Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting to grips with Port au Prince

I have been in Haiti just over three weeks now. Week one consisted of Build it Week madness, when 350 volunteers, largely from Ireland descended on the unsuspecting city of Gonaives NE of Haiti. Having raised an absolute minimum of EUR€4,000 to travel, the generous group provided for their upkeep while in Haiti, contributed to the cost of the 80 houses and community facilities built in Gonaives, and laboured on the site to finish some of the work already done by Haven’s local workforce who had been present on the site for months before.

Week two was spent at the desk in Port au Prince, tidying up a few loose ends from Build it Week, getting to grips with my new challenges ahead and meeting my colleagues at Haven’s Port au Prince office. For the first few days I shadowed Haven’s Country Director, John Wain and battled with the Mosquitoes who seemed to love the new Irish blood in town! We attended one meeting with one of our donors, Oxfam America, who had invited representatives from local NGO’s to discuss the topic of Decentralisation – of all things! I was waiting for Charlie McCreevey to arrive in the door, light bulb in hand!

Many of these NGO’s were presenting the argument that the new administration must provide state services in the rural regions, while also retaining these services in the already overcrowded capital city. These representatives wanted to empower the regions to make their own decisions, and in turn provide jobs in the area, which would encourage people to remain living in regions, and reduce the number of people flocking to Port au Prince.

The following week I immersed myself into Community Development which I am slowly discovering is anything but straightforward and I am beginning to understand why they say “Building the house is the easy part”! I studied numerous Terms of Reference documents, consultant reports, and investigated a variety of organisations working in regions that we are hoping to work in, and others in which we currently have a presence. All while tapping into the brains of my Port au Prince based colleagues who know so much about what is happening around here, I am in absolute awe. Plenty of food for thought, but I have so much to learn!

Easter weekend saw Haiti grind to a halt. Everyone took a well-deserved holiday. The staff are a great bunch but I’m sure it must be challenging for them working the long hours and living, socialising and working together 24/7!

Haiti is a very catholic country and thus Easter is a significant event and a big Church day for the Haitians. However unlike Ireland there are no Chocolate bunnies or eggs to be found. My colleagues/housemates and I did not have a scavenger hunt, for the Easter Egg in the back garden. But luckily Siobhan’s (one of the Irish volunteers) mum did manage to smuggle some small Lindt rabbits into America, which Siobhan duly carried to Port au Prince and kept one as a surprise for this chocolate starved, chocolate addict! Thank you Mammy Kennedy, thank you Siobhan!

Another Easter tradition is the Ra Ra dance which we saw driving down the street’s of Port Au Prince on numerous occasions. This is a Haitian dance similar to a march, done only by men, moving along to the beating of a drum. Those taking part are almost in a trance! Not an average Good Friday!

On Easter Sunday we visited the beach – often we forget just how beautiful Haiti really is. Aside from the devastation caused by the earthquake, on top of years of abuse, the coastline is particularly beautiful, with pebble beaches and warm green water that begs for bathers. It would be rude not to!?

This week I attended my first Shelter Cluster Meeting. The provision of Shelter is Haven’s primary focus, and as such I was very keen to tag along. Unfortunately my French is only of average Leaving Cert standard, so when the first half of the meeting was delivered in French, by native French speakers, I struggled to catch the detail. Luckily the second half of the meeting, presented by the International Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC),was in English.

This was particularly interesting as their Housing Team outlined, or tried at least, their strategy for Haiti ‘going forward’. Repairs and rubble removal were identified as two main areas of focus for them. They also spoke of the importance of the new Administration and their commitment to Shelter, as contained in their manifestos at least. The team did assert that an effective housing model had not yet been found for Haiti, and the sustainable reconstruction or indeed construction of the country.

That evening the exterminators arrived. Hurrah! Goodbye swollen red bites, goodbye sticky, smelly 100%, (impenetrable until it met me) DEET, hello again, pale Irish skin. Goodbye mossies, I will NOT miss you! But to exterminate the house, we too had to be evacuated. So we sought refuge in a nearby hotel. It was there that we ‘bumped’ into Sweet Micky Martelly, the recently elected President of Haiti. He worked the room, and had a word with almost everyone. He shook our hands, and joked in Creole (sorry,pardon) about his good form, or so I am told. It was only what I could describe as a ‘Bertie moment’, he worked the room, everyone felt special in his company, and he was gone. Not a Bass in sight.


