By Jane Regan
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 14, 2011 (IPS) - One year and one month after Haiti's horrendous earthquake, the world's eyes are focused elsewhere.
Aside from a few updates on ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has fallen from the headlines.
Gone are the foreign reporters and news crews pumping out anniversary stories.
Long-forgotten are the one-year reports from United Nations agencies, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and watchdog groups, full of self-congratulations or hand- wringing over the lack of progress on Haiti's reconstruction. [See sidebar]
But there has been a kind of progress.
NGOs and the "humanitarian industry"
"In the language of NGOs, Haiti is a 'humanitarian hot spot,' because the NGOs go where the donors go," journalist Linda Polman told a group of reporters in Petion-ville, Haiti recently.
"That's why all these organisations are here. They're waiting for the billions… Haiti is just one station on the trip NGOs make. They ask people for money because they say they are going to help… You have to ask them questions. You have to make sure they spend that money on you."
The Dutch author of "The Crisis Caravan - What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid" took time out from her investigation into Haiti aid to urge Haitian journalists at Radio/Tele Metropole to dig into NGOs and the "humanitarian industry".
"NGOs are part of an international, multinational, multi-billion-dollar industry," she said. "Donor countries give over 130 billion dollars a year."
And that figure doesn't even take into account private donations.
According to Polman, about 37,000 NGOs, mostly from Western countries, work in poor countries. There are probably about 2,000 foreign NGOs in Haiti by her reckoning. And while NGOs say they come to poor countries to "help", that is not the only motivation, she said.
"This is a business, and sometimes they make decisions that are not moral," she noted.
In addition to being in business, they also do foreign policy work. In her book, Polman writes how, in 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attack, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told NGO leaders that "American NGOs… NGOs are a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team."
Polman pleaded with journalists to investigate the foreign NGOs in Haiti which – according to many journalist and watchdog groups – are not delivering the quality and quantity of assistance needed.
"Western journalists come and go and that is why it is up to you. Ask the NGOs questions. And if you don't understand, ask and ask again, because it's your money."
*Author Linda Polman's visit to Radio/Tele Metropole was part of an ongoing training organised by the Knight International Journalism Fellow in Haiti.
Haitian authorities – or, to be more precise, those who have authority in Haiti, but who are not necessarily Haitian – actually do have a plan for Haiti's homeless.
The ambitious 30-page "Neighborhood Return and Housing Reconstruction Framework (version 3)," obtained last month by Haiti Grassroots Watch, outlines plans to rebuild neighbourhoods with better zoning and better services, help homeowners rebuild safer homes, or relocate homeowners to new homes in less precarious locations.
However, the Framework leaves out Haiti's largest group of earthquake victims: the poorest of the poor. The renters.
"With a few exceptions, the reconstruction is not going to make people homeowners who were not homeowners before," Priscilla Phelps, senior advisor for Housing and Neighbourhoods for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), told IPS and Haiti Grassroots Watch in January.
That means 192,154 families – more than half of the 1.3 million internally displaced persons tallied last fall – will be left out in the cold. Or, in the case of Haiti, out in the sun, the rain and the dust.
According to the Framework, "[r]eturn and reconstruction will not change the tenancy status of earthquake affected households: the goal is to restore owners and renters to an equivalent status as before the earthquake, but in safer conditions."
For home- and land-owners, things are moving forward, albeit very slowly.
Humanitarian agencies have over 100 million dollars to build 111,240 "transitional shelters" or "T-Shelters" – small huts, usually 18 square metres. As of Feb. 1, only about 43,100 had been built, due to the rubble choking poor neighbourhoods and Haiti's convoluted land ownership situation. (Most donors want to be sure on land titles before building a T-Shelter.)
Agencies and construction firms also have at least 174 million dollars pledged of the 350 million dollars needed - in 2011 alone - for repairing or rebuilding homes and neighbourhoods. As of Feb. 1, of the approximately 193,000 homes needing to be repaired or rebuilt, only 2,547 had been repaired and 1,880 rebuilt.
But for the hundreds of thousands of former renters living hunched under tents in camps with few or no services, with an average of 392 residents per latrine, there is no shelter – transitional or permanent – on the horizon. Because they are supposed to rent.
Sanon Renel, of the Housing Reflection and Action Force coalition (Fòs Refleksyon ak Aksyon sou Koze Kay - FRAKKA), which is mobilising with unions and other groups on the housing issue, is outraged.
"This is pure and simple exclusion. You could even call this an official policy of apartheid," Renel told IPS.
In addition to losing all their belongings, many of Haiti's displaced also lost jobs, as well as the huge sums they had paid out for school tuitions and rent prior to the earthquake. In Haiti, one rents six, 12 and even 24 months at a time. Renel noted that it will take years for families to save that up again.
"These people are factory workers, day labourers. Many are former peasants forced into the city because their land has given out, or because they can't make ends meet. They are the eternal victims of an economic system that protects big landowners and rich capitalists," said Renel.
A typical example of "reconstruction"
The way the housing issue is being handled offers a typical example of Haiti's "reconstruction".
The Framework "is intended to signal what the approach is going to be," according to the IHRC's Phelps, who likely helped author the plan and who recently co-wrote 'Safer Homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing After Natural Disasters' for the World Bank.
But the document has never been approved by the government of Haiti. Not by the parliament, not by President René Préval, and not the Inter-Ministry Commission on Housing, which groups together five ministers.
Nor has the document ever been held up to public scrutiny or discussed at fora where local urban planners, construction firms or other stakeholders – like FRAKKA and the homeless people themselves – could perhaps make their opinions known.
Nevertheless, the Framework is more than what the "approach is going be".
De facto, it is the plan. Because NGOs are moving forward, according to Jean-Christophe Adrian of UN-HABITAT, which chairs the "Shelter Cluster" of the 200 or so NGOs working on the housing issue.
"The document represents the consensus," Adrian explained.
Phelps notes that the Inter-Ministry Commission on Housing has "seen it and made remarks," but they have never openly approved or disapproved of it, nor has it been made public.
In fact, national government officials have only gone public on one housing project – a plan for 3,000 to 4,000 apartments in the Fort National neighbourhood overlooking Haiti's National Palace.
"It's a project of public housing high-rises, respecting building norms for earthquake zones, which will house many hundreds of families," Jacques Gabriel, Minister of Public Works, told Agence France Presse in January.
But when Minister of Social Affairs Gérald Germain and his bodyguards showed up to place the cornerstone on Jan. 12, they were chased away by angry, homeless protestors.
"We want explanations!" a man who identified himself as Leguenson told AlterPresse.
Haiti's homeless are not the only ones who want explanations. According to Phelps, the project does not yet have IHRC approval.
Nevertheless, not unlike the lack of coordination and communication sometimes apparent in other sectors, the first stone for the Fort National project was going to be placed even before it received the IHRC's green light.
Or perhaps the Haitian government has decided to skip the IHRC? But according to a decree, it is "responsible for continuously developing and refining development plans for Haiti."
"There are still a lot of questions that have to be worked out," Phelps explained. "The proposal they have made is one that needs some vetting. It's quite expensive."
Shelter Cluster authorities are also sceptical. "Our experience shows us that, in all countries, these types of projects end up benefiting the middle classes. They don't benefit the poorest people," Adrian said.
With authorities bickering, with no high-rise in sight, and with construction and reconstruction only planned for the homeowners, 13 months later, Haiti's poorest earthquake victims are left exactly where they were on Jan. 13, 2010 - in tents and under tarps, living in subhuman conditions, under constant threat of eviction, facing a depleted housing stock with no savings.