Haiti seared itself onto our consciousness on 12 January 2010. The deadliest earthquake ever to hit the region reduced much of Port-au-Prince to rubble. Buildings with concrete slab roofs in squatter settlements perched on the side of steep hills concertinaed under the stress - leaving their inhabitants no chance.

Haiti - we've contributed to the country's recovery, and we should be proud of that. Picture: AP

Speaking to those who experienced the earthquake, the real shock came in the following days when the full extent of the damage was realised. When it was finally tallied the startling reality was 316,000 people lost their lives in a population of only ten million.

Two years on and there is still rubble throughout Port-au-Prince. Last week I watched, along with many other sombre onlookers, the beginning of the demolition of the presidential palace which was irreparably damaged in the earthquake.

But at the same time there has been an enormous amount of reconstruction in Haiti in the last two years. And while almost 400,000 displaced people are still living in tent cities, more than one million have been resettled since the earthquake.

Soon after the earthquake the Australian Government announced it was contributing $26 million to the relief effort. This was matched by another $26 million donated by the Australian public. To Australia’s credit, the commitment made in the earthquake’s immediate aftermath has been honored.

The overall story has not been as noble - less than half the commitments made by the international community actually materializing.

The images which flashed across our screens at the time of the earthquake seemed to confirm the stereotype of Haiti being an ultra poor country wracked by more than its share of human misery.

To be sure, Haiti places in the poorest ten per cent of countries. Yet to only see Haiti’s poverty is to miss a remarkable country inhabited by remarkable people.

Haiti is stunningly beautiful. Port-au-Prince is located on a plain nestled between the harbour with its unmistakable turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and steep hills covered in shanty towns.

As I commented upon this beauty to my Haitian hosts, all responded with pride: “It’s not what they show you on TV, is it?”

In fact during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Haiti had a significant tourist industry it would like to recreate.

Haiti, in the last 50 years, has had a difficult political history with Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier both dictators with scant regard for human rights. Since 1990 Haiti has been wrestling with democracy with varying success.

Political instability hit its worst moment in 2004 when the United Nations intervened under the banner of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Since then MINUSTAH has steadily been working with the Haitian Government to better law and order, improve government services and rebuild institutions.

There is no doubting the challenges in each of these areas but there’s also no doubting that progress has been made and democracy and human rights are steadily improving.

This progress made the earthquake all the more tragic because - as one senior figure put it to me - just as Haiti was starting to win the fight, the earthquake delivered a knock out punch.

But since 2010 Haiti has been getting back on its feet. Indeed a characteristic of Haiti that is evident from the moment you leave the airport is that this is a country of great activity and purpose. The streets of Port-au-Prince are packed. People sell on the roadside everything from bottles of Coke to bed-frames.The traffic is profoundly dense.

Thankfully our driver had the skills of a concert pianist as he moved our vehicle forward through the smallest of gaps with siren blaring and millimeters to spare. By the time we reached the hotel there could be no doubting that this was a place of energy.

Our Haitian colleagues thanked Australia for its aid. But while aid was important their number one objective now was to attract foreign investment and start building Haitian industry. And as it turns out significant Australian players are looking to take up the invitation by exploring investments in mining and tourism.

As the only country in the world to have been established after a successful slave revolt, defeating the odds is in the Haitian national DNA. Yet for all the struggle and poverty, perhaps the most obvious way in which the Haitian spirit shines is through its art: colorful works on canvas, wooden sculptures, exquisite furniture, and brightly painted metal press butterflies and geckos.

To visit Haiti is to confront one’s senses. And while the lasting impression could be many things - tragedy, beauty, misery, determination - for me it was an overwhelming and affirming sense of optimism.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST.

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    • Little Joe says:

      06:04am | 12/09/12

      Unfortunately I have an opposite viewpoint.

      With the money that has been spent on Haiti I could have -

      1) Shipped in a fleet of demolition equipment.
      2) Shipped in a concrete recycling system.
      3) Shipped in a demolition Training Team

      Within 6-mths I would have 10 demolition crews trained up. Together with a landfill recycling crew most of the demolition work would have been completed. Most of the building materials would have been recycled. Most of the infrastructure would have been rebuilt.

      Charity Groups, especially the CEO’s, love the poor. It buffers their 6-figure salary. They don’t want to solve problems ..... they want to make them last as long a possible.

    • marley says:

      07:37am | 12/09/12

      Little Joe:
      1.  First you’d have to rebuild the ports to land your equipment, and then the roads to get it where it was needed;
      2.  Then you’d have to develop a source of fuel and power, and get a supply line going along those new roads you just built.
      3.  Then you’d have to rebuild the water and sewage systems so your team doesn’t get cholera while working.
      4.  Then maybe you could get that demolition going. 
      5.  Oh, and of course, before any of that, you have to get the agreement of the Haitian government, which has been dithering over quite a few western offers of assistance because it wants to control everything (possibly with a view to skimming off a nice little profit).

