Haiti's Post-Quake Recovery Is Slow to Begin

Antonio Bolfo for Newsweek

If there is a single essential prerequisite to the reconstruction of Haiti, it’s the removal of rubble from the capital city. The Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people and rendered more than 1 million homeless, also left behind about 25 million cubic yards—six times the volume of Hoover Dam—in felled houses, schools, and government buildings. People can survive in tents—for a while, anyway—and schools and hospitals can hobble along in whatever temporary facilities are available. But you cannot truly rebuild a city, or anything else as thoroughly decimated as Port-au-Prince, until you clear away the detritus of that which has been destroyed.

So it ought to come as a surprise to casual observers that 10 months after the quake, only 5 percent of that rubble, or slightly more than a million cubic yards, has been hauled from the streets. One million cubic yards is impressive when you consider that the bulk of it was gathered and carted off by Haitians working with nothing more than pick-axes, wheelbarrows, and their own bare hands. But it’s still less than 10 percent of what officials had hoped to remove by now. Some 250,000 houses and nearly 4,000 schools have yet to be touched. Tired of waiting, and weary of life in the tent cities, thousands of Haitians have made their homes amid these ruins, stretching tattered straggles of cloth and tarp across protrusions of rebar and doing their best to sweep the concrete from whatever patches of smooth floor they can find.

Rubble removal is not the only thing going slowly. In fact, six months after the international community rallied to Haiti’s side, promising $8.75 billion for reconstruction and the coming of a veritable Haitian renaissance, progress has fizzled on practically all fronts. Yes, shelters have been set up—tents and tarpaulins, mostly—but they offer scant protection against hurricanes like Tomas, which bombarded towns around Port-au-Prince late last week. There are makeshift schools, too, but hardly any teachers who speak French or Creole. And while, by some accounts, access to clean water has improved from pre-quake levels, most of that water is still being trucked in by aid groups, an unsustainable solution to a problem that isn’t going to disappear. Meanwhile, cholera is making its way through the countryside. “In a nutshell, the recovery process is not going well,” says Elizabeth Ferris, who tracks Haiti at the Brookings Institution. “Reconstruction has barely started.”

To be sure, the barriers to moving forward are complex. For one thing, despite the pledges, donor dollars have been slow to actually materialize (most of the $1.15 billion promised by the U.S. was only recently cleared by Congress, and many donor countries have yet to give anything at all). For another, the quake claimed nearly 20 percent of all federal employees, along with 27 out of 28 federal buildings, leaving survivors precious little with which to govern. With no records to check, land ownership has been difficult to establish. That has made tearing down structures, not to mention building new ones, next to impossible in many neighborhoods.

But the main problem is this: neither the Haitian government nor any of the countless NGOs that have descended on the country are capable of directing vast sums of money in the business of large-scale disaster recovery and reconstruction. In fact, disbursing the funds that have landed is proving so difficult that the Red Cross has stopped actively soliciting donations. The groups vying for money are experts at emergency relief, and deft at erecting hospitals and schools in nondisaster situations. But that doesn’t mean they know how to rebuild entire cities from the ground up. “The NGOs have done an amazing job with so many things, especially in the immediate aftermath of the quake,” says Randal Perkins, CEO of AshBritt, a private company that recently received the first major contract for rubble removal from the Haitian government. “But the work that’s needed now is of a much larger scale.” Using smaller NGOs to implement these bigger projects, he says, is like trying to kick it up to 60 miles per hour when you’re still in second gear.

Consider the drainage canals that wend their way through Port-au-Prince’s narrow, hilly streets collecting storm-water runoff so that neighborhoods don’t flood. So far some $30 million has been devoted to clearing them of the debris and waste deposited by the quake. That would be great—functioning drainage systems means fewer mudslides and less flooding—except that the NGOs in charge of such projects have started their work inland, without first clearing the points of discharge. “There’s like five feet of trash and rubble and waste clogging the outflows around the city,” says Perkins. “You can do all you want upstream, but if you don’t fix that, you aren’t accomplishing anything. A couple big storms, and that $30 million is down the drain. Literally.” Perkins says repairing the points of discharge would cost about as much as has been spent on clearing the canals themselves, but it would require large equipment that NGOs don’t have access to.

Another example of not the best use of money: portable rock crushers that convert rubble into sand and gravel, which can then be used as building material. The microcrushers, which cost about $50,000 apiece, have been a godsend in some British cities, where they were originally employed. But in Petit-Goâve, a coastal town that sits at the Jan. 12 quake’s epicenter and where 10 such machines are stationed, critics say they are a waste. “Equipment like this needs constant maintenance,” says one development worker who did not want to be named criticizing a USAID project. “It’s great to train Haitians to use and repair them, but when a hose blows or some other part breaks, where are the replacement parts going to come from?”

And it’s unclear, she says, how useful sand and gravel products will be in neighborhoods already overwhelmed by debris. “Some of the private companies that are here could remove three to five times as much rubble for the amount of money we’ll end up spending on this,” she says. CHF International, the nonprofit group implementing the crusher program, acknowledges that some kinks need ironing out but insists the project holds great promise. “There are lots of technical issues in terms of what can be produced and what can’t,” says Richard Burns, director of the Haiti program for CHF. “But we see this as a pilot project, and we do hope to scale up.”

