A hillside of destroyed homes near downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 15. Experts say that too many Haitians live on steep, eroded slopes like this one owing to urban overcrowding.
A hillside of destroyed homes near downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 15. Experts say that too many Haitians live on steep, eroded slopes like this one owing to urban overcrowding. David Gilkey/NPR
In the coming weeks, aid agencies will begin planning how to rebuild what the earthquake destroyed in Haiti.
Aid experts who have worked in the country say that money could be wasted if it isn't used to fix deep-seated problems that have reinforced poverty and even exacerbated the effects of last week's earthquake.
Avoiding Mismanaged Aid
When Rajiv Shah, the head of the Agency for International Development, met with reporters after the earthquake, he emphasized that the U.S. government would collaborate with Haitian authorities, not replace them. "That is the way we hope to work, in partnership and responsiveness, to requests from the Haitian government," Shah said.
But that could be a problem, says Gerald Murray, an anthropologist at the University of Florida who has worked in Haiti for three decades, advising international banks and organizations on aid projects. He says a lot of money has been wasted.
"A bad scenario would be one in which some Haitian government officials insist that any aid be channeled through them, that they have the authority to send crews to where they want them to go, and it would be a terrible outcome," says Murray. He is talking about long-term aid, not emergency help.
Murray says he has interviewed thousands of Haitians and they tell him they don't want foreign aid going to the Haitian government. They prefer that nongovernmental organizations handle it. "You know you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. If you use that strategy, many of the NGOs are foreign NGOs. You are not developing the institutions of the country, but if you do do your duty and give the money to the Haitian government, it will disappear," he says.
He adds that NGOs have their own problems; they sometimes misspend the money themselves on things like overhead or travel.
An Ecological Recipe For Disaster
Murray suggests that the decline of agriculture exacerbated the quake's toll. Haitians left the countryside for Port-au-Prince, creating a dense population in poorly built housing that couldn't withstand the quake.
"[In] the village I lived in, people were still planning a future for their children on the farm, they would try to acquire more land and purchase more land. Now it is more common to find people selling more land to finance emigration," Murray says — emigration not only to Port-au-Prince but to Haiti's neighbor, the Dominican Republic, which is not eager to see more Haitian immigrants. He adds that the quake will probably propel even more Haitians to leave the country.
Anthropologist Glenn Smucker, who advises AID and international banks on Haiti, says soil erosion is the main culprit in this social breakdown. Most of Haiti's forests have been cut for fuel and the soil just washes away. Smucker also says farmers have switched from growing coffee to crops like corn and beans that have to be replanted every year. "Farmers on the upper slopes, for example, plant erosion-intensive crops because they have few choices. They live right on the edge of existence," he says.
Smucker says too many Haitians now live in harm's way: on those steep, eroded slopes, or in floodplains along the coast. "You have then all the ingredients for a major disaster and death and loss of housing literally every time it rains," he says. And it can rain a lot there. Haiti lies smack in the middle of hurricane territory and has suffered through several deadly storms in recent years.
Alex Fischer, a political scientist at Columbia University, was discussing agricultural aid with Haitian officials in Port-au-Prince when the quake hit. He was evacuated the next day. Fischer says rural Haitians depend on imported food, either bought or donated, that comes through Port-au-Prince. "Now that those lifelines are cut off there's major questions on how to sustain the system of food and not allow for starvation," he says.
Fischer says the Haitian government and aid groups were making plans to fight erosion by planting timber and fruit trees or building retaining walls on steep slopes. Those efforts are now on hold. Whether they'll resume depends on how post-quake aid for Haiti is spent.