Haiti earthquake two years on

By Pascale Palmer
January 11, 2012

Two years ago on January 12, as the late afternoon heat ebbed away, a catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake hit the island of Hispaniola, devastating Haiti.

The earthquake claimed the lives of more than 250,000 children, women and men and affected millions more. In a nation where the majority of the 10million population lives on less than £1.50 per day and maternal mortality is above 600 per 100,000 live births, this was a brutally cruel blow. And with minimal infrastructure, flimsy building materials and weak foundations, Haiti could put up no resistance to the full force of the quake.

As the dust began to settle on that January afternoon and thousands needed medical attention, at least eight hospitals and health centres had been razed to the ground in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

CAFOD’s Haiti programme officer Sarah Marsh has been travelling back and forth to the country gathering information and seeing the work of our partners. On this two-year anniversary of the quake, Sarah wrote this:

“Rubble still lines the street of Port au Prince”, “people are still living in tents”, “millions of dollars of aid funding is still unspent”, “response is too slow” – all tag lines that we are all used to hearing at this stage since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. It’s time for the external commentators to take a step back and break it down to the bones of what really happened.

Disaster – check.

Crisis – check.

Emergency – check.

Disease – check.

Political failure – check.

Civil unrest – check.

Death - check.

It’s not many countries in the world that have been hit as badly as Haiti in the past two years. The country has had multiple emergencies in less than 24 months. Not only has it endured its worst disaster since independence, it is struggling with the immense task of controlling the now-endemic outbreak of cholera across a country that has little or no sanitation, along with devastating storms and outbreaks of violence and civil unrest.

Take a step back and have a look at the situation before the earthquake. Haiti was not a country of political stability, of economic success or indeed, bringing it down to grassroots level, of internal strength. Political instability and weakness of government were the name of the game in Haiti until very recently. With a climate of human rights abuses and corruption, Haiti has faced huge challenges in its own development.

The small circle of wealthy elite looked after themselves and created what is known as the ‘Republic of Port au Prince’. Rural areas of the country were forgotten only to become poorer and poorer. In fact along with its own struggle since independence, Haiti faced the aggressive policies of the United States collapsing its ability to be able to produce its own food, and the hangover of European powers stripping the country bare of natural resources.

Pre-existing conditions in a country are only heightened by disasters such as the 2010 earthquake. This is clear and evident with other countries rocked by earthquakes and other natural hazards – take a look at Japan.

As an aid worker based in Haiti at the time, I remember, quite paradoxically, watching that particular disaster from my office in a converted warehouse in Port au Prince during the days following Japan’s historic earthquake, in the same way that I remember watching the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake unfold from a cold and unseasonal Afghanistan. The difference in response and outcry is remarkable however and it doesn’t take too much effort to understand why.

Haiti has for a long time, perhaps for the entirety of its independence, struggled politically, economically, socially and perhaps has also has its own internal battle with identity. The ‘poorest nation in the western hemisphere’, words often used to embark on a descriptive of the small island country, but what does that really mean?

Before the earthquake hit, more than 70% of the Haitian population lived on less than $2 a day, 86% of the population lived in slum conditions, 30% had access to tap water and 50% had access to latrines. 80% of schools were private and low-quality, automatically excluding a large portion of the population.

At the time of the earthquake, the state was not providing basic essential services such as education and health. Waste piled up on the streets, the city was bulging with people looking for work and finding none and NGOs present were part of a daily battle to better the horrific conditions for people on the ground.

It means that when the earthquake hit – all of the major problems of violence and frustration due to extreme rates of unemployment, illiteracy and illness, inequality and hunger were issues that aid agencies were already working hard to better pre-January 2010. Of note is that one of the major problems in Port au Prince was homelessness.

This was a city more suited for 300,000 people but housing a figure tenfold that. Now remove the small amount that did function pre-2010. Take away the leading figures of the Haitian Government, of the United Nations; take away civil servants and aid agency staff; remove offices and buildings; remove the few health centres and schools.

Now, across all walks of life, from local market stall holder to government official, school teacher and pupil to aid agency staff member to local farmer - throw in confusion and upset, loss and grief and anger and struggle and pain. On top of that Haiti was dealt the vicious blow of numerous tropical storms that killed hundreds and not only hindered, but reversed relief efforts, obstructing already near-impossible access to those areas where help is needed.

And now fix it in one year, maybe two. All of it.

It is naive and hasty to point the finger at how badly the response has been managed in Haiti. Has the international community failed? It could definitely have done better. Could more have been done? Of course. Was it as simple as responding to an earthquake? Certainly not.

Finding myself transported from the small couch in Afghanistan to a camp in one of the worst affected areas of the city of Port au Prince, the need of the people was almost overwhelming. Fast forward 18 months from then and we still have a lot to do. That’s an understatement. We have lost people to cholera, and many families still battle to survive the overpowering violence and trauma that remains after the earthquake.

The reality on the ground is that it is not straightforward – there is a huge amount of anger towards the international community and justly so. It’s an incredibly complex environment to work in. As a humanitarian aid worker, a target of negative criticism from all corners of the globe, in Port au Prince responding to the destruction after the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people were looking to us for shelter, for a chance to regain their normal life, for a solution to the hardship.

One also must nod to the blame game surrounding the outbreak of cholera and surrounding violence, and how everyone looks towards the UN for both a cause and solution to the disease now endemic in an already struggling country. It’s time to shift away from that mindset; it’s time to move on. It’s not about how much money hasn’t been spent or pointing the finger and saying they can’t do it right.

It’s about how we deal with it now.

It’s about that market stall holder regaining life after grief, business after collapse and dignity in his continuation. It’s about support and progress and applauding the successes so far, even the small ones. In fact, especially the small ones. A country of many layers, of history and cultural borrowings, Haiti is certainly one of the more complex cultures I have worked with: difficult, trying and challenging, but incredibly strong and resilient and hopeful. In the recent elections the Haitian population fought hard to be heard and they were listened to. It’s now about turning to the newly elected government and supporting them in the reconstruction of its own country.

New politics and new attitudes are certainly showing us the way forward. From a turbulent and unstable parliament of questionable morals, President Michel Martelly needs to step up to the plate, and make a shift far from the historical political turmoil the country has endured. The earthquake in itself acted as a magnifying glass for the problems already existing in the country and it is now time for the international community to support him in a drive to move the country forward.

Humanitarian agencies do not exist to replace government and should not replace government. When it comes to the pressure to spend out finances – recognition of the importance of spending wisely rather than quickly is certainly the best approach. The landscape for the next decade is rocky and full of challenges, but not one that is likely to change overnight.


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Policy Media Officer for CAFOD - www.cafod.org.uk

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