14th May 2021

The EU tests its 'soft power' in Haiti

  • Mont St. Marie, one of the worst hit neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince (Photo: Vesselin Zhelev)

In front of the Port-au-Prince city cemetery hangs a placard: "No more room for dead. All places are occupied." Behind it, the fresh surface of a recently-dug mass grave can be seen with a human leg bone rolling around on top among rags of clothes. "The upper layer of bodies lies just 30 centimetres under the surface," says Emmanuel Gaudin, a local resident who witnessed the burial process a few weeks ago.

The 12 January earthquake killed more than 220,000 Haitians, left 1 million people homeless and created as many orphans again in what was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Despite the scale of the catastrophe, the EU humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, prefers to see it as a chance not only to rebuild Haiti physically but also to break with its past of political violence, kleptocracy and misery.

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Ms Georgieva, who travelled to the worst-hit spots earlier this week, said the EU is to steer more than €400 million in aid directly to Haitian local communities rather than to the central authorities.

The Bulgarian commissioner, who until recently served as a World Bank vice-president, said the bank has had success with such an approach to community development projects in corruption-prone states such as Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan.

Haiti's political class has a long record of corruption. But the current central government has been all-but paralysed after the quake destroyed all ministerial buildings save one.

"The reconstruction process must be used to pull the country back onto its own feet and help solve its chronic problems," Ms Georgieva told waz.euobserver in Leogane, a town of 60,000 almost fully flattened by the quake, located some 30 km west of Port-au-Prince. "The challenge now is to create sustainable business presence in Haiti, to attract investment."

"The reconstruction must build a new business culture instead of reproducing the corruption culture from the past," she added.

'Caribbean pearl'

In contrast to its neighbour, the Dominican Republic, where tourism and farming have flourished, Haiti has failed to capitalise on its location and history as a "Caribbean pearl." The country has scenic mountains but 97 percent of the forests that once covered them have been cut down to make charcoal.

The road system out of urban areas, which was laid mainly under the 1915 to 1934 US occupation, is far from adequate and has been damaged by the quake. Port-au-Prince, home to 3 million people, lacks central water and sewage, public transport and waste disposal systems. The streets are full of decaying garbage lying next to food sold at open-air markets.

One million people, whose houses collapsed or cracked are now living in camps - squalid places with tents or chaotic plastic sheeting shacks, crammed with flesh and reeking of urine and excrement.

"Sanitation in camps is a major concern: the number of latrines needed being estimated at 20,000," the European Commission said in a statement. "There is a risk of a large scale outbreak of diarrhoea, given the present overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of effective waste disposal systems in spontaneous settlements site."

The bigger camps - like the one that Ms Georgieva visited in the town of Jacmel, some 80 km southwest of Port-au-Prince - house several thousand people each. Most have no job, income or prospects.

'Not grief but shock'

"What they feel is not simply grief, it's a deep shock," said doctor Branko Dubaijc, a volunteer at a field hospital established by the Maltese Order in Leogane. "Grief is something you have to be able to afford, it implies somebody who feels sympathy for you and supports you."

"Who will that be in a community where every fifth family lost a member and had at least two others injured?" he added. "The shock evolves into tension which might explode into camp riots one day."

Haiti is still quiet. The camps provide some shelter as long as the rainy season has not got under way. Many of their inhabitants, who were homeless, jobless and penniless prior to the quake, are now, for the first time in their lives, regularly fed and given medical care thanks to the international community. But getting everything for free from abroad does not increase Haiti's chances of getting back on its feet.

Ms Georgieva said her "reservoir of hope" were ordinary people, many of whom organised themselves at local level to distribute humanitarian aid and prevent looting.

"If the upper levels of power have had a history of corruption, there is still a healthy social fabric at local community level," she said. "What impressed me in the Haitians is their dignity - nobody complained, nobody held out their hands to beg."


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