2 years after quake, Haiti a mess – with a ray of hope

Jewish humanitarian groups nearing end of missions in country hope locals will continue their work.

January 12, 2012 06:22
Children outside Zoranje middle school in Haiti

Children outside Zoranje middle school in Haiti 311. (photo credit: JDC)


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On the second anniversary of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti, reducing much of its capital Port-au-Prince to rubble and killing between 46,000 to 316,000 people, according to differing estimates, the country is still a mess.

Tent cities crowd the capital’s few designated public spaces. School attendance is low, crime rates are high and at the time of writing, the Haitian government still had not been able to decide on a uniform way of marking the occasion, leaving individual institutions to plan their own ceremonies.

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The persistently depressing reality in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere begs the question: For all the billions of dollars poured into Haiti since the tragedy struck, is it a better place today than it was two years ago? Meira Aboulafia, the chairman of IsraAid, an Israeli relief group that partners with Tevel Btzedek, another Israeli humanitarian organization, in Haiti says she believes it is. But you’ll have to look closely to notice the changes.

“If you or I show up in Haiti and see the poverty and dire conditions there, then the change might not be discernable,” said Aboulafia, who just returned from the country.

“But I ask locals all the time and they say things are slightly better than they were before. Programs like the one that we have been running teaching farmers better agricultural practices have helped improve things a little bit.”

IsraAid and Tevel Btzedek – which jointly run a medical aid center and agricultural training facility in Leoganne, a town located just outside Port-au-Prince – are part of a group of Jewish organizations that have collectively raised about 18 million dollars to help the country and its citizens recover from the devastation wrought by the tremor.

The biggest Jewish fundraiser is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, better known by its acronym the JDC or simply the Joint. Over the past two years, it has spent 81 percent out of a purse of about 8.6 million on a myriad of projects.

For instance, it helped renovate Port-Au-Prince’s HUEH (l’Hôpital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti), a hospital that has provided prosthetics and medical service to about 3,000 amputees. And in the town of Zoranje, located 30 kilometers outside the capital, JDC built a middle school where children are taught a curriculum of music, science, and language classes using modern teaching methods.

Will Recant, the group’s assistant executive vice presidents and disaster-relief expert, said over the phone from Haiti on Tuesday that he saw “significant improvement” on the ground visiting JDC’s projects, although he felt ambivalence regarding the overall state of the nation.

“Haiti is still recoiling from the earthquake,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be capable of making a macro assessment but what you can see is that there is hope and progress being made. At the same time, still rubble in the streets and still tents cities.”

Judy Amit, the global director of JDC’s international development program, said the agency’s role in the country evolved with changing needs from providing immediate relief to setting up more long-term projects. She said JDC is currently training local leaders that she hoped would continue its projects after its expected departure next year.

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS), another New York-based Jewish humanitarian group, said it has taken a different approach to others. It has chosen to spread its funds, amounting to 6.5 million dollars in donations, over a longer period of time in the belief that such a strategy had a deeper, long-lasting impact.

“We believe in a long-term and sustainable investment,” said Ruth Messinger, the president and CEO of AJWS. So far her agency has spent 3 million dollars on dozens of projects – mostly related to food security and land rights, civil and political participation, and humanitarian aid.

It has also been part of a coalition that has successfully lobbied Washington to reduce Haiti’s foreign debt by 700 million dollars.

Counterintuitively, Messinger said some aid sent to Haiti has had an inadvertently adverse effect on the local economy. She said the abundance of surplus food delivered by the US to feed hungry locals in the aftermath of the quake have caused prices for local produce to plummet. That, in turn, caused a rural exodus of Haitian farmers to the cities, especially to Port-au-Prince. But instead of finding prosperity, they became mired in poverty and dependent on handouts.

To reverse this trend, Messinger advocates stemming the flow of cheap food to the impoverished nation, so that prices rise and farmers have an incentive to work the land again.

“Cheap imports of food had ruined the Haitian agricultural sector,” she said. “A country that was once self-dependent growing its own food is now hungry.”

But there is a flipside in long-term investment, some say. It entrenches dependence on foreign agencies instead of letting locals take up the mantle for social responsibility themselves.

“Our first priority is to feed people,” said Amit of the JDC. “As for the long-term economic impact, I can’t relate to that.”

Either way, no number of well-intentioned foreign aid workers alone will help solve the Caribbean country’s inveterate problems. That burden eventually falls on the shoulders of Haiti’s government and people. JDC, IsraAid, and Tevel Btzedek – which have spent most of their donations – are expected to end their mission in the country within a year or maybe two. AJWS, which was working in Haiti before the natural disaster occurred, said it is committed to at least four more.

The big question on the minds of many observers two years after the quake is whether the programs set up by NGOs in its wake will continue helping the unfortunate nation escape its troubled past, even after those organization are gone, or whether they will be abandoned.

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