A little over four years ago, Port-au-Prince was struck by a devastating earthquake which quickly prompted a shocked global audience to give billions in emergency aid and governments to pledge billions more for reconstruction. In the final article of a three-part series documenting their return to Haiti, reporter Jason O’Brien and photojournalist Mark Condren are on the trail of that money, while uncovering some uncomfortable realities of life there now.
The view of the Jalousie neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince from a five-star hotel in Petionville – the houses on the right have yet to be painted. Photo: Mark Condren
Jason O’Brien – 17 February 2014
FROM the roof of the five-star Occidental Oasis hotel in Port-au-Prince – where they are currently adding an outdoor swimming pool – your eyes are immediately drawn to the Jalousie neighbourhood a couple of miles away.
It is a breathtaking sight.
Greens, pinks, blues, yellows, purples, reds – the thousands of brightly-coloured small houses built into the side of the steep Morne L’Hopital mountain appear to merge together, and from this distance it has the dramatic and pleasing look of a painting by the Haitian artist Prefete Duffaut.
It’s not a coincidence.
Fifteen minutes later, the effect is rather less magical as we experience Jalousie from the inside – trudging up rough steps in the almost-vertical slum, avoiding dirty water rushing down having been told there is no sanitation, and questioning the wisdom of leaving the car in an area synonymous with extreme poverty and violence.
“We call it ‘the Botox’,” says Marc Mondesir (32), tapping a freshly-painted lime-green wall on the seemingly never-ending upward climb to where he lives.
“From down in Petionville (the capital’s most sought-after address and home to many of its new luxury hotels and embassies) it looks good but when you get closer you see Jalousie for what it really is.”
Jalousie is approximately 50,000 people – up to 1,800 per hectare – living on top of each other in tiny houses built on top of each other with no planning permission, no building regulations and generally using poor materials.
It is a slum with no running water, consisting of homes with no toilet facilities and intermittent electricity, carved into the side of a mountain prone to regular mudslides, with at least 1,300 teetering homes identified as a threat to residents immediately below them.
It also sits on a significant earthquake fault line.
Rather than attempt to tackle any of these problems, the Haitian government has already spent €1.3m on ‘Jalousie in Colours’, with a further €3m now being spent on phase two.
Welcome to Port-au-Prince, where little is how it first appears.
Mondesir, a father-of-four, is one of the thousands swelling the population of Jalousie since the earthquake four years ago.
He is also one of the estimated 70,000 in the capital made homeless twice – once by the earthquake that flattened his home in Delmas and once by what he claims were police and armed men who forced him from a tent camp last summer.
“We had been there for more than two years, but we were burned out,” he says. “What belongings we had were taken, and we had to leave and move here with my cousin.”
Mondesir’s tent was in a camp of approximately 600 families, located in a square immediately across from another new luxury hotel in Petionville.
The family had enrolled in the internationally-backed housing plan for Haiti, and were looking for a home to rent. But perhaps not fast enough.
The Haitian government denies any involvement in forced evictions, but it would be an effective way of pushing the homeless out of sight – and far easier than implementing a sustainable and long-term housing programme.
Latest figures from the United Nations show that approximately 170,000 people continue to live in tents. The figure stood at 1.5m in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but the UN thinks it will be at least two years before the problem is solved.
There are still in the region of 300 tent camps dotted around the city, although the most prominent – such as at the Presidential Palace – have long since been cleared, and the main square at Champs de Mars, for example, underwent a multi-million dollar facelift after it was cleared. Nice restaurants and bars there too.
People living in tents on public land were offered up to €400 – in theory a year’s rent – to leave under the government’s rental subsidy plan, and recent updates on internally-displaced people suggest that 60pc of those leaving the camps are enrolling in this offer.
But with a lack of affordable, safe, permanent housing and rents soaring because of demand, it is thought that many – like Mondesir – do not find a new house but rather a room or a space on the floor.
Still, it looks better to the outside world.
Of course, you might argue that the provision of affordable, safe, permanent housing should have been the most-pressing priority for those spending the billions earmarked for Haiti reconstruction after the emergency relief had been provided.
But an inspection of where the money went is likely to bring you down more murky dead-ends than an unguided trek through Jalousie.
In Ireland, like many countries, the horrific scenes relayed from Port-au-Prince in January 2010 led to unprecedented levels of donations from the public and significant pledges from government.
Four years later, the overall figures remain eye-watering.
According to the US-based Centre for Global Development, approximately €12bn – €2.5bn in private donations largely for emergency relief and €9.5bn in bilateral and multilateral aid largely for reconstruction – was pledged to Haiti in the months following the quake.
The emergency relief money and half the reconstruction fund (€7.5bn in total) have been “disbursed” at this stage.
