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.
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.
A vivid reminder of Haiti's troubled history with failed aid unexpectedly arrived in Port-au-Prince last month: The country's notorious former dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, returned to Haiti on Jan. 16 after nearly 25 years in French exile.
The ousted leader's arrival stunned Haitians already near a boiling point over disputed presidential elections and offered a living history lesson in the perils of government corruption and foreign aid.
Duvalier took power in 1971 after the death of his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a brutal dictator who slaughtered political opponents and drove the nation deeper into poverty. The Voodoo-obsessed Papa Doc enlisted some 300,000 Haitians for his infamous Tonton Macoutes-a security force that dominated Haitian life with fear and brutality. The ruler declared himself "president for life" and altered the Lord's Prayer with this invective for opponents: ". . . deliver them not from any evil."
The younger Duvalier didn't deliver his opponents from evil either. Taking power after his father's death, Baby Doc continued his father's oppression and abuse, using the dreaded Macoutes. Experts estimate that the government-hired thugs killed some 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians during the Duvaliers' combined reigns. Many of Haiti's intellectual elite fled the country, creating a drain of much-needed Haitian talent and skills.
But Baby Doc was also savvy: The president improved some Haitian living conditions enough to please poor masses and impress international donors. The result: U.S. aid to Haiti grew tenfold in the first few years of his rule.
Even today, some Haitians express nostalgia for Duvalier's rule. During my travels around Port-au-Prince just before his return, Duvalier's name appeared scrawled on concrete walls-an oddity that now seems prophetic. When the former leader arrived from Paris, handfuls of supporters chanted: "This is our president." (Duvalier's motive for returning remains unclear, and local prosecutors charged him with corruption and embezzlement.)
If any Haitians romanticize Duvalier's presidency, they neglect the dark heart of his rule: Not only did the dictator brutalize opponents, historians say he funneled millions of dollars of foreign aid to finance his lavish, drug-induced lifestyle.
By the end of his rule, Haitians grew poorer, while Duvalier grew rich. When Haitians finally protested his tactics in 1986, he left on a U.S. plane bound for exile in France. But the precedent was set: The dictator remains a crowning example of foreign aid falling into corrupt hands.
That example is relevant as millions of dollars in foreign aid flow into post-quake Haiti. Though less aid flows directly into government coffers in the wake of corruption scandals, the same principles apply: If government aid hasn't substantially improved Haiti's lot in the past, donor countries should consider how to avoid past mistakes.
So far, Haitian officials have complained that post-quake aid to Haiti has arrived too slowly. Indeed, the first $120 million in U.S. funds for reconstruction arrived in November-nearly 11 months after the earthquake. Haitian members of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, an international group co-led by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, complain that the commission leaves them out of critical planning for their own nation.
Still, it's unclear how officials have used funds that are available from other sources like private foundations: A tour of downtown Port-au-Prince reveals that some of the most urgent tasks-like rubble removal-remain largely undone. Heavy equipment seems conspicuously absent from the capital.
Even with all the controversy surrounding reconstruction, Philippe Girard is more concerned about the dangers of long-term aid. The associate professor of Caribbean history at McNeese State University of Louisiana says any nation would need help after a catastrophe like the Haitian earthquake. Indeed, some NGOs are providing life-saving services that the government doesn't offer (see sidebar). But Girard worries that some aid projects directed at longer-term economic relief could harm Haiti by discouraging Haitian productivity.
For example, the United States sent food relief to the hungry nation for years, but even that aid has sometimes hurt local markets: The surplus of free food suppresses Haitian farmers who can't grow anything to compete with free goods. Even boatloads of well-intentioned clothing can suppress aspirations for a manufacturing industry that could tap into a vast Haitian labor force desperately needing jobs.
Girard says a better method is to help create conditions that would encourage foreign investment and trade with the United States-even a tourism industry!-to bolster Haitian productivity instead of simply importing goods. "People tend to be pessimistic about Haiti because things have been so bad for so long," he says. "But I'm optimistic over the long term because Haiti does have some assets."
Putting those assets to work is an uphill battle. And attracting foreign investment is a difficult prospect.
A standoff over unresolved presidential elections threatens to destabilize the nation further: Haitians are waiting to see whether the government will accept a recommendation from the Organization of American States that would eliminate President René Préval's handpicked candidate, Jude Celestin, from a runoff. The country's ruling party dropped support for Celestin on Jan. 26, but it wasn't immediately clear whether Celestin would withdraw from the race. The government's delay has aroused suspicion that Préval plans to stay beyond the expiration of his second term on Feb. 7.
Haitians protested the initial results favoring Celestin in December, charging rampant election fraud. Riots and demonstrations crippled Port-au-Prince and closed the airport for two days. Rumors swirl that more demonstrations are coming, and that the city will shut down again.
That makes daily life a challenge for Haitians like Harry Derolus, a translator and driver for a handful of Christian organizations. Derolus, whose rental home collapsed in the earthquake, says he constantly wonders if the streets will close and his work will vanish. Whatever happens, he's pessimistic about long-term prospects for political reform: "Even the people in charge aren't really in charge."