Louise Glennon is Communications Officer for Haven, based in Dublin, but seconded to Haiti for two months.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A failed state and a banana republic

While visiting completed T shelters at camp CC in Port au Prince earlier in the week, an old man on hearing my Irish accent surprised me by asking, ‘what was the disaster in your country’? What do you mean, I asked. Well he said, ‘ there is USD$6 billion pledged by the international community for Earth Quake reconstruction in Haiti, and the EU/IMF have just sanctioned usd 85 billion for Ireland, it must have been some disaster’!

It’s odd how events in Haiti and events in Ireland often appear to move in tandem with one another. Haiti in the last 12 months has been devastated by an earthquake, hit by a hurricane, suffered a cholera epidemic and is currently at the tail end of a long chaotic and troublesome presidential election campaign. Ireland has just suffered its coldest winter in 65 years resulting in havoc on our roads and broken pipes all across the country. The country has been devastated by the collapse in the economy, Irish bank losses amount to roughly €100 billion, to American ears that’s USD$ 10 trillion. At current rates that’s enough to consume every penny of Irish taxes for the next three years. The saga that has been our recent political crisis ended in collapse of the Government and a call for early elections.

It’s almost impossible for us Irish to comprehend the enormous tragedy and suffering suffered by Haitians during January’s force 7 earthquake. The loss of 230,000 people with another 1.5 million made homeless is a catastrophe of biblical proportions and Haven hearts go out to the on going suffering of ordinary people on a daily basis. I know it is all relative however, despite recent turmoil in Ireland we don’t know how lucky we have it. Both disasters are extremely different, incomparable perhaps, but either way the people of Ireland and the people of Haiti are both struggling to make the best of the situations in which they now find themselves in.

Haiti is considered a ‘fragile state’, referring to a reflection of the internal dynamics of the society or it may reflect external factors such as natural disaster or conflict. Three main characteristics point to a country being labelled with fragile state status, the country suffers deficit in governance that hinder development; conditions there are too unstable for long-term planning and investment; and the society focusing on near-term coping strategies to secure basic needs.

Geldof and the Rats once sang about Ireland as a ‘Banana Republic’, a politically unstable country dependent upon limited agriculture and ruled by small, self-elected, wealthy, corrupt politico-economic elite. Recently there is revived talk of a return of the ‘Banana Republic of Ireland’ only now we are so broke we can’t even afford the bananas.

The Irish and the Haitians know about suffering, it is in our history, we have grown to accept that ours is a challenging existence, we have learned once again the hard way not to become complacent when things are looking up. The recent civil unrest in Haiti after the chaotic first round elections was frustration building for some time. Many commentators are astonished that there has not been whole scale rioting on the streets of Dublin in protest at how our politicians handled the economic crisis. I guess we have grown to accept our lot, in a sense this defines our strength of character, the fighting Irish the resilient Haitians.

It is always a bonus to witness something special amongst all the misery in the displaced peoples camps. A new Haven Transitional Shelter at Camp CC will be a welcome transition for baby Jean Francois born under the adjacent tarpaulin on 16th February. A banana republic and a failed state together in humanity, how bad!

Monday, February 14, 2011

One of the things I miss most about being based overseas is being able to follow the Irish sport particularly the Rugby. As I write this I am tuned into Ireland v France at Lansdowne Road, what a start for Ireland…

Since returning to Haiti in January it’s been extremely busy. The earthquake anniversary generated huge interest and the many visiting journalists gave Haiti and Haven excellent coverage.
The opening of the Digicel funded Iron Market was a particularly proud moment for us Irish, it’s not every day an American President lauds praise on a fellow country man. It was a special moment for Haven as the Irish man receiving the praise is one of our board members, well done Denis O Brien.

