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International Aid

How the world can help Haiti Add to ...

For two days, Haiti's people had been awaiting the results of the presidential election - the first since the earthquake on Jan. 12.

In the empty stalls of a public market in Port-au-Prince, young men huddled around dozens of handheld radios, willing the announcer to report some good news.

The night would be celebratory if Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady, and Michel (Sweet Mickey) Martelly, a flamboyant compas singer, claimed top spots. If Jude Celestin, the protégé of President René Préval who has been accused of rigging the election, claimed victory, the frustration would boil over. There was growing disdain for the government's failure to provide permanent shelter and sanitation, and to stem a spreading cholera epidemic.

The young men told us they support Mr. Martelly because he is not part of the political elite and would end Haiti's rampant corruption. But the radio did not deliver the results they had hoped for. Mr. Martelly had lost. He came in third to Mr. Celestin by 6,800 votes, making him ineligible to participate in the second round of the election.

People milled about in disbelief. Their shock was palpable as they insisted there had been a mistake. Their anger erupted as Mr. Martelly's signs filled the air and the mob shouted, " On va lutter!" We will fight!

We decided to quickly depart. But our driving route had changed as suddenly as the crowd. Flaming tires appeared as roadblocks. Three gunshots pierced the darkness.

The next morning the sun rose over an immobilized city.

Outraged that a corrupt government had hijacked the election, thousands took to the streets in an attempt to win it back.

Broken promises

Mr. Préval has been extraordinarily ineffective in his response to the earthquake. Yet so have donor nations. Of the $5.3-billion pledged for 2010-2011 at the emergency donor conference, only $732-million has been allocated.

The lack of follow-through from many governments and organizations has left Haitians with few resources during a critical year. It is also creating larger repercussions for long-term recovery. The contrasting images of national leaders making great promises and those of tires burning in the streets of Port-au-Prince are discouraging individuals from donating to any organization in Haiti, including those that are keeping their promises.

We ventured out to check on friends at a refugee camp of mostly women and children. The camp was called Automeca, named after a nearby car dealership. Within blocks, our vehicle was halted by a crowd brandishing pink Martelly posters and chanting, "We will not be peaceful! We are not afraid!"

Unable to pass, we got out and walked. The smoke from burning tires filled our lungs and stung our eyes. People told us they were standing up against the government's failure to provide the most basic needs for its citizens.

Suddenly, tapping on our shoulders was Shela, a young woman we knew from Automeca.

The 20-year-old is completing her last year of secondary school. She dreams of being a diplomat. But she and her family have struggled to survive since the earthquake flattened their home.

We were surprised to see Shela at the protest. She explained she couldn't tolerate the government's corruption and inaction any longer.

We all grew nervous as the crowd swelled and growing numbers of men brandished wooden clubs and bits of rubble. We decided to leave, and Shela invited us to her home to see the reasons behind the crowd's frustration.

Human waste pooled at the bottom of the path leading into Automeca. Women carrying baskets and children with bare feet used rocks as stepping stones to cross the sludge.

This is one of the smaller tented communities in Port-au-Prince, home to 1,600 of an estimated two million internally displaced persons.

We followed Shela through the winding, narrow passages between half-collapsed and tattered tents stamped with Canadian and U.S. government logos. Her mother welcomed us into a small tent housing six family members. A plastic lining covered the openings in the tarp to keep rats out. "They are as big as cats," Shela said. "And they bite the children at night."

Aid has been sparse. On rare occasions when agencies do distribute sustenance, hungry people from nearby camps arrive and take the food. The latrines overflow and the water isn't safe to drink - when it's turned on.

Even so, Shela still has hope. Unfortunately, it's not in Haiti.

She dreams her 10-year-old brother will go to school in the United States. She told us an oft-repeated rumour that visa restrictions will be lifted for earthquake victims and the United States will rebuild Port-au-Prince into Miami.

Dying at home

Two days later we left Port-au-Prince for the rural city of Hinche.

The ports, markets and schools were still closed, but the countryside seemed unaffected by the post-election upheaval. There were no burning tires, no roadblocks. Instead, girls ran happily along the road, ribbons and baubles bouncing.

Dr. Prince dispelled the illusion of peace.

The director of the Hinche General Hospital and supervisor of the cholera ward greeted us by touching forearms. We delivered supplies and gave him the status of the container holding $2.8-million worth of medical supplies we were shipping to his hospital. Since Oct. 23 the hospital, one of the largest in-patient cholera treatment centres in the region, has cared for more than 3,500 patients with only 27 deaths.

Dr. Prince explained that the number of new cases had fallen by half after the election results. He believed the violence made people too afraid to hazard the journey. Instead of coming to the hospital, they were dying in their homes.

A dignified man, Dr. Prince became uncharacteristically angry as he told us only one of the 19 presidential candidates had visited the clinic. It wasn't any of the three front-runners.

Another candidate held a rally in a clearing in front of the hospital. The cholera patients could see it through the fence, but the candidate didn't bother to cross the road.

Dr. Prince and his colleagues had foreseen violence and publicly called for a postponement of the election until the epidemic subsided. He wanted those in power to grasp the consequences of their inaction on the health of Haiti's people.

He explained that if Port-au-Prince remained closed, the hospital would have only two weeks worth of cholera treatment supplies left.

Resilience and aspiration

It would be easy to write Haiti off as a lost cause. But there's no shortage of resilience and aspiration across this country.

For the past year, Haitians have borne the brunt of an ineffective government and the international community's reluctance to distribute development funds. Though U.S. President Barack Obama has rejected a call by a prominent senator to cut aid to Haiti, his administration and its counterpart in Ottawa are threatening consequences unless Mr. Préval ensures a smooth and democratic transfer of power.

The announcement of a recount came with strong support from around the world. An international panel of experts with the Organization of American States will review the vote. However, Mr. Martelly has concerns. If the ballots themselves have been tampered with, recounting them will not produce a fair election. And even if the outcome is different, candidates have not said whether they will respect the results. Mr. Martelly's solution: a do-over.

The cost of a new vote would come to $30-million. Although significant to an impoverished nation, it would be a worthwhile investment for the international donor community to ensure a democratic government with the support of its people.

This is a crucial moment for Haiti. We cannot expect its only true heroes, people like Dr. Prince and Shela, to bear the weight alone of a struggling country for much longer.

It is time for the Haitian government and the international community to give those huddled around their radios something to cheer for.

Craig Kielburger is the co-founder of Free The Children, an international development and youth empowerment organization that has been active in Haiti since the late 1990s and has built 11 schools in the country. Mia Farrow is an actress and humanitarian who has travelled extensively to regions including Haiti, the Darfur region of Sudan and Angola. While in Haiti, Mr. Kielburger and Ms. Farrow worked with a documentary crew from W5 on a piece marking the first anniversary of the earthquake. It airs Jan. 1 on CTV.

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Follow on Twitter: @craigkielburger


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