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In Haiti, good intentions have unexpected and unfortunate results

Some of the international community's aid efforts have caused problems, including an increase in housing prices, political turmoil and perhaps even the cholera epidemic.

December 13, 2010|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • A group of Haitians works on a makeshift house using tree branches, scraps of wood and tarp near Corail-Cesselesse.
A group of Haitians works on a makeshift house using tree branches, scraps… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — The wood-frame Carousel grammar school survived the earthquake that destroyed much of this city in January. Beatrice Moise had taught there for five years and hoped she would continue when schools reopened in spring.

But in February she found out that the director had rented the building out to the international relief group Oxfam. Buildings in the upscale suburb of Petionville, where foreigners like to live and work, were in high demand, and Oxfam paid $10,000 a month.

The students, mostly from wealthy families, would probably have little problem finding other schools. Moise and the other five teachers, however, were out of jobs.

Now nearly a year after the disaster, Moise, 38, is working part time as a cashier at a grocery store, earning a quarter of what she made as a teacher, while the influx of foreigners with big budgets has nearly tripled her rent and doubled the price of food.

Still, she doesn't blame the international groups — the blans (whites). She's applying for a secretarial position with Oxfam, and her brother already works there.

"I would rather lose my job than have the internationals leave," she said. "They came here to help."

The vast foreign aid apparatus in this Caribbean nation is struggling to make significant progress in easing Haiti's misery after the earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people.

But the international community's good intentions have created some ambiguous or outright unpleasant side effects: an increase in housing prices that is pushing Haitian professionals out of apartments and offices; political turmoil in the wake of a hastily prepared presidential election; and quite likely the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people.

And the class benefiting the most financially from the international presence? The tiny wealthy elite so often disdained by foreigners for their perceived indifference to the rest of their country's plight. They own the car dealerships, the high-end grocery stores, the car rental and telecommunications firms, the office buildings, the luxury hotels and restaurants — which are getting more business than ever while more than a million people remain in tent camps.

"You wonder where all the money is going besides seeing all the blans driving new 4-by-4s," said Steeve Laguere, a Haitian-Canadian and longtime aid worker in Port-au-Prince who has worked for Catholic Relief Services and Plan International. "And people are opening restaurants like there is no tomorrow."

The Haitian government estimates that there are more than 4,000 foreign aid groups operating in the country of 10 million. With the help of the United Nations mission and the U.S. military, they coordinated a massive medical response after the earthquake and provided food, water and tents for the displaced and injured. And today, organizations are working to contain the cholera epidemic that started in October and has stricken about 100,000 people.

There are proposals to build schools, hospitals, sanitation systems, public housing.

But the delays, particularly in getting people out of the encampments and into temporary shelters, have given many poor Haitians the feeling that nothing has been done, that these new arrivals are touris — a word they have used disparagingly for the U.N. troops here almost since they arrived six years ago.

The cholera epidemic only strengthened the notion that foreigners were muddling around with big clumsy feet.

Haitians in the Artibonite Valley, where the waterborne disease first occurred, quickly blamed a U.N. base staffed by Nepalese troops near Mirebalais for dumping their waste into a tributary of the Artibonite River. The head of the U.N. mission denied this. But Haiti had not seen the disease in more than a century and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently determined that the strain of cholera did indeed come from South Asia.

When a reporter and photographer visited the area in November, opinion on whether the Nepalese were at fault was sharply — almost violently — divided by who benefited from the U.N. presence and who did not.

"They don't need to be here," said Isaac Irat, 33. "They don't give us work. They don't know what they're doing. They march out three times a day. They're looking for women."

Others gathered to echo the sentiment and said the Nepalese were dumping their waste in the river. Then a young man who gave his name as Osner Bellevue (although the group gathering around him denied that was his real name) insisted they were all lying.

He said a sanitation company pumped out their latrines and emptied the waste outside the base in pits up the hill. He guided the journalists to them.

Black, bubbling muck filled a pit to about 3 feet below the rim. Some men said that whenever it rained, it overflowed and ran straight down the hill to the river. The whole area was muddy and strewn with shreds of sopping trash. Pigs wallowed about.

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