Roberts column: Aid making a difference in Haiti
CARREFOUR, Haiti ó Donít tell the moms lined up on a bench here in the Gaston Morgan camp that nothingís happened in the year since a massive earthquake shook the already wobbly foundations out from under Haitian society. They are waiting with their new babies for checkups and immunizations.
And donít tell 9-year-old Jeune DíJenika thereís no improvement ó sheís back in school. As she and the other orange-and-white, gingham-clad third-graders excitedly show off their reading skills to foreigners visiting the tents housing Eddy Pascaleís school, Mr. Pascale shows off the test scores of his students. Though his once impressive school building is now nothing more than rubble, his pupils are doing him proud.
And donít tell the housewife in Leogane that the plastic chairs and tables sheís collecting from a stall in the Chatuley market wonít make her life more pleasant when she moves into her new house. The house is provided by Habitat for Humanity, as part of a coordinated effort to get families out of camps and back into the community. The furniture comes as part of a program set up by Save the Children (where Cokie is a trustee) that gives new homeowners vouchers to bring to local merchants for household supplies. The merchants then turn in the vouchers for cash.
Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of Haitians like these have received countless services from humanitarian organizations doing whatever they can to better the lives of these impoverished people. Even before that devastating day a year ago, this was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with an unemployment rate of 70 percent. For many Haitians, like the young mothers bringing their babies for checkups, this is the first time they have ever had access to health care or proper nutrition or clean water or garbage disposal.
At this one-year anniversary of the natural disaster that claimed more than 300,000 lives ó the equivalent of the entire city of New Orleans ó and injured another 300,000, there are many silly stories circulating. And those stories could have the effect of further damaging this bedeviled country where a million people are still displaced.
Itís not true that money is ěgoing down a rat hole,î as some charge, or that nothing has happened to improve Haitian lives in the past year. Itís not true that humanitarian organizations are not coordinating with one another ó they meet regularly and divide duties. Itís not true that those nongovernmental organizations are undermining the Haitian government by taking on its responsibilities ó they work with relevant ministries as much as possible.
If people believe those stories and stop contributing to the years-long reconstruction that will be necessary, it will hurt Haitians, and Haitians have been hurt enough. Persistent poverty and illiteracy preceded the earthquake, and a hurricane and cholera epidemic followed it. Humanitarian groups added cholera to their already full checklists, and their treatment clinics are keeping the disease from killing more than the 3,000 people it has already claimed.
Yes, the cleanup is slow (though no slower than in similar disasters like the Indonesian tsunami) but the amount to be done is mind-boggling. Tent cities occupy every inch of spare space as rubble still fills block after block of Port-au-Prince. The shells of the presidential palace, the assembly building and the 19th-century cathedral serve as constant reminders that all forms of authority have been devastated. Twenty-seven of 28 public ministries were destroyed, hundreds of government workers killed. Throw in a disputed election that might take months to resolve and you have paralyzed government.
Some things only the government can do. Only the government can write building codes, which it has not done. And it takes the government to determine land ownership. Thatís been a major obstacle to reconstruction ó nobody wants to build on land where an absent owner might show up and claim the building.
The international community has given billions of dollars to Haiti, and its leaders must both pressure the Haitian government into action and fulfill their commitments to deliver the $4.5 billion pledged last year. Every bit of that money and more will be needed just to bring the country back to normal, much less ěbuild back betterî as promised.
One out of every two American families contributed to earthquake relief, and they should know their generosity has helped the moms and kids and merchants and teachers of Haiti. But it will take more money and more time to truly help our neighbor in need.
Contact Steve and Cokie Roberts by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.