By Edward Stourton
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, or No Exit, a small group of strangers find themselves locked up together in a room; one of them famously concludes that: ‘Hell is other people.’
When Haiti erupted in violence after allegedly rigged election results last month, I found myself similarly isolated with a small group of visiting foreigners in a smart hotel overlooking the capital, Port-au-Prince. The road leading to our gates was blocked by barricades of burning tyres, and the mob torched any car that tried to move. There was nothing for it – we just had to talk to one another.
The guests included a British architect advising the Haitian government on reconstruction, a ‘celebrity minder’ from a big international charity and two developers who specialised in emerging economies.
The celebrity minder, a glamorous Californian, tantalised us with stories of the famous female film star she was trying to bring to Haiti to raise awareness of its problems. Far from being hellish, my fellow hostages were good company in a tight spot.
But we were, as a group, a symbol of the puzzle of Haiti’s continuing hell. Since the earthquake a year ago it has attracted acres of newsprint and hours of airtime, the attention of celebrities from former American President Bill Clinton downwards, and pledges of billions of dollars in aid.
Yet there are still more than one million people living in camps, and instead of watching their country being rebuilt, Haitians are struggling to manage another emergency in the shape of a cholera epidemic.
Much of Port-au-Prince looks as if the earthquake struck yesterday, not a year ago. The Presidential Palace, the symbol of political power, is still a wreck, its once elegant facade sagging beneath piles of collapsed masonry.
The park opposite, in the heart of Port-au-Prince, is a vast camp of makeshift tents. It is difficult to reconcile the scene with the huge scale of the international relief effort.
The failures began with the initial response to the earthquake. Haiti is just a short hop by air from Florida, and in the days following the disaster all sorts of people piled on to aircraft hoping to help, many of them with much more by way of good intentions than they had in expertise or experience.
Imogen Ward, who works for the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), describes ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of organisations turning up in Haiti last January and February and heading straight into the field.
Many of them quickly ran into trouble – and then went to the UN for help. Often those without experience found the environment too tough to manage, so they became ‘part of the caseload’ and had to be shipped home. Harassed UN officials were forced to direct their energies towards rescuing those who were supposed to be helping.
This was an extreme example of a wider problem identified by Linda Polman, the author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid.
She describes a new phenomenon flourishing in the market free-for-all of the aid sector which she calls MONGOs, or My Own NGOs. She cites cases of doctors who arrive on their own in countries such as Sierra Leone, inspired by the scenes of suffering they have watched on television, only to pull out when they run out of money.
Patients are abandoned with no aftercare, sometimes with infected post-operative wounds.
In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004, the UN tried to develop what is known as its ‘cluster system’ to co-ordinate the efforts of individual agencies. It has certainly resulted in some significant improvements, but in Haiti the system has been creaking at the seams.
Imogen Wall says coordination there often comes down to ‘hundreds of organisations, not all of whom speak English, meeting in a shack with a tin roof down by the airport . . . and then it starts raining’, so no one can hear anything anyway.
She says that at one stage the ‘health cluster’ included no fewer than 600 different NGOs. And the UN has no power at all to compel aid agencies to join the cluster system. In theory, NGOs have to register with the Haitian government, but in practice that does not always happen – not least because the government has itself been in such a mess since the earthquake.
The result is a very patchy provision of assistance. The good camps work well. Actor Sean Penn, who has earned widespread admiration for his dedication to Haiti’s cause, has established a well-run camp in the old Portau-Prince golf club; it has good security, professional camp manage-ment and an efficient water and sanitation system provided by Oxfam. But it is known as ‘the VIP camp’ because it is so atypical of the way most earthquake victims live.
On the outskirts of the desperately poor Cite Soleil district of Port-au-Prince I visited an informal camp that is home to 300 families. They receive a weekly delivery of water from a Norwegian NGO and they have access to just three latrines between them.
That is pretty much it. There is no real security, and in camps like this rape and violent crime are a constant threat. I asked a group of women at the camp water tank what they thought of the foreign aid agencies. ‘We have no opinion,’ said one woman, ‘because we haven’t had any aid.’
The Haiti experience has been an object lesson in the limits to what aid can achieve. Thoughtful aid workers recognise that the country will only really get back on its feet once its own government is able to run things, because only the national government can tackle the deep structural problems – such as reforming the land-ownership laws – that are obstacles to long-term development.
But at the moment many of the functions a government usually performs are carried out by outsiders; the UN polices the streets, for example, and foreign agencies provide medical care.
And, by one of the many sad ironies of Haiti’s post-earthquake experience, the NGOs and the UN are weakening the government further by being there; many Haitians are now so used to getting their water from Oxfam, or sending their children to one of the schools attached to an NGO clinic, that they are losing the habit of turning to the government for services.
No one pretends there is an easy solution. If foreign agencies pulled out of Haiti now, people would immediately start dying. I visited a cholera treatment centre run by an American Christian charity, and it was impossible not to be moved by the work being done there; cholera is deadly if it is allowed to develop, but if it is caught early it is relatively easy to treat, and there is no doubt at all that the volunteer doctors and nurses I met were saving lives every day.
Former British diplomat Sir John Holmes, who was head of the UN humanitarian operation at the time of the earthquake, concedes that the UN has plenty of lessons to learn from what went wrong, and he singles out the challenge of ‘hundreds and hundreds of NGOs turning up, actually making things worse rather than better’ as one of the problems that needs to be confronted. But it is very difficult to see how a system of international regulation for aid organisations could be formulated, much less enforced.
Even if the UN and the big NGOs do learn the lessons of the past year, Haiti is condemned to stagger on with the legacy of the mistakes that were made. The longer it continues as it is the more entrenched its problems become.
My translator was an energetic and determined young Haitian who spent four hours digging himself out of the rubble of a building after the earthquake last January. He now lives in a large tent opposite the Presidential Palace and runs a soft drinks business from there. His business has no overheads and he enjoys free water courtesy of foreign aid; he is happy to continue like that while he can, and has no obvious interest in seeing the country rebuilt.
Aid dependency is a real threat to Haiti’s future. I have never seen anything quite like the way rioters trashed their own city in the aftermath of December’s first round of voting in the presidential elections; the piles of rubble left over from the earthquake damage were raided for boulders to scatter across the streets, big trees were torn down to block roads, dozens of cars were hauled into the street and set alight.
It could only make sense in a country grown used to the idea that other people will come and sort out the mess.
When I asked why the young men we saw standing m e n a c i n g l y around their barricades had engaged in such a mindless orgy of destruction, I was told they had nothing to lose – but they did, even if they did not know it.
The two developers in the small group caught in our hotel by the rioting had arrived hoping to build low-cost housing; they were confident of backing from the World Bank and had lined up investors who wanted to get in ‘on the ground floor’ of the new Haiti. They were promising exactly the kind of investment Haiti needs.
But after a couple of days watching columns of smoke rising over a burning city, these would-be capitalist white knights concluded that Haiti was too risky for their business model. One of them had a friend who owned a private jet in Fort Lauderdale; he arranged to be flown out as soon as the Port-au-Prince airport was safe enough, and took the rest of us with him.
Haiti And The Truth About NGOs was broadcast on Radio 4 last week. It is available to hear again on BBC iPlayer until Tuesday.