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Beyond Relief: How the World Failed Haiti

A year and a half after the island was reduced to rubble by an earthquake, the world's unprecedented effort to rebuild it has turned into a disaster of good intentions

August 4, 2011 1:35 PM ET
Bodies lie outside the  morgue in Port-au-Prince on January 14, 2010 following the earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010.
Bodies lie outside the morgue in Port-au-Prince on January 14, 2010 following the earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

In March of last year, two months after the devastating earthquake that killed 300,000 Haitians and left more than a million homeless, Sean Penn was faced with a monumental challenge. Penn, who had been spending most of his time in Haiti since the quake, was running a large camp for internally displaced persons in the foothills of a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince, on what had been the city's lone golf course. Nearly 60,000 poor and middle-class Haitians, most from Haiti's devastated capital, had migrated here, pouring over the crumbled walls of the exclusive country club, and established a spontaneous and overcrowded city of crude dwellings fashioned from plastic sheeting.

One night, a heavy rainstorm reduced much of the golf course to mud. Penn turned to Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, commander of the U.S. military's Joint Task Force Haiti, a 22,000-strong deployment, which was helping to lead the international relief effort. Keen immediately assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a drainage plan. Before the work could begin, however, some 5,000 refugees would have to leave the golf course. The question was where to put them.

After Penn and Keen met with U.S. and Haitian officials, it was generally agreed that the best option was to relocate the refugees to an area roughly nine miles north of the capital called Corail-Cesselesse, which had recently been commandeered by the Haitian government. The area was secure, and believed to be less vulnerable to flooding than the makeshift camp. "It wasn't the ideal circumstance, but it was safe," recalls Keen. "Given the choice of living in a riverbed that was surely going to be flooded or being safe in Corail, it was a decision made out of necessity."

It fell to Penn to explain the situation to the Haitians. So he took his translator and walked to the bottom of the golf course, where some of the refugees' leaders had gathered. The men were suspicious of Penn, believing him to be in cahoots with Haiti's wealthy landowners, a small and privileged elite who had ruled the country for generations and were now trying to forcibly evict many refugees from their land, often at the point of a gun. To the people living in Penn's camp, the "optional relocation" he was proposing smacked of a prelude to a larger, mandatory exodus.

"Look," said the actor, sitting down with the Haitians in a tent. "I don't give a fuck about the rich guys who own this club." He didn't even want them to leave, he said, but what was the choice? He pulled out a map of the drainage plan the military engineers had devised. Those ditches were a necessity, he said — without them, thousands of people might die in a mudslide or flood. Then he took out a Google Earth photo of Corail, a wide swath of land, some 18,000 acres, and laid out the proposal: Each family that agreed to move to Corail would get $50, courtesy of the American Red Cross, and a hygiene kit. They would also get shelter, food rations, clean water, free medical care and a school for their kids. And they would be first in line for jobs in Korean-owned garment factories that the Haitian government pledged would soon be built in the area.

"That's the plan," Penn said. "We'll step outside, you guys decide. If it were me, I would take my kids out there rather than stay here."

Within days, thousands of refugees had agreed to move to Corail. On Saturday, April 10th, 2010, the first group left the golf course in a caravan of buses, the exodus chaperoned by United Nations peacekeepers. They arrived, disembarking onto a dusty, cactus-strewn patch of land in the shadow of a denuded mountain that turned out to be as vulnerable to the elements as the golf course. Their new homes — bright white tents set up on the baking gravel — were both hot and flimsy; three months after the refugees arrived, hundreds of the tents would blow away in a heavy windstorm. There were no schools, no markets, and the closest hospital was miles away. There were also no jobs, as the hoped-for factories would not be built for months — or even years. To return to the city meant a long walk to a bus stop followed by a several-hour commute. They were marooned.

"I went out there with our engineers, and we were all like, 'What is this? It looks like Chad,'" recalls Julie Schindall, a spokeswoman for the relief organization Oxfam, which signed on to build latrines and provide water to Corail. "I have no idea how they selected that camp. It was all done very last minute — we had to set the entire structure up in a week."