But where the money was disbursed “to” is the big question. For example, the Centre reported that “we do not really know how the money was spent, how many Haitians were reached, or whether the desired outcomes were achieved”.
It did find that 94pc of the emergency relief went to donors’ own civilian and military outfits, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors before the trail went cold.
The journalist Jonathan Katz outlined some of the most outrageous “support and logistics” costs that ate into this €2.5bn: it cost $1m a day to have the USS Carl Visnon, an aircraft carrier, anchored off the coast; the US Coast Guard spent almost $4m servicing its helicopters; and someone was paid $50,000 for “elevator maintenance” in a country with practically no lifts.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Gena Heraty, the Mayo woman who runs a home for children with special needs just outside Port-au-Prince, says she was stunned at how some money was spent in the medical sector after the quake.
“For example, there were wheelchairs everywhere – it seemed that everyone was given a wheelchair but no-one stopped to consider how useful wheelchairs would be in Port-au-Prince where there are few footpaths and the roads are poor and hilly,” she adds.
“Most were soon abandoned. When I think of all the money wasted – and what it could have done if spent correctly on the medical system here… it’s a shame.”
Other figures show that less than 1pc of the emergency relief funding went directly to the Haitian government.
The little of what is known about the money earmarked for reconstruction is even more unedifying.
Half of it – nearly €5bn – has never arrived, with pledges reneged on or, as Katz outlines in his eye-opening book ‘The Big Truck That Went By’, promised money was simply double counted, spent at home, or given as ‘money in kind’ such as debt relief.
Of the billions that were spent, the Centre for Global Development again hit a wall in terms of detail, adding that “data reporting becomes even more opaque when dealing with specific organisations or agencies”.
Some nuggets have emerged, however.
The US development agency USAID, for example, spent almost €1bn on ‘reconstruction’ – but more than half went to US firms in the Washington area and less than 1pc to Haitian firms and nonprofits, according to the Centre for Economic and Policy Research.
And the ‘New York Times’ reported last year that just €170m had been allocated to what most casual observers highlighted as the most pressing need: safe, permanent housing.
That’s 1.4pc of the total pledges.
So while the overwhelming narrative may be that the recovery and reconstruction effort fell very short because Haiti is too corrupt or unstable or dangerous, perhaps the bigger culprit is the international aid industry?
Meanwhile, one thing the international community has given Haiti is cholera.
The Caribbean nation is one of the poorest in the world and has been blighted by almost every human-made and natural disaster going since it achieved independence.
But it didn’t have a recorded outbreak of cholera for more than a century – until the UN increased numbers in its ongoing Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in the months after the quake.
It was soon alleged that newly-arrived Nepali members had brought a cholera strain to the country before, through negligence, contaminating a river near their camp.
There have been approximately 8,500 deaths from cholera in Haiti since then, with almost 700,000 taken ill.
About one in every 13 Haitians has been affected.
Several independent studies – including one carried out by the UN – have backed up the allegations, with the strain of cholera prevalent in south Asia and found specifically in Nepal’s Kathmandu area but never before seen in the Western Hemisphere.
So much for ‘stabilisation’ – those mandated to help have, in this instance at least, verifiably made the situation worse.
But the UN continues to deny culpability, which resulted in a class lawsuit being filed in a Manhattan federal court late last year by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH)
“If we’re allowed into court, it’s probably the easiest case I’ve done in over 20 years of being a lawyer,” IJDH director Brian Concannon tells the Sunday Independent.
“The liability is so absolutely clear on behalf of the UN and the damages are fairly clear too.”
The lawsuit demands that the UN admit culpability and compensate victims. It demands funding to the tune of $2.4bn to fight the epidemic.
Another 1,000 people are expected to die from cholera in Haiti this year.
The case raises huge questions about the extent of UN immunity and access to justice for victims of peacekeeper wrongdoing – and it would take a substantial make-up job to gloss over the reality of those figures.
But then this is the home of ‘the Botox’.
Haiti: Irish contributions since earthquake top €42m
IRISH people have paid more than €42m to help the people of Haiti since the earthquake four years ago.
Private donations to the tune of €28m were made by November of 2010, according to Dochas – an unprecedented amount for a natural disaster. This figure included approximately €9m donated through Concern, €8m through and approximately €3m each through GOAL and Red Cross.
Separately, the government pledged €13m of taxpayers’ money to support relief efforts between 2010 and 2012, and this figure eventually exceeded €14m.
In terms of development funding, Concern received the vast majority at over €4.3m, while humanitarian funding included GOAL (€2.2M), and Plan Ireland (€1m).
Separately, the Irish-Aid administered Rapid Response Corps – experts deployed at short notice to humanitarian emergencies – has been to Haiti 18 times.
***This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund