit, a very new normal.
“Some of the reports I heard about the chaos, well, that’s just the way Haiti normally is,” Sabin says. “Being used to that, I guess it was often easy to overlook the earthquake. There were times I would forget there had been an earthquake. Things just seem so normal because they’re so good at just picking up and going on. There would be street vendors, and traffic, and people walking down the street and it’s very easy for your eye to overlook the fact that most of the buildings behind them had collapsed.”
This juxtaposition of everyday life amidst a city in ruins is perhaps the most striking part of being in Port-au-Prince. Clothing hangs drying on lines suspended above piles of bricks. Two men play a game of chess on the edge of a second-story apartment whose walls and roof are missing. A woman offers manicures and pedicures in her tent, a cart of multicolored polishes tucked against her bed, where several customers sit waiting.
“People are incredibly self-sufficient, incredibly capable,” Wall says. “People were setting up small business in their tents the day they arrived. Within a few days, you could go and buy soap, you could go and get your phone recharged, you could go and pay to watch a movie. People are incredible here, they will rebuild their lives, and our job is to help them do that, and to help take on the bigger things individuals can’t and that need to be taken on by a state and by a system.”
Education, education, education
Perhaps the most critical of the larger issues waiting to be taken on is the school systems.
“The education system collapsed on January 12,” says Laurent Prosper, the consul chief of mission for the Haitian Consulate General’s office in Orlando, Fla. “Investing in the education system is key. The more Haitians we can empower through education will allow us as a people to become more independent and less reliant on international aid and workers to reconstruct our country.”
No matter who you talk to, nearly everyone says education is the key to Haiti’s long-term growth. In the transitional phase, this merely means getting schools reopened and ensuring kids are able to attend somewhere. In the long-term, it means a complete reimagining of Haiti’s education system. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu is working with Haiti’s first lady, Elizabeth Préval, and leaders from the International Development Bank to restructure the Haitian education system—which is almost exclusively private and expensive—and create a free, public school system.
“It is absolutely impossible to build a strong middle class without a well-educated populace,” Landrieu says. “And Haiti, for many reasons over the last several decades, has just not been able to provide quality, free public education, and that has to be done. So [we’re] working on a plan to propose the building of the first free, quality, universal public school system in Haiti, which would be thousands of new schools that would be designed and built.”
Convoy of Hope works closely with several schools in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas. They have seen many of their partner schools start to reopen—but they’re often meeting in tents or in buildings that are still significantly damaged.
“We’re really focusing on our aid being through schools,” Rose says. “Getting children back in school, getting them the daily food, getting them to take home rations to their families, getting them clean water.”
Rose says there is a lot of instability in the schools right now as displaced families are still moving around—from tent city to tent city, or from Port-au-Prince out into the rural provinces. The earthquake has only exacerbated a nationwide problem of regular school attendance. Because of tuition costs, families often send their children in rotation, or only when they can afford the tuition.
“There are kids always cycling through school,” Rose says. “There are a lot of different causes for kids not coming to school every day. There are probably a lot of kids not here today because they can’t afford their monthly tuition, and when they can’t afford their monthly tuition, [the school] can’t afford to have any teachers. It’s a vicious cycle.”
That vicious cycle has led to a national literacy rate barely more than 50 percent, and only 20 percent of the population reaching secondary education.
“Education, education, education. Without that, we are poor,” Jean-Francois says. “When people are not educated, it takes them down. It takes the country down, everything down. So we’ve got to move forward. This is my dream: I would like to see by 2020, that at least 75 percent [of people] have access to schools in the country. And with that I think we can change; the future of Haiti will be better.”
Planning for the future
It’s the future of Haiti that everyone has on their mind. Though most relief work being done now is classified as transitional, aid agencies and governments alike are making plans for the long-term. Education. Infrastructure. Agriculture. Sanitation. Housing. Health care. Vocational training. Energy distribution. Continued democratic elections. The list of priorities for long-term development is long and growing. But each of them must be taken into consideration as plans are made.
“In the long-term, this is not reconstruction—it’s construction,” Wall says. “This is trying to bring in systems that actually will reduce some of the awful developmental disease that was here before. It would not be acceptable to aim to put Haiti back the way it was. No one thinks Haiti the way it was is an acceptable way for people to be living. So we have to raise that. That has to be and has been an objective from the start.”
