Haiti: election without hope

The hope that out of the tragedy of the January 12th earthquake might emerge a chance for better government seems set to be dashed at this Sunday's election. Few Haitians expect change to come from the political class and the public sphere anymore
Valentina Pasquali
26 November 2010


Port-au-Prince – Savie Vancol, 40, is cooking lunch on a makeshift stove she arranged under a tree, just outside the walls of her collapsed home in Carrefour, a neighborhood on the south side of Port-au-Prince. This part of town was heavily hit in the Jan 12 earthquake that devastated much of Haiti’s capital. Months after the disaster, roads are still blocked by mounts of debris, residents remain in tents, either in their backyards or in improvised camps across the city, and half-crumbled buildings continue to hover dangerously over the heads of passersby.
In the spring, Vancol received two transitional shelters, bare rectangular structures of plywood and a corrugated tin roof, from the Danish organization Danish People’s Aid (DPA), which is helping out in sections of this distraught neighborhood. While she is grateful for this new accommodation, many problems remain. Work is hard to come by. “I stopped studying when I was nineteen,” says Vancol, who is a seamstress, “my future has been doomed, but I need some work to support my family.” The house she used to inhabit cannot be rebuilt, since she doesn’t own the land, which is now on sale. With the highly anticipated Nov 28 presidential election fast approaching, Vancol harbors little hope that anything will ever change. “The conditions have been the same since I was born,” she says, “speeches are the only new thing, everything else will stay the same.”

Vancol is an emblem of what Haiti looks like nine months after the earthquake: dispossessed, hopeless, and dependent on foreign aid.
She is also the symbol of the predicaments that plagued this Caribbean nation long before the earthquake hit: dispossession, hopelessness and dependency on foreign aid. As the months go by, the impression is that old problems that pre-existed the disaster – among others a chronic lack of infrastructure, a clunky bureaucracy, poor access to education and growing income inequality – have quickly resurfaced, now hampering the recovery effort and making hopes for a bright future slim.

According to a 2008 World Bank study, access to all types of infrastructure in Haiti was already below-average compared to Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and low-income countries in general. “Even before the earthquake, we had a deficit in infrastructure,” said Hugues Desgranges, a senior adviser to the Director of Haiti Port Authority (APN), “We were already behind, now we lost the little we had.”

Port-au-Prince’s commercial port was heavily damaged on January 12th, delivering a potent blow to the country’s already stumbling economy -- according to some estimate, up to 90% of all seaborne goods used to arrive in Haiti via this one port. Although it has been patched up significantly in the nine months that have passed, its capacity, which wasn’t staggering in the first place, has significantly shrunk: “Before the earthquake, we could simultaneously accommodate 7 container ships, now we can dock a maximum of 4,” Desgranges explained.

The lack of a fully functioning port in the capital, combined with the damages suffered by Haiti’s only international airport, an already unimpressive one-runway structure, and with the poor state of roads leading to Port-au-Prince from across the country (according to the CIA Factbook, only about one forth of all of Haiti’s roads are paved) has, from the get-go, bogged down the flow of urgently needed goods.

The same goes for Haiti’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. Many international NGOs have complained that the goods they ship into the country from overseas are blocked indefinitely at customs, waiting to get through various layers of red tape.

In mid-September, Reverend Won Seung Jae of the Pusan So-mang Evangelical Holiness Church was walking back and forth outside Port-au-Prince’s airport, each day hoping that it would be the day when he could finally get his hands on a container full of school-supplies he had shipped from Korea. “One month, two months, three months, four months, long, long time,” said Reverend Won Seung Jae in his rudimentary English. That’s how long his shipment, containing 6,000 packages with pencils, notebooks, and one-dollar donations Korean children sent to their less fortunate Haitian counterparts, had been stuck in customs, while the Reverend dealt with endless requests for fees from customs authorities and the Ministry of Finance.


While school supplies may not seem like the most urgent of priorities, they are in a country like Haiti, where access to education was already a privilege before the earthquake and which, now, has been reduced even further.

According to 2006 estimates from the World Bank, only about 8% of Haitian schools were public. Some 82% of all primary and secondary students attended schools run by private institutions, often religious, which required parents to pay school fees in order to enroll their children. Although small, these fees were, even before the earthquake, often too high for low-income families. As a result, UNICEF calculated that only about 50% of Haitian children could afford to get an education.

Now, with many teachers killed or badly injured in the earthquake, with most of the school buildings in Port-au-Prince either collapsed or too heavily damaged to be safe to use, and with many more families on the brink of financial ruin, having lost relatives, possessions and jobs, access to education for low- and middle-class children has become even more of a challenge.

Claudette Amilka, 49, lives in a tent-camp in Tabarre Issa, on the north side of Port-au-Prince, set up after the earthquake by the Irish non-profit CONCERN Worldwide. Of Amilka’s five children, only the youngest one, a girl aged 10, lives with her. Out of a job, relocated to a neighborhood surrounded only by private schools, Amilka is especially worried about not having the money to pay for her daughter’s school fees. “I really would want some help with her,” said Amilka, “I don’t want her to lose the school year, I don’t want to lose hope.”


