You should be proud of where your aid dollars go
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.
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.
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