In No Man's Land Searching for Signs of Progress in Haiti

A year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, the country is still in disastrous shape. Billions in aid seem to have only made the country a long-term patient of international donors and reconstruction has yet to begin in earnest. Much hope is riding on the coming election.


The sidewalks of Pétionville used to be Officer Jean Calas' pride and joy -- a last bit of order in a life that was drowning in chaos even then. The rules for the sidewalks were clear, he says: They were for pedestrians and nothing else. People respected those rules -- and they respected him. That, though, was before the earthquake.

Calas turns onto Rue Lambert, a street once lined with exclusive shops, a street he describes as Port-au-Prince's Fifth Avenue. Now the sidewalks are full of street vendors catering to the poor, who lost not only their houses but also their markets to the quake with entire slums disappearing under the rubble. The destruction has driven them into the city's wealthier quarter. So now they're here, in Pétionville's open spaces -- in front of the police station, in Parc Sainte Thérèse and on Rue Lambert.

Calas reaches for his whistle. His chest displays his badge number, 00708, and four gold stripes on his shoulder indicate his rank. Now 42, Calas had envisioned more for himself. He would prefer to be "Monsieur l'Inspecteur" rather than a beat cop, especially given all the new problems police officers in Haiti face.

There is more theft and kidnapping now because many Haitians believe that donations from the United States and Europe have made a few locals into millionaires, and that these people are living in Pétionville's villas. There are also more instances of rape, with armed and masked men attacking women and girls in the overcrowded tent camps at night.

Calas' colleagues receive reports of such attacks every day, and every day they tell the victims that they can do little about it. With so few officers and practically no equipment, they simply can't guard the camps.

Indeed, the police station in Pétionville is short on everything. The officers don't have a single computer, landline or photocopier. They don't even have clean toilets or a reliable power supply. Each week, officers receive four rounds of ammunition -- and not a bullet more. Those who want to feel more secure have to buy their own.

In an effort to make improvements where he can, Calas has decided to focus on the battle for the sidewalks. While patrolling in his cruiser, he honks, he whistles and he uses his bullhorn. When no one responds, he steers toward the vendors' wares and threatens to run them over. "Get out of the way!" he shouts. "Déplacez-vous!" But no one listens.

The Chaos Continues

The Haitian state, it would seem, abandoned the task of governing on Jan. 12, 2010. That was the day on which the earthquake buried 300,000 people, including 18,000 civil servants, under deep piles of rubble. The presidential palace and the finance, justice and interior ministries, along with 180 other government buildings, collapsed. Relief organizations have, since then, largely filled the void -- Haiti has become a republic of NGOs.

Streets all over Port-au-Prince are still strewn with rubble. At least a million people still live in tent camps, on the city's public squares, on the Champ de Mars as well as in Carrefour and Mariani, two areas closer to the sea. Images of the homeless have become normality -- the world has gotten used to a stricken Haiti.

According to Roland Van Hauwermeiren, a country director in Haiti for the aid organization Oxfam, 2010 was a year of "missed opportunities" for rebuilding. Many areas require immediate action, including clearing rubble, repairing houses and allocating land. Despite current political difficulties, it is time, Van Hauwermeiren insists, to begin rebuilding.

The political problems are not insignificant. First, the presidential election scheduled for January 16 has now been delayed until at least late February due to irregularities. Second, the term of the current president, René Préval, ends on February 7. Likewise, there are still no official final results from a contentious first round of voting this past November. And, finally, it's unclear which leader the international community should support.

Broken Promises, Growing Dependence

After the catastrophe struck last January, the world promised great things. Governments agreed to send record amounts in aid -- the equivalent of nearly $1,000 (€770) for every Haitian. But, according to the United Nations, only 42 percent of the funds pledged to rebuilding Haiti have been received. And international NGOs are still providing the lion's share of emergency assistance.

"We have created these parallel structures in education, in health services, in all sorts of responsibilities that the Haitians should be assuming themselves," says Edmond Mulet, head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). That needs to change, Mulet says, adding that the country needs a strong government.

In the months after the earthquake, empowering the government was not a priority -- there was no plan in place. Pierre Duquesne, an official from the French Foreign Ministry, compared the situation to raising children. "If you believe he will never become an adult," he told the Associated Press last spring, "he will never become an adult."

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