The presidential election is a chance to rebuild ties between Haiti’s struggling government and its discouraged donors
ONE of the many differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, its closest neighbour, muses Jean-Max Bellerive, the stricken country’s prime minister, is that it has seen just two democratic handovers of power compared with a dozen next door. He is being tactful, since some of the Dominican Republic’s elections were far from fair. But his point is that organising a presidential election in Haiti this year will eventually be as important as giving food, shelter and jobs to the 1.5m people made homeless by January’s earthquake.
Haiti needs an effective and legitimate government if it is to rebuild itself—and if the outside world is to part with the cash it has promised the country. After a rousing show of unity at a donors’ conference in March, when Haiti was pledged $5.5 billion of aid, relations between the government and donors and charities have become increasingly strained. That has made a slow reconstruction effort still slower.
The scale of destruction in Haiti was so great that foreigners may have expected too much of the recovery. Pamela Cox, the World Bank’s top official for Latin America and the Caribbean, compares Port-au-Prince to European cities after the second world war. Yet over 1m people are still packed into 1,300 tent cities in and around the capital. The camps’ population is rising. Haitians who fled to the countryside after the disaster have returned in search of jobs and services. And soaring property prices—inevitable after the ruin of so much of the country’s housing—have put rents beyond the reach of most of the displaced.
Life in the tent cities is harsh. The state has little presence in them, and charities cater to only around a quarter of them. When rain is not flooding the ramshackle tents and tarps, the summer sun turns them into hothouses. General food distributions stopped in March. Work is scarce, and mostly limited to short-term jobs clearing rubble. Eventually the government hopes to convert Corail Cesselesse, its flagship resettlement camp, into a planned town, with schools, homes, and textile factories. Today it has little but tents. Over a quarter of them were washed away by a storm six months after the quake—a hint of the potential damage if this mild hurricane season turns violent.
Frustration and mistrust are growing. “We are functioning in two time frames,” says Leslie Voltaire, Haiti’s envoy to the un. “You have the internet time of the international community—they click and they want a response—and then you have the slow pace of Haitian time.”
Haitian officials complain that foreigners focus too much on the camps, and that displaced people will not move to new homes without work and services. They note that the government was weak before the quake and devastated afterwards: one-sixth of its staff died, virtually all its buildings were damaged, and its meagre tax revenues fell by 80%. Reconstruction takes money, and only a tiny fraction of the $5.3 billion in promised aid has materialised. The biggest solid pledge, a $1.15 billion commitment from America, has been held up in Congress. Much of the money may never arrive: based on the record following other disasters, Haitian officials expect to get just 15-20% of the pledged funds.
Yet critics counter that not everything requires money, and that the government’s inefficiency is hindering outsiders’ efforts to step into the breach. Charities’ staff gripe about delays in getting supplies through customs, which imposes costly storage fees and has forced them to spend a small fortune on car hire. Because the government has not yet decided where rubble should be disposed of, less than 5% of the more than 20m cubic metres of debris from the quake has been cleared. That has made getting around difficult.
The government has declared more than 100,000 buildings habitable, and said that nearly 60,000 more could be safely repaired. But Haitians are wary of official guarantees. There is no building code, much less any means of enforcing one.
Since very little Haitian land has clear title, much of the area around Port-au-Prince is now occupied by squatters who resist eviction. That makes it hard to find suitable sites for temporary portable shelters: less than a third of the 23,000 currently available have been erected. Even when they do go up, there is no system to allocate them. In the meantime, many of the homeless are holding out in the camps, hoping to be granted a bit of land with a shelter. “There are lots of people here whose houses weren’t destroyed,” says Jean-Michel Dorvil, a Corail resident, “but they can’t go back because they don’t have jobs and rents have gone up. Corail gives them something better: the opportunity to own your own home. Even if it’s a tiny house, it would be yours.”
Foreigners are getting impatient. Richard Lugar, an American senator, wrote last week that René Préval, Haiti’s president, had “demonstrated marginal capacity to lead his country’s reconstruction.” He added that Mr Préval’s “actions do not suggest a departure from the self-destructive political behaviour that has kept Haiti the poorest country in the hemisphere.”
All this has undermined the joint committee administering relief and rebuilding funds, co-chaired by Mr Bellerive and Bill Clinton, a former American president. It approved projects worth just $31m at its first meeting in June. And on July 16th it delayed its second gathering until August, when it hopes to start work in earnest.
November’s election offers a chance to put Haiti’s relations with its donors on a surer footing. Yet the vote itself has its own pitfalls. Only one machine is making the identity cards required to vote; numerous political parties are threatening to boycott the poll in protest of alleged corruption; and no clear front-runner has emerged. (Perhaps the best-known potential candidate is Wyclef Jean, a hip-hop star.) Outsiders’ desire for a new government may be impeding their willingness to work with the present lot. “I think they are waiting for the next president,” says Mr Voltaire. “But they shouldn’t be waiting, if they’re serious. They should be investing in studies and detailed projects now.”
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