      One of the reasons things have been slow there is that western agencies are not prepared to hand over control of their money, equipment or resources to the Haitian authorities. Would you?

    • M says:

      07:40am | 12/09/12

      If you aren’t involved in solving an issue, there’s good money to be made in consulting to prolong the issue.

    • groucho says:

      11:41am | 12/09/12

      Hows this for stupidity. The Australian Government-funded aid agency AusAID provided $308,000 for the development of AFL in South Africa, an allocation even the ARL boss described as “weird” given South Africa’s main sports are cricket, soccer and, ironically, rugby, in which the Springboks are world champions. Certainly it appears a weird allocation given that the AFL had an operating profit of $214m last year.

    • tick tock says:

      06:30am | 12/09/12

      Ah Richards as long as you enjoyed your tax payer funded holiday, by the way did you take your partner and have a stop over in LA at our expense also? Who cares about the 200+ people who slept rough on the streets of the Gold Coast last night, but hey they dont matter, the looney left wing UN dont recognise the plight of Aussies doing it tough just like this Government who are spending billions just to look good in their eyes not the public in general.

    • James In Footscray says:

      07:10am | 12/09/12

      Unfortunately the article oversimplifies. Some aid works, and some doesn’t.

      There’s a big difference between disaster relief (like Haiti, where immediate assistance is essential), and longer-term poverty reduction, where there seems to be little to show for trillions of dollars of spending (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/19/books/review/19postrel.html?pagewanted=print).

    • Mahhrat says:

      07:23am | 12/09/12

      And all the best to them.

    • marley says:

      07:42am | 12/09/12

      I’m going to toss up an idea here:  why don’t western governments sort out a system for focusing disaster relief on areas with which they have political and economic linkages?  Haiti is a classic case of the Americans and Canadians being the nearest rich countries; both have significant Haitian populations; and both have had long term political and economic involvement in the Caribbean generally.  Canada’s last GG was Haitian in origin.  Why not leave Haiti to the North Americans, and let Australia focus on its own neighbours, be that the Pacific Islands or Indonesea? 

      Why use a shotgun approach to aid in general and disaster relief in particular, dispersing small amounts all over the place, when bigger amounts in a few places might actually get more “bang for the buck?”

      Just a thought.

    • Mahhrat says:

      10:14am | 12/09/12

      Gonna go out on a limb and say “Votes”.

    • john of solomon says:

      08:28am | 12/09/12

      I suppose we should be proud of the aid we send to Indonesia as well, after all they do a great job in preventing illegal immigrants from coming to our shores - hahaha

    • A Concerned Citizen says:

      09:27am | 12/09/12

      Just because Indonesia wants to get rid of the asylum seekers just as much as we do, anyone in Indonesia hit by disaster should hardly be made to suffer for that. After all, I thought aid was supposed to help people, not buy favors.

    • M says:

      10:57am | 12/09/12

      @Concerned, aid buys favours as well. We set up schools in indonesia so that the kids might have a chance of learning something that isn’t islamic doctrine. Have a guess at why they’d do that.

    • john of solomon says:

      08:28am | 12/09/12

      I suppose we should be proud of the aid we send to Indonesia as well, after all they do a great job in preventing illegal immigrants from coming to our shores - hahaha

    • colin says:

      09:40am | 12/09/12

      Just think - if we stopped aid payments to the WHOLE world we could put up a 6-metre high electric fence right around Australia…

    • andrew says:

      10:36am | 12/09/12

      and if we just cancelled our signatory status to the convention on refugees we could spend the fence money on something else, as well as the billions each year spent on rescuing and housing asylum seekers!

    • M says:

      10:53am | 12/09/12

      Better spend of money. At least the boats wouldn’t get in.

    • Greg says:

      09:10am | 12/09/12

      Here is one that won’t be popular but we shouldn’t be sending any foreign aid out until everyone in Australia is living above the poverty line and has a roof over their head and a full belly every night.

    • Rose says:

      12:29pm | 12/09/12

      Quite simply one of the most simplistic, ignorant comments I’ve ever read (and on The Punch they’ve been a few).
      Quite often foreign aid is given in order to promote Australia’s interests as well as the interests of the recipient country. Some of it is given in the form of loans, some is given in order to promote regional economic and political stability, some is given with Australian businesses being the ones to attract the most lucrative of the contracts, some is given to boost Australia’s overseas image and some is given because, in times of crisis, it’s the right thing to do.
      Do not ever kid yourself that foreign aid is money that is just given away willy-nilly and that Australia receives no benefit from it. Foreign aid is as self serving as it is generous.

