“So … how is Haiti these days?”

“So … how is Haiti these days?”  – this is probably the question I have been asked most since I’ve come back. The problem is: I have absolutely no idea!

Having been there for three months hardly makes me an expert – even less so since all I did was shuttle between the our base camp and the UN LogsBase in a land cruiser twice a day, always protected by a suffocating security bubble that made sure that I had no chance to actually talk to any Haitians, except for the drivers and our two local staff.

Nevertheless, I have an opinion. And that opinion is that Haiti was a terrible place to grow up and live before the earthquake. And the quake has made it worse.

What frustrates me is that many people seem to think that we should have been able to change that by now, simply by throwing a lot of money at the issues. The problem is: it doesn’t work that way.

Poverty is the real disaster

Poverty is the underlying problem to all vulnerability. And you can’t change poverty in seven months. To change poverty to you need to create opportunities. And that requires infrastructure, rule of law, education and jobs. You can’t end poverty with a cheque. If you dived all the money that has been pledged (oh, and btw, most of the money that was pledged by states at the beginning of this year still hasn’t arrived) you wouldn’t have ended poverty, you would just have increased prizes.

You also can’t build a functioning disaster preparedness system in seven months – and you definitely can’t do it in a country that never had such a mechanism while you are in the middle of a massive response operation. That is why everybody is so worried about hurricane season.

And don’t even get me started on deforestation – how do you improve the situation of farmers in seven months when 96 per cent of all trees have been cut in the country and the fertile top soil is washing into the sea before your very eyes?

The Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Just across the road from the destroyed Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince is a large IDP camp.

A task for years, not months

What you can do in seven months is you can try to do the best you can. You can provide potable water, latrines, shelter and give people the basic necessities to survive. In a year, even in two years, you can only treat symptoms.

Treating these symptoms is important. However, there seems to be the bizarre expectation that it should be possible to change the future of nine million Haitians within a couple of months, when realistically I think that you will start to see improvements after five and real changes after 10 or 15 years – and that is in a best case scenario without civil unrest or new natural disasters. (“Tales from the Hood” has an excellent post about how aid is complicated and expensive.)

To make real changes, you need to change structures, which requires the political will and ability to make those changes. Think about it: how long it takes in your country before a new law has been passed or new regulations have been adopted? Why should it be any faster in a country where a quarter of the civil servants are dead, most ministries destroyed and where most people who have an education have left the country?

So when somebody asks me  “How is Haiti these days?” – sometimes I just respond: “Very warm.” Because that is the only thing I know for sure.