In the aftermath of the move, no one in the State Department or the Haitian government seemed willing to take responsibility for the relocation — or even for the rationale behind it. "I've yet to see any evidence that proves that anyone was in more danger on the golf course than they would have been anywhere else — though everybody in Haiti thinks they were," says a senior U.N. official who asked not to be identified. "What the move proved was that it's possible to 'save' 5,000 people if you say they're in a dangerous situation and put them in what you call a safe situation. It was the most grotesque act of cynicism that I've seen for some time."

Penn, for one, admits that Corail was a problematic choice. "It's a very vulnerable area," he says, adding that he realized this immediately, having toured the site soon after it was selected. "It struck me as desolate, but we had an emergency, and this was an emergency-relocation area — I never said it was anything else," he insists. "I feel like shit. I hope those guys are OK when it rains out there. I feel an extra responsibility — of course I do. But we were betrayed." Penn says he was assured by international monitors and aid agencies that Corail was a safe place to live, and that shelters would be built within three months. A year later, the shelters, constructed of crude plywood, were just being completed. There were still no hospitals and no factory jobs: Corail, it turns out, doesn't have enough water to supply the garment manufacturers who promised to locate there.

But the lure of would-be jobs has driven a mass migration of Haitians to the land abutting Corail. By the first anniversary of the earthquake, the population of the once-deserted territory had swelled to more than 100,000 people. "It was like the gold rush," says one U.N. official, close to the process. "Within about a week of people moving to Corail, you had all these other people rushing out there to stake their claim. People were up there buying and selling plots of land — completely illegally." The going rate, she says, was about $1,000 a plot.

Dubbed "Canaan," after the biblical promised land, the Corail region is now one of Haiti's 10 largest cities, as well as its largest and most squalid camp, a bitter irony lost on no one involved in the relief effort. "Corail is a ton of people living in a flux state, without safe shelter, who don't know what the future holds," says Schindall. "It's Haiti post-earthquake in a nutshell."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake on January 12th, 2010, the international community resolved not only to rebuild Haiti, but also to establish new and more efficient models for dispensing humanitarian aid. President Obama, calling the tragedy "cruel and incomprehensible," pledged "every element of our national capacity" to the response. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton created a special fund for Haiti; the American Red Cross launched a wildly successful appeal, raising close to $500 million in one year. In total, an estimated one in two American households donated more than $1.4 billion to Haiti relief, with close to $11 billion more for reconstruction pledged by donor countries and financial institutions. "We will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised during a post-quake visit to Port-au-Prince.

American and international officials gave their plan for Haiti a simple and compelling name: Building Back Better, a term that came into vogue after the tsunami that struck Asia in 2004, and that has since become something of a mantra in the development world. In a radical shift away from traditional approaches to foreign aid, "building back better" attempts to go beyond simple relief and not only to rebuild shattered structures, but to restructure, in a sense, shattered societies. At the forefront of this effort is private-sector investment being leveraged to build the kind of infrastructure needed to promote economic development and attract foreign corporations: roads, power lines, factories, markets. "The hope," explains Matthew Bishop, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, "is that using the private sector will be a lot more efficient. Traditional aid has been extremely wasteful. When it is allowed to take the lead, the private sector is more likely to try something new or entrepreneurial."

But despite all that has been promised, almost nothing has been built back in Haiti, better or otherwise. Within Port-au-Prince, some 3 million people languish in permanent misery, subject to myriad experiments at "fixing" a nation that, to those who are attempting it, stubbornly refuses to be fixed. Mountains of rubble remain in the streets, hundreds of thousands of people continue to live in weather-beaten tents, and cholera, a disease that hadn't been seen in Haiti for 60 years, has swept over the land, infecting more than a quarter million people.

In the midst of such suffering, only a fraction of the money devoted to Haitian relief has actually been spent. This May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that of the $1.14 billion allocated by Congress for Haiti last year, only $184 million has been "obligated." In a letter to the Obama administration this spring, 53 Democratic members of Congress blasted the "appalling" conditions in the refugee camps. "The unprecedented relief effort has given way to a sluggish, at best, reconstruction effort," said Rep. Barbara Lee, who is demanding an accounting of how the relief money is being spent. There is, she said, a "lack of urgency on the part of the international community."

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