It was one year ago today that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated an already devastated nation in the Caribbean. Long known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is still on its knees. Only 5 to 10% of the rubble from the quake has been cleared, making it impossible to rebuild the thousands of houses -- even temporary -- that are needed by the 1.2 million Haitians still subsisting in 1,277 tent camps and makeshift shelters of corrugated tin and cardboard. Unemployment still hovers at as much as 80%, by some estimates.
Haiti is perhaps the most challenging study in the area of disaster relief. The causes for the slow progress have been pinned on outside donors' not following through with their pledges to an already corrupt government now almost completely incapacitated. Indeed, 30% of Haiti's public servants perished in the January 12 earthquake. But one has to ask how it is that over 900 NGO's working in the country -- many of whom were already there -- have not been able to make faster progress. It appears to be a classic example of a vicious circle -- the greatest need is shelter, but rebuilding can't happen until the rubble is cleared; but that can't happen until more trucks and other equipment are available, but in many parts of Port-au-Prince, there isn't even room between the buildings for a truck. One worker estimated that it would take a fleet of 500 trucks seven years to clear the rubble; no such fleet exists.
But this is Haiti. Having been there three times, I am continually reminded of Africa when I think of the nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with its vastly different neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The difference is visible and palpable when crossing the border, as my wife and I have done by bus.
Just why IS Haiti so different? What are the invisible forces that have held it hostage for generations? Why is hope for Haiti so elusive?
I am not an expert on Haiti and do not pretend to understand all the complexities of the situation. But I do have a hunch or two: at the risk of sounding harsh, uncaring and imperialistic, I have to ask if the Haitians themselves are willing to take responsibility for lasting change. Because of all that has befallen the island, it is easy to understand why the victim mentality could settle in. But I believe it goes back earlier, to the founding of the first nation in the world to have gained independence as the result of a slave rebellion. The African slaves whom the French populated the island with were treated so cruelly by the French that it is little wonder that, for many of them, their new-found freedom (in 1804) meant freedom from the curse of slave labor, and well, work in general. I am not saying all Haitians are averse to work; I am asking out loud whether there are vestiges of this pendulum reaction still at work today. What would it take for the Haitians themselves to take ownership and leadership in the recovery effort? What it would it take for the political circus to stop long enough to focus on getting the nation back on its feet?
Fortunately, at least a few of the NGO's at work there have a long-term vision of raising up Haitian leadership to grapple with the staggering challenges. Then, and only then -- just as is the case in Africa -- will this Caribbean pearl with a very rough exterior be able to move into its destiny.
Some of those NGO's:
Youth With a Mission