When I first went to Haiti, before the earthquake, I was surprised by the faint whiff of optimism in the air. Despite the billion-dollar hurricane damage in 2008, there was a sense that maybe the poorest country in our half of the world might be getting itself on track. There was a long way to go, but maybe something good could happen here.
Then came the earthquake – more than 200,000 people killed in 45 seconds. Port-au-Prince was shaken to its foundations as every other building was damaged or destroyed. Friends, neighbours, colleagues – killed in an instant. The Ministry of Education – destroyed. The national nursing school – destroyed. The Supreme Court building – destroyed. Block after city block reduced to rubble. In less than a minute, Haiti lost the equivalent of a year’s GDP.
In the two years since the quake, a million people have left their temporary shelters. But that means 500,000 people are still living in tents. They don’t have the money to build a new place and they can’t afford rent, so they stay.
While the streets still appear chaotic, half the rubble has been removed. The Haitian relief effort is clearing up the mess at the same pace the rubble of the World Trade Center was cleared away. There’s just a lot more of it in Haiti.
The schools that were open before the quake are functioning again. It’s not enough that only 50 per cent of Haiti’s children go to school, but it’s significant progress compared with the shattered education system two years ago. Haitian President Michel Martelly and Unicef are working on a five-year plan to make primary education free and accessible to all children – a revolution this country needs. Two taxes are being considered to make this sustainable, one on incoming long-distance calls and another on remittances from abroad.
Since 2010, child protection services have been strengthened. For the first time in Haiti, there are standards of care for children, and half of the country’s orphanages are registered. Haiti also signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in 2011, making orderly and secure international adoptions possible.
In the alleys and byways of Port-au-Prince, social services are being driven by countless community groups. Schools, clinics, sports clubs and daycare centres knit together the fabric of community as the city begins to heal.
With more than half of the country under 24 years old, young people must take the lead. Gilet Maxcène is one of them. He lives in one of the tent cities, but almost four years ago, he and his friends started an after-school group for youngsters “because this is our way to help build our country.” Around the country, local groups provide programs for 120,000 children.
There’s still too much rubble in the streets, too many people without permanent shelter and too many people without jobs. But when we compare Haiti today with two years ago, victories are easily found.
A recent business forum announced $8-billion in private investment pledges, and government ministries are starting to function again after 18 months of paralysis. International donors have released almost half of the money they had pledged to reconstruction, and there’s hope this will pick up now there’s a government in place.
After two years of hard work, the country is getting back to where it was before the earthquake – it isn’t good enough yet, but maybe, just maybe, reconstruction efforts are finally getting on track and the pre-quake whiff of optimism can blossom into real hope for Haiti’s future.
David Morley is president and CEO of Unicef Canada.