Beyond Relief: How the World Failed Haiti

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Sean Penn also defends the State Department's efforts and believes the reconstruction effort is about to turn a corner. "Cheryl Mills is one of the most valuable players in Haiti," he says. "She has made an incredible impact despite the things that have gone wrong. She's out there pushing people's buttons, and she has been able to get things done when others couldn't. Cheryl Mills is someone Haiti needs right now."

Penn himself, by most accounts, has been one of the most effective players in Haiti. Some celebrities who threw themselves into the relief effort, like Wyclef Jean, quickly discovered that even the best-intentioned efforts to mobilize resources can go disastrously wrong, undermined by mismanagement and corruption. But Penn, who arrived in Haiti a week after the earthquake with a team of doctors and rescue workers he had rounded up, forged a bond with both the U.S. military and with Dr. Paul Farmer, the well-known advocate for Haiti's poor. At first, many veteran relief workers were wary of Penn. "For all the usual reasons, I was skeptical of a movie star working in Haiti," admits Ivers, the senior health and policy adviser for Farmer's organization. "I doubted his motivation, and I was frustrated that I couldn't do what he was able to do." But Penn soon impressed Ivers and others with his ability to break through bureaucracy, and humanitarian officials now refer to his golf-course settlement, with its hospital, school, well-maintained water and sanitation, as a "five-star camp."

Such individual efforts, however, have not been enough to help the 680,000 Haitians who remain stranded in temporary camps. Tim Schwartz, an American anthropologist who was doing a housing survey for USAID, recalls a meeting of key development officials he attended in October, 10 months after the earthquake struck. "USAID basically announced that the mission was failing," he says. At the rate they were going, U.S. officials observed, it was going to cost $1.2 billion to keep Haitians in the camps like Corail for another year. "They were blowing through the money, and they couldn't afford to maintain the system like it was," Schwartz says. "They desperately wanted to get out from under this."

Many USAID officials wanted to return Haitians to their homes, a project that would require rebuilding close to 100,000 damaged houses that were still considered salvageable. To begin the project, the government hired Kit Miyamoto, a California structural engineer, who assessed the damage and trained Haitian builders to begin the repairs. "People don't want to be in the camps — they want to get the hell out of there," Miyamoto says. "What they are looking for is assistance to make their homes more secure. There are people lining up to come back to repaired houses." In fact, he adds, every person whose house was fixed left the camps and returned home.

But only a few thousand such homes, as of May, had been repaired, and millions of dollars have meanwhile been diverted to other "shelter solutions." At one U.N. meeting in Haiti, everything from earthen huts to vinyl-sided igloos were proposed as part of a grand project to reimagine Port-au-Prince. With the streets still buried in mountains of rubble, some planners even floated ideas for "model communities" that would include high-rise apartment towers, walking paths, ample green spaces and tennis courts. It was as unrealistic as it was predictable. "Everyone comes to Haiti with some kind of plan to 'save' it and do all these nice things for the poor people," says Schwartz. "But it never works. You're never going to turn Port-au-Prince into Santa Barbara."

Increasingly, aid workers and experts like Schwartz watched as plans for new communities were proposed and then scratched — sometimes because the land was not available, other times for more prosaic reasons. Sanitation remains a major problem. There is no functioning waste system outside of Haiti's cities, making toilets that rely on water impossible. In the Croix de Bouquets area near Port-au-Prince, where USAID intended to build dozens of small dwellings known as "core homes," planners had come up with an alternative solution — compost toilets — but USAID wouldn't accept it. "They claimed it didn't comply with U.S. codes," recalls Vastine, who spent months working on the project. "But you cannot provide the kind of toilet mechanisms we have in the U.S. in most parts of Haiti. Simply to build the infrastructure would cost tens of millions of dollars." The entire "core home" project, which cost $53 million, according to Vastine, wound up spending about a third of the money trying to replicate American-style toilets for Haitian refugees. "It was ridiculous," says Vastine.

It was also telling. "You have to wonder what is going on here," says Alisa Keesey, the program director of Give Love, an NGO that focuses exclusively on sanitation issues. "Millions of dollars were spent on the predevelopment of that project. What did they think they'd do — give people pit latrines, then suck out the waste and put it in the ocean? The big question is how serious they really are about 'building Haiti back better' — because at this rate, they're building back exactly the same, with bigger and better slums."

In 1994, when I first visited Haiti, Port-au-Prince was a city of 750,000. By 2010, the population had ballooned to 3 million. People lived practically anywhere, often building small homes on the sides of the hills. This was easy to do, given Haiti's lax building codes — even the hills of Pétionville, once an exclusive enclave, were filled with deeply impoverished neighborhoods known as bidonvilles, inhabited by far more people than the terrain could support.

One area that was particularly devastated by the earthquake was Ravine Pintade, a densely populated community built directly into a rocky slope. Two-thirds of the homes in Ravine Pintade were destroyed, and many of the surviving homes were in need of extensive repair. This presents a unique opportunity to "give people something they've never had," Ann Lee, the American field-office director for CHF International, the NGO that has been working most diligently in Ravine Pintade, tells me one day. We are walking through the area, across precarious cliffs that, on closer inspection, turn out to be the remains of decimated homes. The place looks like a bomb site. But within a year, Lee pledges, CHF and other NGOs will have turned Ravine Pintade into a functioning community with clean water, trees and footpaths.

Haitians have grown accustomed to greeting such bold promises with skepticism: Although CHF has been meeting on the project since June 2010, the rebuilding progress in Ravine Pintade has been painstakingly slow. Lee admits that the organization, a vast NGO with relief operations in 25 countries around the world, has never done "micro-urban planning," as she calls it — nor have the half dozen or so other NGOs planning similar projects in Port-au-Prince. "It's a complete learning experience for all of us," she says. All that's needed to make the project a reality, she adds, are more funds.

Critics regard such claims with amusement: CHF, which works out of two spacious mansions in Port-au-Prince and maintains a fleet of brand-new vehicles, is generally considered one of the most ostentatious NGOs in Haiti. It is also one of the largest USAID contractors in Haiti and enjoys a cozy relationship with Washington: Its president and CEO, David Weiss, is a former State Department official and lobbyist. "There is a shocking lack of transparency and accountability in aid, and it's crystallized in this relief effort," says Schwartz, the anthropologist. "For an NGO in Haiti, the criteria for success is raising money, filling out paperwork and making sure the money is 'accounted for' — meaning they can show donors that they spent the money. But nobody goes out there and judges the project, or even verifies that the project exists. In the majority of the cases, nobody even talks to the community."

Bertin Voise, a 30-year-old carpenter, lives with his wife and five other members of his family in the courtyard of what was once a spacious home in Ravine Pintade. It is now marked with a giant red "X," signifying that it is not only irreparable but a hazard. Standing outside his broken house, Voise tells us that he has every intention of rebuilding it, as soon as he has enough money. This clearly bothers Lee, who has just finished explaining how CHF wants to raze houses like his and replace them with two-story steel-framed plywood shelters. While the construction of new homes is taking place, Lee wants to move everyone into temporary shelters in the area — what she calls "T-shelter hotels." She seems excited by the idea. Voise, who would have to relinquish his four-bedroom home for one slightly larger than a doghouse, is unmoved.

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