One year on, wounds heal slowly in Haiti

A terrible earthquake left Haiti shattered. One year later, with billions of aid dollars spent, why is the country still in ruins?

Iselene Clairvil was lying in the bath when the earthquake struck. Her house, like most in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, simply crumbled. With both arms crushed under chunks of concrete, the terrified woman was trapped for three hours before rescuers heard her screams.

Some might think her one of the lucky ones. More than 200,000 Haitians died in the disaster, which reduced most of the country's capital city to rubble.

The international community rushed to promise aid for the stricken Caribbean nation. At a donor conference organized by the UN, governments around the world pledged £6.5 billion to get Haiti back on its feet.

But one year later, as Haiti commemorates the anniversary of the quake, Iselene is living on the streets. ‘The government,’ she says, ‘are not doing anything to help us. I will be stranded here forever.’

The earthquake left around 1.5 million people without homes, and it’s estimated that two thirds of them still live under canvas in ‘tent cities’ or on the streets.

Conditions in these temporary camps are often dire. Criminals control many areas. Rapes and murders are common. Survivors live cramped in unsanitary conditions, vulnerable to weather and disease.

How can such a vast international effort have made such modest progress?

The Haitian government is part of the problem. It has always been weak and corrupt, and the earthquake destroyed all but one of its 29 ministries, and killed 20% of Haitian civil servants. Now it can barely function at all.

The hundreds of independent aid agencies that poured in after the disaster have also been blamed. No one knows how many have been operating in the country in the past year; a significant number are amateur outfits, run by sympathetic enthusiasts who arrive with more good intentions than genuine expertise.

Too many cooks?
In future, critics claim, disaster response should be much better coordinated, and more money should go through the government of the affected area. The huge number of charities, each doing their own thing, has created chaos, and is slowing down reconstruction. A centralised effort might take longer to organise but in the end it could get more done.

Others feel differently. The rush of private organizations at least meant that aid got there fast. According to an Oxfam spokeswoman ‘aid agencies working together kept millions of people alive.’ And a Haitian survivor said: ‘if we wait for [the government] to act, we will die before it happens.’

You Decide

  1. Charities are accused of harming as they try to help. When people are trying sincerely to do the right thing, can that ever be bad?
  2. More than 200,000 people died in the Haiti earthquake. Only 52 people were killed in the 7/7 London bombings in 2005. However, in Britain, the 7/7 bombings were bigger news. What do you think the reasons are? Do you agree with them?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were in charge of an aid agency flying into Haiti the day after the quake. What would your priorities be? Can you write down a ten point emergency action plan?
  2. Do some research to find out about the Richter scale and earthquake proofing. Then write a short essay about why the Haiti earthquake was so devastating, compared to others that were equally powerful.

Some People Say...

“What happens to other countries is their own business. It’s not our responsibility to sort out their problems.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Where is Haiti?
It’s a republic in the Caribbean. It became independent after slaves revolted against French rule in the early 19th Century, but since then it has had a troubled history. It is still one of the world’s poorest countries.
And what exactly happened?
In January 2010, a massive earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. More than 200,000 people were killed.
Why was it so devastating?
Haiti is a poor country with a weak government. Many people lived in slums, with badly built concrete houses that collapsed easily.
How often do such disasters happen?
Sadly disasters like this are fairly frequent around the world. In 2004, a massive tidal wave killed around 200,000 people in East Asia. And floods in Pakistan last year killed 2000 but left millions homeless.

Subjects

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