In the meantime, private disaster-recovery companies like AshBritt and DRC Emergency Services have spent tens of millions of dollars of their own money setting up shop in Haiti, much of it on shipping in the heavy equipment that has so far been conspicuously absent from the postquake landscape. To some folks, at least, their presence is more than welcome. “Haiti needs investment from the private sector to support its long-term development,” says Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Laura Graham. “International aid is too often project-based. It tends to focus on donor decisions, not long-term capacity building of the Haitian people.”

Clinton, who serves as U.N. special envoy to Haiti, has worked hard to court multinationals, says Graham, and that’s starting to pay off. Boeing has agreed to invest in primary education, Macy’s is selling home-décor products made by Haitian artisans, and Coca-Cola is helping with mango production. But other sectors—or clusters, as they are called in the development community—have been slow to welcome newcomers, especially profit-driven newcomers, to the fold. Despite more than a decade’s worth of experience in large-scale disaster recovery, AshBritt waited months for its first rubble-removal contract to come through. “We say, ‘Before you hand this NGO $25 million to do something they’ve never done before, why not open it up to other groups to bid on?’ ” says Perkins. “There are no bad guys here, but someone needs to come in and say, ‘Let’s take a look at whether this is really the best way to spend our money.’ ”

In any other country, even one as foreign-aid-dependent as Haiti, that someone would normally be the central government, replete with an army of its own public-sector bureaucrats. But Haiti’s public sector crumbled long before its presidential palace. Starting in 2002, the Bush administration conducted a sustained campaign to block aid from reaching the Haitian government, whose incumbent, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it was not a fan of. “Our government started giving all of its aid directly to NGOs,” says Paul Farmer, U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti. “And our policies influenced those of other countries and international financial groups.” As the most capable workers flocked toward the new, comparatively high-paying NGO jobs, the Haitian public sector waned; health and education went from bad to worse, and already rampant corruption grew and spread. Meanwhile, the nonprofits proliferated like mad. By the time the earthquake struck, Haiti already had more NGOs per capita than any other country in the world.

Those NGOs are, by definition, charitable organizations run by people who want to do good things for humanity. But that doesn’t insulate them from the problems of any large bureaucracy. They are dependent on the good will of funding organizations and public donors, and can be competitive, secretive, and defensive—and, in this instance, overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster and the babble of voices vying for their attention. If we saw this happen in the U.S. after Katrina, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it in Haiti. That’s not to say that nonprofit groups have nothing to offer. All told, the humanitarian system spends billions of dollars (between $16 billion and $18 billion in 2008 alone, equal to the combined total of bonus pools for Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley), and it employs hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of emergencies every year.

But a collection of NGOs, no matter how well intentioned, cannot substitute for a strong, functional central government—a fact the earthquake cast into stark relief. “It’s what doctors call an acute-on-chronic event,” says Farmer, a doctor himself, and a man given to medical analogies. “The public sector was already gravely weak, and that has made it exceedingly difficult to monitor funds or use them efficiently. It’s like trying to transfuse whole blood through a small-gauge needle.”

To fix this situation, the U.N. has created an entirely new entity, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, a clearinghouse of sorts—headed by former president Clinton and current Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive—whose job is to get the panoply of nonprofits and donor nations to fall in line with the Haitian government. In principle, all the NGOs’ projects and all their billions of dollars in aid will be vetted by the commission before landing in Port-au-Prince. So far, the commission has approved some $2 billion. Forming a commission might not sound like much, but in Haiti even bureaucracy is progress worth celebrating, provided it is Haitian bureaucracy. “This commission is unprecedented in Haitian history,” says Laura Graham. Some foreign-aid experts say it offers the only hope of pulling Haiti back from the brink of chaos.

But if Haitians take charge of their destiny, they will still face a painful choice: meet essential human needs immediately by throwing money at them, however inefficiently, or accept a slower recovery as the price of future stability and economic growth. For example, just weeks into the Red Cross and World Food Program’s combined initiative to feed 1 million people a month, President René Préval had to step in and ask the groups to stop. Yes, the program was getting more food to more people. But it was also undercutting the market for local farmers, who couldn’t compete with a well-funded project to give food away. More such quandaries lie ahead. Eventually it will be up to the Haitian government to decide whether to spend money on work programs that pay Haitians to remove rubble with wheelbarrows or to contract with foreign companies that can deploy armies of heavy equipment to the city center. Relief work is inseparable from politics, in Haiti no less than in, say, New Orleans.

The people of Haiti need food, shelter, and clean water, but they also want their country back, and eventually they may have to reclaim it from the very people who rushed there to save them. It is a commonplace to observe that Haiti is one of the unluckiest countries on earth, cursed by poverty, by the legacy of decades of corrupt dictatorship, and then afflicted by an immense natural disaster. The United States and the rest of the world rose to the occasion with the best of intentions, but also with their own agendas, ideologies, and competing bureaucracies. One can only hope that when they move on, having picked Haiti up off the ground, that beleaguered nation will be able to stand on its own.

With Ian Yarett and Johannah Cornblatt in New York, John Barry in Washington, and Steve Tuttle in Haiti

Editor's Note: This story initially said that the World Bank has slowed the flow of cash to Port-au-Prince. In fact, the World Bank has provided almost $320 million of the $479 million promised and says that no money has been held up. Newsweek regrets the error.

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