Politics and children stagnate in Haiti

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Originally published in Contributoria Magazine, August 1, 2015.

Five years on from the catastrophic earthquake that decimated Haiti, many are still waiting for their lives to recover. Meanwhile, repeatedly postponed elections are finally looming this month, yet are already mired in controversy. For the country’s young people, there’s a desperate need for a change in the business of Haitian politics.

Jacques Michel, a thirty-nine year old Haitian social worker pauses with weary resignation as he looks down at his budget plans for this summer; he knows he’s in for a big job.

We’re in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city, on the country’s north-eastern Atlantic coast, and home to 190,000 residents crammed into it’s incredibly overcrowded streets. It’s extremely hot and hectic. And with the congestion, comes thousands of vulnerable children, out of school and begging on the streets.

“I want to help show them that they can live differently, if they have more opportunities,” enthuses Mr Michel.

He explains his plan to run a summer camp this year for over a hundred children, who he knows often rely on scrounging on the streets to eat. They are all of school age, but many skip classes regularly. When asked why, he says that Haitian state-run schools are plagued with inefficiency. Rampant government corruption and teachers not getting paid on time, means that children can go to school, only for there to be no one present to teach them.

The persistence of such unreliability results in some parents and children preferring to stay on the streets instead. Hustling for food or money seems to be the preferable option.

A toxic political legacy
Haiti remains in crisis five years after being brought low by the devastating 2010 earthquake. 220,000 people were killed. 1.5 million people were made homeless, including children, and thousands clearly remain so. Others have managed to get just one step up, into a shanty temporary structure with no water, sanitation, electricity or idea of when they’ll be able to live in a permanent house again.

Indeed, talking to Haitians, you get a strong sense of their frustration at the government’s inability to improve their quality of life.

Professor Eduardo Gamarra is a political scientist at Florida International University. He was also an adviser to former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, from 2012, until he was pushed to resign in December 2014.

“I’m probably the person who’s polled the most in Haiti, and the number one issue in Haiti is jobs, frankly. One of the questions I asked in a random sample national survey was simply ‘Do you have a job?’ 80% responded ‘No.’ Haitians feel there’s a lack of opportunity, so the real problem in Haiti is the government’s struggle to create jobs.”

This has a knock on affect on nearly every part of society. It’s an uninspiring situation that’s clearly reflected in Haiti’s literacy rate of 48%. And even when these children grow up, their prospects don’t improve much either. With such high unemployment, the country’s economy shows little sign of growth, making Haiti the poorest country in the whole of the Western Hemisphere.

For Professor Gamarra, the suffering that so many young Haitians endure, being consigned to chronic joblessness right from the start, is indicative of Haiti’s toxic political legacy.

“Yes, 2010 was a deeply important threshold moment, but really, politics in Haiti has been in turmoil since the 1980s. In 1987, I was an election observer, and the elections were chaos! There were gunshots in the streets.”

“Turmoil is a fundamental characteristic of Haitian politics. In fact, a colleague of mine defines Haitian politicians as ‘predatory’, in that they seem to be in it for themselves.”

“It’s a sad thing to say, but stability in the country between 1957-85, was only guaranteed by two dictators that ran Haiti as their personal fiefdom.”

There are even signs of this instability on the streets. From the moment I crossed the Dominican Republic border into the country, I saw dozens of heavily armed UN peace keeping troops, alert and standing aboard armoured vehicles rolling through town. The troops are a vestige of the paramilitary coup that ousted President Aristide in 2004. 11 years on, they still stand watch.

Voodoo and begging
Decades of disillusionment with Haiti’s political class means that Mr Michel says that increasingly, he sees the outside world of charitable donations and international volunteers, as being more influential to the futures of his children.

And that’s not all. Mr Michel is concerned that the lack of government investment in Haitian schools is shaping children’s attitudes to life.

“With some of the children I help through my youth charity, especially the boys, they will completely ignore me or say rude things towards me, if I do not give them food or money first.” he says. “It makes me sad.”

It’s as if they are growing up with the expectation that they will not be able to provide for themselves fully; that going from one hand out to another is a normal way of life. For Mr Michel, it’s a disturbing realisation, especially, as he’s witnessed how far some children are willing to go to get their next payment. Through his former work in the community as a priest’s assistant in the Orthodox Church, he saw how easily vulnerable children can be abused.

“Every Tuesday and Thursday, there are voodoo pilgrims who came to the site of a former church . They then humiliate the children by throwing food on the ground or coins in the river.”

He shakes his head. “And the children grab at the food on the ground, and dive into the dirty river.” The indignation is too much for many families. “I have some parents say to me, please Jacques, help my child, change his life. ”

And that’s what he hopes to do. His summer camp focuses on the basics of language, especially French but also English. The majority of Haitians only speak Haitian Creole, an amalgam of French, west African languages and Taíno (an extinct Caribbean indigenous language and people). As the official language in formal situations is still French, for the law and courts, official documents and the media, this has caused problems for many Haitians.

However, it’s not easy, with no support from the government, other than providing him with a license for his charity. And so, the problem, as ever with charitable endeavours, is where the money is going to come from.

Where’s the money?
As of September 2013, $13.5bn in foreign aid had been pledged to Haiti, and so far, it’s mainly been coming from the U.S., followed by EU institutions and then Canada. But, perhaps a more pressing question is where has the money gone?

