First of a two-part report.
It was two years ago this month that a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving more than a million people homeless. Through U.S. charities, Americans donated more than $1.8 billion, but some in Haiti haven’t seen much of that yet.
Charles Giiagliard, his wife and their five children live in a tiny one-room shack in downtown Port-au-Prince.
His oldest daughter lies lifeless on a small bed, sick with a fever. Giiagliard calls his youngest daughter, Jessica, over and pushes back the hair from her head, revealing a long dark scar. Jessica was trapped under the rubble of their collapsed apartment when the earthquake hit. It took two days to get her out. Giiagliard says Jessica’s wounds healed, but the family has not recovered.
“Look at the way we live,” he says in Creole. “We are living like animals. Nobody looks out for us. At night when you sleep you get visitors; big rats come in.”
The Giiagliards are among half a million people who, two years after the quake, still live in the squalid tent camps in Port-au-Prince. The camps are the most visible sign that Haiti still has a long way to go to recover from the disaster.
You can count the number of large-scale reconstruction projects on one hand. Most are small, like a project tucked off the main road in the Cite Soleil neighborhood, several miles from the Giiagliards’ camp. Seventy-three temporary wooden shelters were built last month by the American Red Cross together with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Charles Samuel got one of the wooden homes, which look like big toolsheds with a concrete foundation, plywood walls and a corrugated metal roof. Samuel says everyone here is grateful for the homes, which are much better than the sweltering tents the community was living in since the quake. But he points beyond the last row of homes to where dozens of families still live in tents in a swampy field.
“We know there are a lot of needs here, but those in the tents need help, too,” he says. “It’s hard. We know not everyone is going to be helped.”
That’s the picture you get of progress in Haiti: gratitude for what has been done, but hope for much more. After all, expectations were set pretty high after the earthquake. Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, repeatedly proclaimed that reconstruction would lead to a better nation.
At the Cite Soleil camp, residents wish that had been true. Out of earshot of the NGO officials, they ask why the small structures cost so much — about $5,000 a piece, including communal latrines and water-collection systems. They say that given the chance, they would have built them out of more permanent local materials, which would be cheaper with provide enough for everyone.
You hear complaints like these a lot around Port-au-Prince, many against the NGOs, whose workers stick out in their shiny white SUVs.
Julie Sell of the American Red Cross says it’s been a challenging two years.
“We all wish that we were further along than we are, but Haiti is a complicated place and there aren’t a lot of quick, easy solutions,” she says.
For many NGOs, especially those with little experience in the country, it took more than a year to figure out how to work around those complications, like Haiti’s chaotic land-registry system and its lack of building codes or housing policies.
Sam Worthington, the head of InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based charities, says NGOs unfairly get the brunt of the blame.
“We cannot meet all needs. We have a niche and that niche is important; it saves lives, but we cannot be the face and the only face of recovery,” he says.
Worthington says the majority of money pledged to Haiti is managed by USAID and groups like the World Bank — not NGOs.
But $1.8 billion given to U.S. charities is a lot of money. In the first year, much of that money went unspent. This year, NPR surveyed 12 large charities and found that while many still have a lot of money in the bank, the rate of spending has picked up.
The American Red Cross, which raised more than half a billion dollars for Haiti, has really loosened its purse strings lately.
The group is funding the repair of about a hundred houses in the Delmas 9 neighborhood of the capital.
Workers in Oguis Joileque’s three-room house fix several walls and are almost ready to put a new roof on. He says through an interpreter that he could never have done it alone.
“I see it is better, because me, myself, I was not in a position to do it,” he says.
Many smaller groups, with decades of experience in Haiti, say they wish the money would have come sooner. But they don’t have the fundraising machinery or name recognition that the big charities have.
Dan O’Neil of the Pan American Development Foundation got a grant from the Red Cross to do repair work on Joileque’s house. He says NGOs in general need to do a better job.
“We do need to have greater transparency. We need to have a more standard reporting as to how money has been spent,” he says.