The slow rebuilding of Haiti

Six months since the devastating earthquake in Haiti that left 2.3 million people homeless, there is some good news on relief efforts. But this is overwhelmed by the bad. Rubble remains uncleared in the streets, while incompetence and bureaucracy hamper reconstruction efforts. Simon Wilson reports on how the battered country is coping.

Six months since Haiti's devastating earthquake, there is some good news on relief efforts. But this is overwhelmed by the bad. Simon Wilson reports.

How's Haiti six months after the quake?

Not bad at all, if you believe President Ren Prval. This week he awarded medals for post-earthquake help to 23 celebrities, aid-group directors and politicians (Sean Penn and Bill Clinton among them) in an upbeat ceremony designed to deflect criticism of the virtually non-existent reconstruction work. Six months after the catastrophic quake that killed between 230,000 and 300,000 of Port-au-Prince's residents, left 2.3 million people homeless, and decimated the already fragile economy of the western hemisphere's poorest nation, it's true that there are some successes, as the president argues. The immediate emergency phase of the relief effort (distributing tents, water, food, installing latrines, providing health care) was reasonably successful. So far, mass outbreaks of disease and violence have been avoided. But there are enormous negatives, too.

What negatives, exactly?

While 660,000 residents have left Port-au-Prince for the countryside, 1.6 million people are still homeless in the city. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, 1,340 tented villages and squalid camps sprung up, and are acquiring an ominous air of permanence. The inhabitants stay because their homes no longer exist, or because their landlords have used the housing shortage to drive up rents. The biggest challenge facing Haiti, according to ordinary Haitians, aid agencies and governments, is that reconstruction work appears to have stalled before it started.

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Why isn't rebuilding taking place?

Lack of money, incompetent governance, and the sheer quantity of rubble are all factors. A respectable 60% of the emergency relief aid that was promised was delivered. But only a small fraction of the $5.3bn pledged for reconstruction has materialised, and much is in the form of debt relief, not cash. Some NGO workers say the biggest barrier to reconstruction is government ineptitude and bureaucracy. It takes months for an aid organisation to register with the state. Until then, they must pay a 30% tax on goods brought into the country. And, of course, the quake devastated the state apparatus; a quarter of civil servants were killed.

What about the rubble?

Between 20 million and 25 million yards of concrete debris fills the streets of Port au Prince. Just 5% has been removed since January, a trio of engineering professors wrote in The New York Times last week. A US Army draft plan for clearing it estimates that a 20 cubic yard dumper truck lifting an improbable 1,000 loads a day would take three years to clear it all. At the current rate of progress it would take 20 years or more. The rubble means travelling just a few miles takes several hours, crippling the recovery effort. But even allowing for all these factors, the fundamental cause of the lack of rebuilding work, say many observers (including Clinton), is Haiti's precarious system of land tenure and the long-term effects of extreme social and economic inequality and weak governance.

How does that affect rebuilding?

Put simply, it is hard to be sure who owns what. So the motivation to rebuild is for the time being minimal. Most of those living in tents did not own their homes; they were renting. But even those who did own property are unlikely to have proof. Only about 5% of Haiti's land is accounted for in public records and the building that housed title deeds was flattened in the earthquake. Long before the quake, land ownership was hugely contentious in Haiti, where land is concentrated in the hands of a few big landowners, known as grandons (or grands-hommes, big men). Moreover, there is no proper land-registry system. Land titles pass informally from one generation to the next, largely because titling costs several thousand dollars and public officials are generally held to be corrupt.

What has been the result?

According to the UN, the "prevalence of the informal land tenure as well as contradictory laws and weak institutions of enforcement" mean "land tenure security is not established". That has been made worse by the chaos of a city in ruins: with around a quarter of a million people dead, the inheritance and sale of land is subject to even greater uncertainty. For example, is the property owner known to be dead and/or does he have any living heirs? Moreover, insecure land and property rights have not only undermined reconstruction, but are stifling the chances of an economic recovery. Many small businesses struggle to get loans because the owners cannot prove they own property, and foreign investors and donors are discouraged from investing in the country.

The reality on the ground

Corail-Cesselesse is a Westminster-sized area of disused sugarcane land between the sea and the barren mountains about 15km to the north of Port-au-Prince real estate that has been earmarked for a major new post-earthquake city. The government wants to build 300,000 new homes here transitional shelters at first; later expanding into permanent homes. But the area is subject to all the land issues that plague the whole reconstruction effort, and no progress is being made. Multiple families claim ownership of almost every scrap of land. Homeless people 'squatting' the land in makeshift homes are locked in constant battle with hired thugs working for big landowners, and the government lacks the power to negotiate compulsory purchase orders at reasonable prices.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.