“That’s the billion dollar question.” says Professor Gamarra. “Frankly we should not only be looking at how Haitians have been spending aid money, but also at the whole nature of foreign assistance. The net impact has been minimal.”

Analysis over the last two years has been damning.

In 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that was highly critical of the way the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had been managing aid allocated by the U.S. Government. Of the $651 million approved by Congress since 2010, USAID had only disbursed 31% of the funds.

The GAO scathingly noted that of all USAID money that had been spent, the cost category with the highest disbursement rate was ‘Operating and Other Expenses’; in other words, overheads.

In 2012, the Center for Economic and Policy Research highlighted another key problem in the global aid industry, namely the heavy reliance on foreign contractors. It analysed all the 1,490 contracts awarded by the U.S. Government after the earthquake until April 2011, and found only 23 went to Haitian companies. Out of $194 million, this amounted to only $4.8 million. In comparison, contractors from just the Washington D.C. area received $76 million.

The lack of local procurement led to contracts being handed out to some organisations with a questionable grasp of Haiti, it’s politics and priorities.

In a 2011 Rolling Stone article, Glenn Smucker, an anthropologist who specialises in Haiti, decried the obvious naivety of one New York-based consulting firm called Dalberg Global Development Advisors, which had won a $1.5 million contract. He claimed their team didn’t have disaster or urban planning experience and only one member spoke French. Yet one of their tasks was to assess the viability of a large swathe of land, with the hope of building new communities. Belatedly, after sending their own experts, USAID realised that the Dahlberg team may either have been hopelessly out of their depth, or never have inspected some of the sites in person. One of the areas they said was habitable turned out to be a mountain with an open mine cut into it and a 100 ft vertical cliff.

However, despite anxiety over where pledged money ends up, Haiti continues to heavily rely on foreign assistance.

Eric Stransky, is a white Haitian hotel owner, who lives in Pétionville, an outer suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince. He returned to Haiti nearly four years ago, after living abroad in Bali and the U.S.

“The influx of funds after the earthquake, however mismanaged, did help,” he insists.

With the slowing down and closing of this influx there is a slowdown of available funds for everyone. It was a false economy. And perhaps this is directly involved with the devaluation of the currency [the Gourde].”

He says the economy’s imbalance continues to make development difficult. “If we look at wages v costs, I am sure that Haiti is among the most expensive places in the world to send children to school. Meanwhile, half the people who came here to help had a free one.”

Certainly Haiti’s poor record on child development has been grappled with by successive administrations, as Professor Gamarra knows all too well. “Prime Minister Lamothe asked me in 2012 if I could help him evaluate social programmes he was bringing up.” He recalls. “There was a programme in place already called L’Ecole Gratuite, a subsidy to send children to school. It’s the most widely supported and popular programme but people think it’s not run properly and there are allegations of corruption. Lamothe also proposed programmes such as one helping mothers, but the problem was they were on a minuscule scale and none of them were job creators.”

Hanging onto power
Part of the problem is that Haitian politics has been on a slide into stagnation for at least the past four years. Crucial elections have been repeatedly put off for three years, which left parliament’s mandate to expire in January this year. This has effectively enabled President Michel Martelly to rule by decree. There are hopes that this will change soon – municipal and parliamentary elections are finally now scheduled for August 9th, with a second round due on October 25th, to coincide with the presidential election.

Yet, already, serious accusations of fraud are flying thick and fast.

“There are real concerns about the role of the Provisional Electoral Council,” Professor Gamarra explains. “Campaigning has already started and they were supposed to have released funds for candidates, but haven’t. So, who’s going to benefit? Those with money. The council has also banned some of the frontrunners, including Jacky Lumarque [a University President] and former Prime Minister Lamothe. They have taken their fight to Washington.”

“The most likely scenario is that we will see the elections go ahead in August but that there will continue to be turmoil. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a mess.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Back in Cap-Haïtien, Jacques Michel is in the midst of planning for the arrival of a hundred children at his education camp, and is still hopeful that the next few months will pass without violence. The outcome of the machinations of his country’s political elite could have a profound impact on the future prosperity of his charges. He knows they’ve already been let down. Still, he believes his government can do better.

For now though, Mr Stransky has seen little indication that a new turning point is just around the corner. “In July, the local currency has lost about 20% of its value. This will create a problem for many who will see a rise in prices on imported goods, as most food is imported. Now there is a tension here that has to do with money.” For him, the timing is suspect. “I am not sure why the Haitian Gourde has dropped so quickly. It is as if someone wants the people angry during the election,” he muses. “And we’re seeing more NGOs beginning to move out of Haiti.”

The mounting exhaustion amongst the NGOs who did stay in the country long after 2010, has been noted even by the U.S. Congress. Last year in the bill ’Assessing Progress in Haiti Act of 2014’, one of the key findings was: “Donors have encountered significant challenges in implementing recovery programs, and nearly four years after the earthquake, an estimated 171,974 people remain displaced in camps, unemployment remains high, corruption is rampant, land rights remain elusive, allegations of wage violations are widespread, the business climate is unfavourable, and government capacity remains weak.”

If the West’s eyes are indeed turning elsewhere, at the same time as Haitian politics continues to fracture, the future doesn’t bode well for Mr Michel’s children, even as they work to try and improve their prospects. All hopes must now rest on the ballot box, rather than the charity tin.

One thought on “Politics and children stagnate in Haiti

  1. Thanks for this blog post regarding Haiti; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on financial markets and economics at shreysfinanceblog.com, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

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