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Venturing to Haiti

Haiti, November 19, 2010

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I recently had the opportunity to join a trip to Haiti led by Linda Mason, Chair of the Board of Mercy Corps. This is a very impressive and worthy organization on which I will elaborate later. For now, let me give you a few impressions which are, unfortunately, a mixture of both shock and dismay with a touch of hope thrown in.

The amazing thing about going to Haiti is that you can fly there on a comfortable American Airlines flight (90 minutes from Miami) to a well-appointed terminal without thinking that you are anywhere out of the ordinary. Our flight to Haiti was filled by well-heeled Haitians and reporters and camera crews flying in for Hurricane Tomas. I happened to be sitting next to Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel who chases hurricanes and was skeptical that this was going to amount to much.

Everyone seemed happy and I was struck that these folks had a glow despite their hardships, the impending hurricane or the ongoing cholera epidemic. As I was contemplating what I would see in Haiti, a Haitian man passed my seat slowly. He had two artificial legs and no arms, but had crutches that disappeared under his shirt sleeves up to what must have been stumps of arms. He acknowledged my nod with a smile. Nobody else seemed to notice him.

The reality in Haiti is pretty tough for most people. On our drive through Port-au-Prince and later up in the Central Plains, I was struck to see how little progress there appears to have been since the earthquake. We visited some of the camps for displaced people and saw the considerable amounts of rubble and destroyed homes that have yet to be removed.

Over a million people are in tent camps in Port-au-Prince with no prospect of moving. The tents are side by side and populate every nook and cranny in the city. They are prone to flooding when the rains come. One camp literally had a gully running right through it, which must flood horribly with heavy rains. Families are packed into the tents and their meager belongings are contained in something the size of a milk crate. Aid agencies support the camps and do what they can but the situation is dire.

Fortunately, the hurricane gave a glancing blow to Haiti and, while it rained heavily in Port-au-Prince, there was not much wind. This was a good thing because camp inhabitants were very reluctant to leave their spaces for fear of losing their belongings to thieves or their tents to squatters. Think of that…fear of losing your tent. Despite the lack of a direct hit, some camps were flooded and more misery was heaped on the inhabitants.

Incredibly, what we saw in the camps was the better than many have in Haiti. It appears that most people in Port-au-Prince have no reliable access to running potable water, sanitation or sufficient nourishment. Trash, and I mean tons of trash, is everywhere. I did not have an opportunity to see Cite Soleil — the sprawling, desperately poor slum that ‘houses’ hundreds of thousands of poor Haitians — but I am told it is not a place you want to be. Throughout Port-au-Prince, there are makeshift shelters for families, many of which existed prior to the earthquake. Before the earthquake, the luckier of the poor had enough income to rent a room for their family for eight hours a day to sleep and eat before giving it up to the next group.

There appears to be two classes in Haiti: a very small elite and a very large, uneducated poor population with little hope for a future. There is little upward mobility, as the middle class has largely disappeared and lack of both education and a decent economy means there is no ladder to climb. One can only deduce from what you see there that the government is inept, incapacitated or corrupt.

The population is dominated by people under the age of 29 due to the high birthrate and a life span that hovers around 50 years. Most of the young are getting no formal or consistent education. Most of the children with whom I spoke could not do rudimentary addition. The average per capita gross domestic product is around US$800 per year. I was told that the seeming willingness of the Haitians to passively accept their fate might be a contributor to their lack of progress while also keeping civil unrest at bay. The high gates and armed guards of the better-off did not seem to indicate a broad level of comfort in this notion. It seems hard to believe that such a large population with little hope or direction can stand those conditions for long.

The threat of mudslides and our own schedule kept me from seeing much more than Port-au-Prince. I am told, however, that there are beautiful areas of Haiti with plenty of land for economic development. In the Central Plains, which we got to visit for a short trip, it is clear that there is arable land but the locals lack the expertise and capital to compete in global or even local markets. In fact, when the International Monetary Fund required Haiti to eliminate tariffs on rice and other food commodities to encourage a transition to a free market economy, local farmers had no hope of competing even in their own country with imports from the U.S. and others.

The country can no longer feed itself. Other businesses were further devastated when the U.S. initiated an embargo in the 1990s after the overthrow of (former Haitian President) Aristide. Theory is great, but reality can be a lot rougher and the tail of unintended consequences is a whiplash for many.

Haiti needs money, expertise and an honest, hard-working government. They are getting money and expertise from international non-governmental organizations, although coordination and lack of faith in the government infrastructure has kept the pace of investment slow. Mercy Corps is an expert at dropping into regions of crisis and finding ways to make positive change in the chaos of crisis. Happily, they hire locals so that they have a better sense of the situational context and so their initiatives are sustained in the aftermath of crisis.

I was extremely impressed by the dedication, professionalism and work ethic of the Haitians on the Mercy Corps staff. The projects that Mercy Corps has started should create economic opportunity and hope for those that they touch. It could be much more. In the end, whether Haiti will rise or continue its fall is dependent on the Haitian people, particularly those with the character, training and wherewithal, whose dedication will be required to save their own country.

Mercy Corps understands this; let’s hope the Haitian people do too.