    • the cynic says:

      04:09pm | 12/09/12

      Rose…... I also think the idea of ensuring every Australian is taken care of first is the first goal we should embrace before we throw aid money at places. When one sees first hand as I have, the corruption and other waste in aid money and resources you have to question the ideals that you put forth. When countries start dictating the terms and amounts and baulk at how they must account for the aid given then they are obviously in it for the quid not the pennies. Yes of course in times of disasters, aid is essential and urgent but when the recipient nation rejects feet on the ground to help deliver our proffered aid and services and demand cash only then they are obviously not in dire straits. Charity begins at home and besides. How much money is Australia handing over to the UN every year on top off the various aid packages to countries around the world ?

    • Stephen says:

      09:19am | 12/09/12

      Typical leftist propaganda.

      “Be proud of the fact that the Government decides to spend millions of YOUR tax money in a country that at best is a basket case in terms of self management, while YOUR roads go unrepaired, your electricity bills soar to pay for infrastructure and silly carbon taxes, and YOUR pensioners struggle to afford to live.”

      Yep. I guess pride is one word. Anger, frustration, confusion, amazement and bitterness are others that come to mind.

    • M says:

      10:54am | 12/09/12

      Yep, this.

    • colin says:

      11:28am | 12/09/12

      And it makes me shake my head when I picture this government - so out of touch with its own constituents - shaking their collective heads in disbelief when they are voted out in a landlside of voter backlash at the next election…How could they possibly not see the profligate, idiotic, vote-losing decisions they make..?

    • chuck says:

      10:00am | 12/09/12

      We should be sending condoms.
      No doubt the population has well and truly recovered since the earthquake. Have a squizz at the global satellite images between Haiti and the Dom republic and see if you can see a tree on the Haiti side!

    • QE12 says:

      10:36am | 12/09/12

      Until foreign aid money is largely spent on birth control, I won’t give a single cent to fat cat charity CEO’s who plead foreign poverty despite the uncontrolled multiplying millions and their concomitantly increasing bottomless pit of need.  And that’s without mentioning their interminable wars and gifted money commandeered by despot regimes for their luxury lifestyles.
      My spare dollars go to Australian health research.

    • colin says:

      11:34am | 12/09/12

      Birth control in the Third-world? Ha! THAT will be the day!

      The fact is that population - and nothing else - is the biggest ecological and environmental problem facing the world today; but you wouldn’t hear that from the Greens. And trying to convince the Catholic church that every copulation SHOULD NOT result in a pregnancy..? Good luck with that.

      Let’s also not forget all of the social inculcations in the Third-world that make people breed for more labour to help the family, for status, for heirs…

      I would dearly love to see Zero Population Growth on this planet for a few decades - if we got down to just a “few” billion, this place would be a paradise…

    • marley says:

      12:12pm | 12/09/12

      @colin - to be fair, a lot of money does go into birth control in the third world, and it’s having a big impact in North Africa, India, and south-East Asia.  It’s already worked in Catholic Latin America. Where it doesn’t seem to be catching on is in sub-Saharan Africa.  Parts of the Pacific aren’t great either (PNG, Vanuatu, Tonga etc).  Maybe it might be an idea to focus Aussaid dollars on the latter, since growing populations there have a direct impact on us.

    • colin says:

      12:54pm | 12/09/12

      @marley 12:12pm | 12/09/12

      “Parts of the Pacific aren’t great either (PNG, Vanuatu, Tonga etc).  Maybe it might be an idea to focus Aussaid dollars on the latter, since growing populations there have a direct impact on us…”

      Agreed. But it certainly would be a boon to this planet if we could just get the population down to a manageable, sustainable level - education and targeted aid still have a looong way to go in that respect.

    • thatmosis says:

      10:15am | 12/09/12

      Lets get one thing straight, I don’t give money to any fund, organisation or whatever that sends my money overseas. I believe that charity begins at home and the 200,000 odd homeless in Australia could well do with peoples help. We should concentrate on helping our own before sending money overseas but it seems that every time there is an earthquake or a tsunami or a natural disaster anywhere in the world then we are asked to dig deep and help. No, No a thousand times No. I’m sick and tired of the billions being sent overseas to help others when we have our own problems that are shoved aside as being too hard or embarrassing. Its time people looked inward and did the right thing for our own first and then if there’s any left over send that overseas.

    • Black Dynamite says:

      10:34am | 12/09/12

      I love when charity door knockers come to my door now. I just tell them sorry, I pay taxes for this.


    • john of solomon says:

      01:41pm | 12/09/12

      Rose, what a load of codswallop I have lived in third world countries all recipients of Australian Aid for the past 42 years and although some of the aid may accomplish the ends you have mentioned, much of it is wasted on consultants and projects that achieve little with the result that Australia has the image of being a soft touch.


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