A criticism long aimed at aid work in Haiti has been the concern that such work—in the long run—only creates dependency on foreign systems and charity. It’s a concern shared by most aid workers, and one that everyone is actively trying to avoid.
“There is a tremendous amount of dependency in Haiti,” Sabin says. “And I think a lot of it is that the aid tends to be misapplied in ways that make people passive rather than empower them. One of the things I tend to hear a lot of is people trying to solve the Haitians’ problems: What Haiti needs is ‘x.’ Haitians need to say more of what they need. I hesitate with what a lot of Americans say they are going to do, unless it’s alongside people who are taking the lead, because those things can rot local initiative. In long-term development or long-term aid, you’d better not be doing for people what they can do themselves because that will achieve the wrong result.”
Most aid agencies are working hard to ensure Haitians are taking the lead on rehabilitation—starting with the government. However, the Haitian government sustained a heavy loss of lives and property in the earthquake, and it’s taken time to recover.
“The palace itself was destroyed,” Porter says. “Many of the people who worked for the government are now living in tents or temporary shelters because their homes were destroyed. You have records that were lost, you have computers, all of those things are lost. Not to mention people. You have a lot of people that were lost in the earthquake, either family members or people who work for the government itself. So that’s been very difficult. All that said, the Haitian government is our key partner in this, and the government of Haiti is going to be key to the success because it’s their country and we have to work with them as our primary partner in these efforts.”
As the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, former President Clinton will serve as a key liaison between aid organizations and the Haitian government. He will organize task forces based on the U.N. cluster system, where relief work is divided into sectors—such as shelter, food, sanitation—and aid organizations are assigned to whatever sector they work in. Each meeting will have representatives from aid organizations in that sector, as well as Haitian government officials assigned to that cluster.
“They are the elected authorities here, and the U.N. and aid communities come into countries at the request of national authorities,” Wall says. “So we are a support to the government of Haiti’s efforts. But the policy decisions and the accountability must lie with the government.”
“The hope of Haiti is not in the money that will or will not come,” Lassegue says. “The hope of the country resides in its people. And as we challenge Haitians to take responsibility, and to face those challenges for themselves and to question some of the practices that have gotten the country into a downward spiral, there have to be some things that change. It cannot change from the outside; it has to change from the inside. Things like integrity, corruption, injustice—these things have to turn from the inside. And as leadership is developed in the country and awareness is made regarding those challenges, that is where change is going to take place.”
“A Renewed Haiti”
Through all of these efforts, the long-term goal is to help Haiti move beyond both the problems of the earthquake and the problems that afflicted the country before.
“A renewed Haiti is a Haiti where nobody goes hungry,” Wall says. “It’s a Port-au-Prince that’s an acceptable place to live, that has the sanitation systems and the electricity systems and the basic services we all take for granted, many of which were not here before.”
That means what’s needed is more than throwing money at the problem and hoping it works. It means a carefully considered and strategic approach to spending and rebuilding. It may even mean a process that seems painfully slow to anyone watching from the outside. But, as in many cases, sometimes the right thing to do takes the most work and time.
“It drives me crazy when people hear about Haiti and go, ‘Oh, gosh, we’ve wasted so much, those people are hopeless,’” Sabin says. “It’s not the real story. There are so many stories in Haiti. It’s an amazing place, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. It’s very complex, like every place is. We tend to see someplace superficially and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got this figured out.’ Then before you know it, you realize you didn’t know anything when you started.”
Is there hope?
No matter how much time aid workers and NGO leaders spend chronicling the complications of rebuilding Haiti, or emphasizing how difficult and complex and time-consuming such a restoration effort is, they will always tell you there’s hope.
“If you’re reading the American press, all you hear about is the grinding poverty and despair,” Sabin says. “And from the surface, when you first see it, I think it’s the chaos that really affronts your senses. But when you get to know it a little bit better, you see it is remarkably buoyant. You don’t see despair, what you see is people who are somehow coping. You ask anyone how they’re doing, and the standard answer in Creole is, ‘Not too bad.’ They never express the positive—it’s always a moderated negative—but it’s something I really end up admiring. You take it in stride and keep on going.”
Not too bad. As improbable as that may seem, when you look past the rubble and the tents and you see—really see—the people of Haiti, you can believe it.
On the way out of Port-au-Prince, near the airport, there’s an open field. Every night, children gather there to play soccer. Dodging the ever-present puddles of water, they dribble and pass in the waning light—throwing their hands in the air after each goal.
Not too bad.