Earthquake-relief officials hoping 2011 brings better results

UNITED NATIONS -- A year after an earthquake destroyed its capitol city, Haiti is slowly rebuilding, and U.N. and humanitarian workers are expressing optimism for better results in 2011.

On the plus side: About 690,000 people have been moved off the streets to new temporary or permanent housing, and authorities say earthquake-hit populations have adequate access to food and medical care and most students have returned to school.

But most of the news from Haiti isn't good.

Just 200 of 1,350 tent cities that sprung up in the quake's aftermath have closed, and at least 810,000 people still sleep outside each night. Schools that replaced those destroyed by the quake -- 80 percent of schools in the capital, Port-au-Prince -- are makeshift operations or open-air schools. And a commission led by former President Clinton took months to get organized and has barely started its work -- planning a nationwide revitalization.

Last week the U.K. charity Oxfam issued a scathing critique of the reconstruction effort. It declared the 2010 rebuilding period a "year of indecision," saying it was marred by an immobile Haitian government and a patchwork of nongovernmental and government aid organizations operating according to their own agendas.


"Too many donors from rich countries have pursued their own aid priorities and have not effectively coordinated amongst themselves or worked with the Haitian government," Oxfam country director Roland Van Hauwermeiren wrote. "This seriously weakens the government's ability to plan and deliver on its sovereign responsibility: to lead reconstruction."

Oxfam complains that 15 percent of badly needed transitional shelters have been put up so far, and the efforts by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission established to oversee the whole operation has been "lackluster".

But Nigel Fisher, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator in Haiti and representative of the secretary-general, said the Oxfam criticism is unfair, especially since that nonprofit agency itself is part of the massive relief effort and coordinates daily with U.N. agencies leading the rebuilding.

The United Nations says the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake killed about 222,570 people, though the actual number of deaths will never be known. One-hundred-two U.N. staff members lost their lives in the disaster, the largest single loss of life the world body has ever experienced. Forty percent of Haiti's civil service was killed when most government buildings collapsed.

Fisher conceded a lack of an effective Haitian government and leadership is a huge detriment, but he said that the world has to accept that rebuilding a country with no formal land tenure system, no building codes and a battered civil service will take a long time. He added that most of the homeless were renters before the quake and own no plots of their own.

"Recovery and reconstruction take time, they don't happen overnight," Fisher said. "But there's no doubt that the interim commission took several months to get going because there was a considerable debate going on as to its role, with two very different views."

Political turmoil

Haitian authorities took six months to decide whether the commission would be a full fledged ministry overtaking the entire effort or serve as a coordinating body delegating money and missions to existing bureaucracies and nonprofits, Fisher said.

Eventually the latter choice won, and the commission promptly approved $3 billion for specific rebuilding efforts.

And then there was a disputed presidential election that saw a popular candidate lose in questionable circumstances. Riots and a political crisis followed. Citing a leaked report, Voice of America says the Organization of American States will recommend that the government-backed candidate Jude Celestin be eliminated.

The election assessment should be completed this week, Fisher said. Once Haiti's leaders end the stalemate and reaffirm the interim commission's authority, he said, the push for recovery from the earthquake can resume at a much faster pace.

"Clearly we all know that speeding up the reconstruction and recovery efforts is the absolute priority for 2011," Fisher said.

Five percent of the earthquake rubble has been cleared from Port-au-Prince. But officials say clearing will speed up as outside donor funds are leveraged for "cash for work" schemes, putting money in the hands of Haitians in a bid to restart the economy.

The United Nations said about $8.36 billion in aid commitments were promised by donor nations at a major reconstruction conference last March, with around $2.88 billion either received or earmarked.

The top priority is to build more transitional shelters, to close tent cities and protect populations from tropical storms and hurricanes.

"Despite these complexities, progress is being made in finding longer-term and safer shelter solutions for Haiti's displaced," officials at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

Aid agencies and organizations working in the "shelter cluster," led by the International Organization for Migration, estimate that they had built 31,656 transitional homes by the end of last year, beating their goal of 30,000.

But relief workers continue to face new obstacles.

A cholera epidemic has so far killed about 3,600 people nationwide and infected more than 400,000. An independent investigative team has been dispatched to determine whether Nepalese peacekeepers introduced the non-native strain to the island.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warns that the cholera epidemic could threaten the rice harvest in the country's northwest, putting further strain on food supplies.

Environmental restoration

But more hopefully, work on restoring Haiti's battered environment has finally recommenced, after grinding to a halt on the afternoon that the quake struck one year ago to this date.

An effort to restore degraded land along Haiti's southern coast has relaunched, led by teams from Columbia University and an assortment of nongovermental organizations and made possible by a $15 million grant from Norway and Catholic Relief Services. More than 300 square miles of land and about 200 square miles of a marine zone should be restored under the program.

That "Côte Sud Initiative" is part of a larger 20-year plan to reforest Haiti's bald mountainsides, establish more natural protected areas and restore the nation's natural resources.

A San Diego-based group, Plant with Purpose, estimates that it alone has planted around 240,000 trees and built more than 360 miles of "soil conservation barriers" in rural Haiti since the quake, spending $1 million to hire Haitians to do the work.

Environmental restoration work will be done in tandem with infrastructure and economic recovery efforts, officials promise.

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