Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The missteps of aid to Haiti

An Associated Press story today introduces us to an Haitian by the name of Olisten Elerius. Tropical storms have forced Elerius to build his house over and over again. Jonathan Katz, a writer for the Associated Press tells us Elerius story and how aid shortfalls and misuse have caused this tragedy. Our snippet comes from the story's appearance in Salon.

This is the third time Olisten Elerius is preparing to build his tiny cinderblock house. Four years ago, Tropical Storm Jeanne flooded it and drowned his father, sister and nephew. Then, late this summer, Tropical Storm Hanna swallowed it along with his daughter and another sister. It could happen again.


Haiti's floods are not natural disasters, but a direct result of widespread deforestation, erosion and poverty. Farmers cut trees for charcoal and plant shallow-rooted crops. Rains that would be forgotten elsewhere can kill thousands.

In 2004, Elerius was working in the neighboring Dominican Republic when Tropical Storm Jeanne came twisting like a wounded animal out of the northern sky, sending a wall of water through his cinderblock home and sweeping away his father, sister and nephew. Gonaives residents fled to their rooftops as rivers broke their banks, overflowing morgues with bloated corpses.

A horrified world pledged to help. Elerius returned home just as the money and the white SUVs of non-governmental organizations began flowing into Gonaives, in the north of Haiti.

The U.N. appealed for $37 million in flood relief. Washington would donate more than $45 million, first for emergency food and supplies and then through USAID for the two-year, $34 million Tropical Storm Jeanne Recovery Program.

Disaster officials, newspapers and aid workers called for well-planned, well-financed, long-term aid. Haitian officials told the agencies to spend the money on projects that would save lives: secure rivers, fix roads, design better canals, build homes with better drainage to the sea.

But the U.N. member states, distracted by the Indian Ocean tsunami four months later, raised less than half their funding target.

Work was hampered by violence and insecurity. The Inter-American Development Bank provided about $10 million in loans, mostly for construction of a small drainage system. That project was abandoned by Haitian contractors after bandits stole the cement and steel, IDB representative Philippe Dewez said.

Washington sent money mostly for short-term projects: cleanup, restoration and repair of basic services such as schools, health clinics, roads, bridges and homes. In 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that U.S. organizations cleared more than 2 million cubic feet of mud and restored the livelihoods of 48,000 people. But the GAO said they failed to meet an already reduced target for houses and completed no roads or bridges.

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