Cover Story
Jorge Silva/Reuters/Landov

Foreign aid bust

The return of brutal dictator 'Baby Doc' Duvalier should remind the world that indiscriminate aid is no solution to Haiti's problems

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti-To an outsider navigating the crowded streets of the Haitian town of Cabaret, food appears plentiful: Street vendors squat shoulder-to-shoulder, hovering over wooden crates full of mangos, rice, garlic cloves, and corn. Bags of rice lean against the thin walls of makeshift stalls. And bunches of ripening bananas ride atop colorful buses blazing through the town just north of Port-au-Prince.

But on a barren patch of land off a Cabaret side street, sustenance is hard to find. Hundreds of earthquake victims live here in rows of temporary shelters that provide shade from the baking heat. A nearby well offers a critical water source, but a reliable food supply is a problem for many without work or money.

Among the handfuls of children who run to peek at a group of new visitors, some look like walking skeletons, with bony shoulders poking through oversized shirts, and twig legs supporting frail bodies. A few show the classic signs of deepening malnutrition: heads of orange hair.

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On the far side of the camp, Miklen Destra, 30, aggressively motions me toward her tarp-covered shelter. She hurries inside the one-room dwelling and emerges with something dangling from each fist: Eleven-month-old twin daughters. As she thrusts the half-dressed babies forward like small sacks of rice, her Creole plea is simple but startling: "Take them."

Destra's dilemma is extreme but not uncommon in post-quake Haiti: More than a year after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed as many as 300,000 victims, at least 800,000 homeless Haitians remain in tent cities around the capital-many without access to latrines or potable water. The unemployment rate hovers at 80 percent, and the streets of Port-au-Prince remain clogged with much of the rubble that fell a year ago.

For Haitians, deprivation isn't new: Notorious poverty and miserable living con­ditions plagued the masses before the quake. But the earthquake and a series of other disasters-like cholera and political instability-complicate Haiti's already-­complex problems in profound ways and deepen the urgency for sustainable solutions. What's not sustainable: unwise foreign aid to an ineffectual government.

Consider Destra's case: Her family was poor before the earthquake, but she lived in a cement house with her 3-year-old son and a husband who worked temporary jobs. On Jan. 12, 2010, the late-afternoon quake flattened her rental home and killed her husband. A month later, her twin daughters were born. With no husband, no father, and no work, the family has little hope. "I miss my husband, but I can't do anything about it," says Destra. "I pray for another husband."

Destra isn't alone: As more women filter out of their shelters, it becomes clear that this section is a widow's row-full of bereaved young mothers with few options. Food is expensive. Money is scarce. Aid agencies deliver occasional food distributions, but relief groups can't reach every pocket of need every day. Most of the widows say they attend church, but they say help there is scant: Most of their fellow churchgoers lost everything too.

On a nearby row, Isiana Laguelle has a husband, but no food. The 30-year-old mother of six says her husband can't find temporary work since the earthquake destroyed their home. He tries to grow food, but so far it isn't enough to feed the family of eight. From her one-room shelter with a dirt floor, the young mother says she sometimes skips meals so her children can eat. "We try to survive, but life is hard," she says. "I hope that one day God will give justice."

In Haiti, justice can be as elusive as food on a widow's table. Modern-day Haiti sprang from a cauldron of injustice: French plantation owners imported African slaves to the Caribbean island in the 1700s, brutally forcing the slaves to work sugar and coffee farms that lavishly enriched their owners.

Haitian slaves revolted in the late 1700s, eventually defeating the French in a vicious war, and becoming the first free black republic in the world.

But injustice also brewed within: For the next 200 years, the country would endure a series of brutal Haitian dictatorships, political oppression, and corruption that would leave the country crippled, violent, and impoverished to the present day.

Financial aid from foreign governments like the United States has fed the lavish lifestyles of corrupt leaders more than the hungry stomachs of common Haitians: Though foreign governments have given Haiti billions of dollars in aid over the last 40 years, the country is poorer than it was in 1949, according to the American Enterprise Institute. More than 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line, and some 54 percent live on less than $1 a day, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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