Still, Derolus' hopes for Haiti are simple. As he navigates a street lined with heaps of trash and scavenging pigs, Derolus waves a hand and says, "I dream of a Haiti with clean water. I dream of a Haiti where trash is gone."
Esaie Altena has dreams, too. The 44-year-old Haitian driver had a stable life before the quake: His wife worked as a nurse and his five children attended local schools. On the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2010, news started reaching Altena as if it came from Job's servants: His house had collapsed. His possessions were gone. Mrs. Altena's workplace crumbled while she was inside. His wife of nearly 20 years was dead.
Sitting in the miles-long traffic leaving Port-au-Prince, Altena shows a cell phone picture of the children he's now raising alone: Five pretty girls in red school uniforms with pressed, white collars, arm-in-arm, smiling. He says his daughters and his church have offered life-giving comfort in his grief-even as the family sleeps in a tent on a friend's property: "My 6-year-old said to me one day, 'Oh Daddy, why are you crying? Mommy is eating with God now.'"
Altena makes sure to pay for the girls' school fees-even before saving money for a new home. He says his daughters are smart, and he's convinced that education is the only path out of poverty for them. He points to his 11-year-old and smiles: "She wants to be a writer." Tapping on a newspaper on the dashboard, he adds: "That's why I buy a paper for her to read every day."
Painful questions arise: Could these girls overcome these circumstances, go to college, and have careers or families? Altena hopes so, but he knows the chances here are slim. For now, he's encouraging their studies and remaining on a long list of visa applicants hoping to bring families to the United States: "Now I am just waiting."
Meanwhile, millions of other Haitians are waiting to see if their lives will improve. In the next issue of WORLD, we'll preview a handful of Christian organizations in Haiti with a track record of taking small-and sometimes big-steps to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless land. In many cases, they've succeeded where governments have failed.
These workers toil and strive for Haiti because they cling to the hope of the gospel, and they share the sentiment of at least one Haitian in a book of Haitian prayers called God Is No Stranger: "Lord, if we are alive today in spite of hurricanes, hunger and sickness, we should say: 'Thank you, Lord. We must be here for a purpose.'"
Valley of the shadow of death
On the barren hills just outside Port-au-Prince, hundreds of wooden crosses stand in neat rows, offering a vivid reminder of what happened last year. For days after Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake, workers brought trucks full of mangled bodies for burial in mass graves.
Less than a year later, more bodies arrived here in Titanyen for burial. This time the culprit was cholera-a disease that has killed at least 3,500 Haitians since late last year. Even as aid workers grappled with earthquake recovery and a tropical storm that flooded the epicenter in August, the cholera outbreak brought a disaster within a disaster.
Relief groups like Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and the International Medical Committee responded with cholera clinics and educational campaigns aimed at preventing the spread. By mid-January, the cholera outbreak was subsiding, though doctors warned that the upcoming rainy season could bring its resurgence.
Cholera is particularly brutal here: The waterborne disease spreads quickly in communities lacking clean drinking water or basic sanitation. The illness often induces severe diarrhea and often descends quickly, killing victims who don't rehydrate-sometimes within hours.
Not far from the Titanyen burial site, Samaritan's Purse operates a cholera clinic in the infamous community of Cité Soleil, a sprawling slum notorious for poverty and violence. The North Carolina--based Christian relief group has treated more than 7,500 patients at cholera treatment centers and mobile units around the region since the outbreak began. The organization pairs medical volunteers with Haitian staff, providing a mentoring relationship and improved skills for Haitian nurses.
During a morning shift in mid-January, doctors tended to 34 patients-a low number compared to the peak season last December. Inside, rows of cots reveal the disease's effects: The narrow cots include a triangular hole with a bucket underneath for patients to cope with diarrhea. Visitors must step on bleach-soaked pads to clean their shoes as they pass through the clinic's stations, and wash their hands in a bleach solution as they enter and leave the wards.
In the women's ward, Jean Catherine, a 31-year-old mother of four, sits on the side of her cot, watching a bag of IV fluid run through a tube into her arm. Catherine has been here for two days and has improved dramatically: "When I first came, I couldn't stand up." Lying next to her on the cot, Catherine's 4-month-old son squirms and coughs. The baby doesn't have cholera, but relatives brought the nursing infant to the clinic while his mother was still in the worst moments of her illness. "We have no other way to feed him," she says.
On a nearby row, Manita Dada sits next to the cot of her 9-year-old cousin, Stanley, a cholera patient who arrived three days ago. Dada says she's sitting with Stanley while the boy's mother goes to Port-au-Prince to try to sell a bag of rice for a small profit. The young woman holds a small, black copy of the New Testament and Psalms that she reads aloud while her cousin sleeps. He wakes as she reads Psalm 23.
Catherine-who lives in a makeshift house in Cité Soleil and can't afford hospital visits-is thankful that she's passed through the valley of the shadow of death. She strokes her son's leg and talks about what might have happened: "If there was no clinic, I would die."