Poor access to education is, historically, both a cause and a result of the massive income gap between the few haves and the mass of have-nots, which has plagued Haiti for centuries. In the aftermath of the earthquake, this long-standing issue, encapsulated in figures about property ownership rates, is also hampering the recovery effort, for example worsening an already dismal speed of rubble removal – in many neighborhoods, residents seem to be getting used to life around the debris. [Video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11280004]

Only approximately 20% of Haitians owned property before the earthquake, while the remaining 80% rented the homes where they lived. This imbalance in ownership rates has become, after the earthquake, a “tricky thing” said Adam Fysh, who, until mid-September, was the Port-au-Prince coordinator of the Shelter Cluster, which is tasked with coordinating the activities of all NGOs working on disaster-relief.

For example, although in the earthquake aftermath the Haitian Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications (MTPTC) surveyed all buildings in Port-au-Prince and marked those that needed to be demolished, many half-crumpled structures continue to stand precariously, since it is often impossible to identify or locate their owners, whose go-ahead is legally required for the demolition.

Ownership also represents a hurdle to reconstruction, not just rubble removal. “Transitional shelters that are being built belong to the beneficiary,” explains Fysh, “but not necessarily the land upon which they rest.” This makes it uneconomical for renters to rebuild, since they don’t own the land, and it makes it difficult for the international community to determine whether aid should go to people who are living in camps, or to the owners who, at the end of the day, have the authority to decide what to do with their properties. The fact that the land in Haiti is in the hands of a limited number of owners also makes it complicated to move people out of camps. “It’s difficult to find free and public and legally available land,” said Fysh.

Despite the urgency, there seems to be no resolution in sight to the question of Haiti’s extremely imbalanced land ownership rate. “Land tenure is a century-long problem here and it affects everybody,” says Julie Schindall, spokeswoman for Oxfam, an international confederation of 14 NGOs, in Haiti, “but land reform doesn’t happen overnight: it is important to work with the government so that it can create a system that is sustainable in the long-run and more equitable”.  

A historically explosive problem, the idea of implementing land reform remains this country’s bête noire. Among the poor as well as the wealthy, this is a divisive issue that stirs intense reactions. For fear of polarizing the electorate and antagonizing the elite, politicians, including the candidates running in this year’s presidential elections, prefer not to talk about it, concentrating on consensus-building matters such as education, infrastructure and a clamp-down on the oversized presence of the international community, but keeping the problem that is on everybody’s mind on the backburner. The one party that, in the past, has made an issue of land reform, Fanmi Lavalas of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been disqualified from this Sunday’s ballot.


Against this tragic backdrop, it must be said that a few services appear to have marginally improved after the earthquake, for example access to hospital facilities. However, what little seems to be working out is so heavily dependent on foreign aid, that it is questionable if, in the long-run, it is truly making the country better off.

The many international medical NGOs that poured into Port-au-Prince to confront the emergency created a network of field hospitals. Many of them remain today, although treating earthquake-related injuries is no longer their main occupation.

“Right now we are treating the same problems we did prior to the earthquake,” said Petra Becker, the deputy head of of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) French mission in Haiti, prior to the cholera outbreak of late October, “road accidents, home accidents, regular burns, basically a normal range of patients.” MSF France is operating a 260-bed tent hospital in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. According to Becker, “access to primary care in the city is much better now than it was before the earthquake.”

The problem, however, is that most of these health-care services are delivered to Haitians by international organizations free of charge, creating yet another layer of dependency on foreign aid. It is not a strategy that addresses Haiti’s desperate need for sustainable development.

The cholera epidemic that is ravaging the country today, killing people by the hundreds, goes a long way in showing the fragility of the system put in place by international organizations, and the extent to which the people of Haiti are still exposed to the same poor sanitation that was a problem before the earthquake.


A few people, such as Hugues Desgranges of Haiti’s Port Authority, hoped that, in the face of an enormous tragedy, the Jan 12 earthquake could at least provide Haiti with an opening. Maybe this impoverished Caribbean nation was going to enjoy a fresh start, taking advantage of international attention and funds to deliver on a kind of sustainable and more just development that, for one reason or another, has never taken roots here. “We thought a disaster might have changed things,” said Desgranges. “That first week we felt it, and I wished it had lasted, that togetherness, that solidarity among all Haitian people.”

Instead, the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for this coming Sunday, appear likely to divide the country even more, rather than uniting it. A pool of nineteen candidates is competing, many of whom – estimates vary between six and 10 – are running, often in disguise, under the auspices of current President René Preval, in an effort to guarantee continuity to the current, unpopular, government. The Haitian people seem doomed to be disappointed once again.

As a result, suffering not only the consequences of one of the most calamitous natural disaster in history, but also the layers of injustice built through centuries of neglect, and a volatile political situation, many people here simply look around themselves, to the reality that surrounds them, and find almost no reason to hope for a better future. Few expect any change to come from the political class and the public sphere and, instead, have long retreated to their private faith. “The change that we wish for, only God will provide it,” says seamstress Savie Vancol of Carrefour, repeating a mantra commonly heard across Port-au-Prince’s tent camps.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData