For Haitians, help is close, yet so far away

LÉOGÂNE, Haiti — Little Nadhi Adolphe lay slumped in the crook of her mother’s arm, her eyes dull, her feet dangling in tiny black patent-leather shoes as Habitat for Humanity volunteers hurried to complete a weeklong building blitz.

Nadhi’s mother, Rosemie Dodo, was to get one of the 100 Habitat houses. But she had a more pressing concern on this final blitz day than shelter. Couldn’t someone at this sprawling worksite, with its mess tent, its shipping containers of power tools, its air-conditioned bus and most important its medical tent tell her what was wrong with the baby?

The answer, at first, was no. The lone doctor on site wasn’t a pediatrician. Health care was not Habitat’s role. Dodo needed to seek help elsewhere.

This maddening scene played out earlier this month just as Habitat was calling it a week and celebrating one small victory in a country of relentless need.

It seemed to illustrate the conundrum of Haiti. So close to the U.S. (710 miles separate Port-au-Prince from Miami) and so far away in wealth (most Haitians lived on less than $2 a day before the 2010 earthquake). So close to help (about $4.6 billion pledged in post-quake international response) and so far away in actuality (less than half has been disbursed). So close to modernity, even in the neighboring Dominican Republic. So far away in basic measures like health.

The 400 Habitat volunteers experienced this somewhat in the reverse. They were in this coastal town that lost most of its structures to the quake. But their experience of life in Haiti was largely reduced to what they could see through a fence or out their bus windows: a view of a poverty so deep and vast that this effort would hardly make a dent.

It was a vantage point that offered no context, neither the progress that had been made in the nearly two years since the magnitude-7.0 quake nor the two centuries leading up to it that contributed significantly to the loss.

Many who have worked extensively in Haiti have referred to the quake as man-made. Nature might have caused the tectonic plates to shift, but unregulated, shoddy construction in the densely populated Port-au-Prince brought the buildings down. Add to that: the absence, largely, of public water and sewer systems, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure; a mostly deforested island that exacerbates effects of wet, tropical weather; an imports-dependent, expensive food supply that had children eating dirt cookies three years ago; a chronic lack of employment; and political turbulence and corruption. Then the quake becomes just one more lousy card Haitians are forced to play.

There was hope, at least, that the quake would be a game-changer for the Haitians in this positive way: it would seize the world’s attention and “build back better,” as former President Bill Clinton, U.N. special envoy to Haiti, has advocated.

Though strides have been made in critical areas — rubble is being removed, people are moving out of the tent camps — it appears that goal is a long way off.

Complicating the reconstruction effort is a mixed picture on aid and how best to use it. Foreign aid is tangled in its own web of bureaucracy, rules and turf battles. Most of the USAID money, for example, is earmarked for certain causes.

Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard University clinician and the deputy special envoy under Clinton, offered several reasons for the hold-up in aid: the bureaucracy and politics of donor governments, stiff competition for contracts and the weak Haitian government.

This, over the years, contributed to the proliferation of church-group, private and non-governmental organizations — some 3,000 by one estimate — trying to help Haiti. Donors long were concerned about the Haitian government’s wherewithal to spend donated funds appropriately and often bypassed the government to work with non-governmental organizations, known as NGOs.

And the NGOs have operated with mixed results. Another Haiti expert, Robert Maguire, chairman of the Haiti Working Group for the U.S. Institute of Peace and a George Washington University professor, said the NGOs “are not any kind of silver bullet or elixir.”
It’s not that Haiti wasn’t on the receiving end of, as Farmer has written, a “tsunami of good will.” Half of U.S. households, it is estimated, plus the U.S. government pledged or donated funds following the earthquake.

But NGOs do not have the capacity to undertake the massive public works projects that should be government-led, Farmer and Maguire argue.

NGOs like the one started by actor Sean Penn, called J/P HRO, say they are working around the clock to address the very pressing needs of shelter, water, food and safety.

Benjamin Krause, an Omahan who has been working in earthquake relief and reconstruction in Haiti since March 2010, is J/P HRO’s country director. His main job is managing the large displaced persons camp on what used to be a Port-au-Prince golf course. Krause said NGOs and the government fulfill important roles. But not even governments in the most developed nations can provide for all its citizens.

So back to that week in Haiti.

In post-quake Haiti, Habitat for Humanity is part of a larger collaboration of U.N.-led NGOs and governments working on the pressing issue of shelter.

The Habitat project is supposed to result in 500 homes by next year. Through its other post-quake projects, it hopes to serve an estimated 50,000 Haitian families.

Omahan John Bunch, one of the six Nebraska volunteers to spend a week there, said the project might seem small in light of the need. But what choice do donors have but to dig in and get to work?

“You do the most good you can,” Bunch said, “when you can.”

Bunch was one of three Americans trying to help Rosemie Dodo get help for her baby.

She had been watching the volunteers pack up and motioned to a reporter for help. The reporter snagged a French-speaking volunteer who had relayed the bad news to Dodo that the medics on site couldn’t help her.

Bunch, a TD Ameritrade executive, was floored that the best advice was to go somewhere else.

If it was a matter of a hospital bill, he said, he’d pay.

Then he, the reporter and a Haitian-American volunteer marched Dodo and her baby to the medic area where, through Haitian Creole and English, they patched together Dodo’s complaint. Little Nadhi had diarrhea for three weeks and was not improving despite the medicine Dodo had obtained.

“When she went to the hospital,” said Jean Price Vixama, who translated, “they gave her a solution. She thought she had to drink it because she had to breast-feed the baby. She’s been taking the solution for the last three weeks.”

The group of medics and the sole doctor began telling Dodo that no, the baby gets the medicine directly.

Bunch asked for some of the electrolyte packets Habitat was giving to dehydrated volunteers, and the medics told Dodo in Creole the dosage little Nadhi should get. Over and over they emphasized: give it to the baby directly.

So close and so far away.

But for that moment, at least, like the 100 Habitat houses mostly finished that week, it seemed a difference had been made.
Vixama later said that’s the prism through which to view Haiti.

“That’s the way it is,” said Vixama, a Haitian-born mechanical engineer from New York. “We can change a little bit of the world. We can’t change the world.”

Erin Grace

About Erin Grace

She's a World-Herald news reporter who covers an array of topics -- education, government and issues affecting women and children. She's married with three children.
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