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Haiti, three years after the earthquake

January 18th, 2013

I visited Haiti for the first time shortly after the earthquake struck in 2010. I will never forget the devastation I saw nor the courage of the Haitian people. The whole world then stood by Haiti – nations rich and poor pledged to help rebuild the country and make it stronger in the face of the inevitable future disasters it will have to face.

Three years later I am back to see what has happened since. There has been quite a lot of negative coverage of Haiti – of promises made and forgotten, of victims still waiting for help and for their houses to be rebuilt.

To my surprise the reality is much better than my expectations. Port-au-Prince itself is clean and tidy, even if it is chaotic and overcrowded. But this was how a city of two million intended for 250,000 residents was before the earthquake. The vast majority of the rubble has been cleared away.

The temporary camps for those who lost their homes have also been reduced greatly in numbers. Out of nearly 1.6 million people made homeless by the earthquake more than 1.2 million are now accommodated in permanent or temporary houses. Champ de Mars, a year ago still a sea of tarpaulin, today is restored to its civic role as a place for the city’s people to stroll and gossip. And many other public places have also been returned to their original purpose.

On the day of remembrance of the earthquake I took part in the closing ceremony of a camp in the Jean Marie Vincent Schools. We held a sober minute of silence for the victims – and then a celebration of life. Students from the school sang and former camp residents cheered, both sides happy to turn a new page, both hoping for a better future.

Of course, there is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done. But Haiti today is stronger than it was three years ago. UNICEF reports a decline in child mortality and an increase in school enrolments.

Haiti’s capacity to deal with natural disasters has also improved. In Accra Camp I met with Eli, the fiery but determined leader of a community where alert flags now flutter – green for all clear, yellow for danger approaching, red for evacuation. Simple but effective lessons are being put into practice to create resilience in communities which are learning to anticipate the next climate change-related shock – just as last year’s Tropical Storm Isaac and Hurricane Sandy showed.

And with our help the Haitian Civil Protection is training volunteers across the country. In thecommunity of Tabarre on a bright Sunday morning we saw a demonstration of a rescue operation and were impressed by the enthusiasm and strong team spirit that shined through it.

So why is the news on Haiti so bleak? I remember from my first visit to Haiti three years ago that every Haitian I met – even the generous lady who, although she clearly had little more than the clothes she was wearing, offered me half her orange – angrily warned me against giving money to their government. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised then to hear the same advice from a Haitian taxi driver even before stepping on to the plane in New York for Port-au-Prince.

And this mistrust of the authorities from the people they serve is at the heart of Haiti’s problems.Let’s not forget that even before the earthquake struck, Haiti has suffered from bad, often corrupt, governance for decades.

But my meeting with Prime Minister Lamothe was encouraging. He greeted us in his working clothes – a guayabera shirt – and reminded us that when he took office recently he didn’t even have a printer for his computer. The absence of a functioning government until his administration was formed in May 2012 has been a serious obstacle to the delivery of aid and for advancing the country’s reconstruction. But now there is a team in place and the Prime Minister clearly means business.

When you or I read all the criticism of how the country has fared since January 2010 I urge us all to take a longer view. Expectations of what could be achieved in such a short spell of time were unrealistic.

Eli and his people have spent three years now in tents. They clamour for the right to have homes, which they don’t expect to receive for free. I told him, just as I told PM Lamothe and President Martelly, that we in Europe will not let the people of Haiti down. We are in this for the long term. With patience and perserverance Haiti will overcome not ony the earthquake but also the other catastrophes of its past – those caused by a failure of governance.

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