President Clinton referred to the renovation of the Iron market as a beacon of hope and an example of what can be done, this is the type of encouragement we need. Returning visitors to Haiti often comment that very little appears to have been done however, those of us based here full time putting in huge efforts would disagree. A recent IOM report indicates that the number of IDP's living in camps has reduced from 1.3 m to around 800,000, this indicated good progress.

Haven’s Transitional shelter programme is gathering great steam. We now have over 150 shelters complete. The project design stage is crucially important and is often unnoticed, our new arrivals, joining the Shelter Team, John and Siobhan are doing great and the final implementation stage is really moving ahead.

Haven is now looking to transition from shelter into permanent housing. We are developing a great database of design and various implementation approaches; this knowledge is being developed into permanent housing proposals which we will submit to relevant donors with requests for funding. Finding new donors is now a priority for us for our Shelter, water and sanitation, and choler mitigation programmes.

Haven’s permanent housing projects in Gonaives, Cabaret and Ti Riviere are progressing well. Cathal an Irish architect and Sasi a Sri Lankan engineer are now on board and we are pushing ahead with numerous different implementation approaches. I am particularly interested in seeing how our ‘owner driven’ pilot project for 10 permanent houses at Cabaret develops.

Cabaret is 20 kilometers north of Port au Prince. We have committed to build 50 houses in the area, 24 of which have already been completed. But for 10 of these houses we are working more closely than ever with the beneficiary family and Fonkoze, a micro credit agency, to give the finance directly to the household in installments. Haven then works with the family in the design and building process. This way the family is encouraged to take ownership of the changes being made to their home, while still retaining the support and expertise from Haven.

Havens third core activity area is Community Development. Heather Hegarty, a community development expert from Cork, is with us in Port au Prince at the moment, evaluating our various Community Development activities.
Community Development is a learning process often as much for the NGO as it is for the beneficiary! We are continuing to learn and putting our beneficiaries at the head of all our activities is certainly helping Haven build stronger communities.

The political situation in Haiti has stabilised with the announcement that ex first lady Mirlande Manigat will face Michel (Sweet Micky) Martelly in the Presidential runoff next March.

However, the situation here is always uncertain. Haitian officials recently issued a diplomatic passport for Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected President. He is one of the country’s most popular and divisive figures. His reappearance would represent a second stunning return for Haiti, following Jean Claude Duvalier, the dictator known as Baby Doc, who was overthrown in 1986, who also returned just three weeks ago.

Build it Week is fast approaching and we are still looking for volunteers to take part. We need to keep a close eye on how the elections develop, and make sure that political activities don’t interfere or threaten the trip. Never a dull moment in Haiti!

Its full time in Lansdowne Road, and the internet signal in Port au Prince has served me well, and stayed strong for the full 80 minutes. What a shame the same could not have been said for our pack on the pitch.

Best Regards,


Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Blog

Week ending 17th. December
This week was a busy one as Leslie Buckley, Haven’s Founder came out to Port au Prince to visit our projects and get an update on what is happening around the country.
Ciara, Leslie and I went driving around the city, and the greater Port au Prince area showing him what we have been up to since his last trip to the area.
First we went to Croix de Bouquet to see our Transitional Shelter project, funded by Plan International. While we were there we were able to hand over 20 houses to families. Haven have almost completed 100 T Shelters here in Croix De Bouquet. The families living here used to live on a campsite, under weather beaten tarpaulins, sleeping on blankets spread upon the bare earth.
Haiti is a tough place to be at the best of times, but these are the days that make the hard days worthwhile. And there are plenty more of them to come, with Haven having a further 600 shelters left to complete in and around PaP.

We then moved on to visit one of our water and sanitation (WASH) programmes, which we are constructing with UNICEF funding in 13 schools across the capital. We met with the school’s Principal, and also with Kone from Unicef, whom we have partnered with to carry out this project, bringing a clean water supply, hygiene promotion workshops and latrines to these 200 school children aged from four to 18. Leslie and I got plenty of feedback on how the project is working, what we have done really well to date and what still needs to be improved. We are learning every step of the way.
We then moved on to Camp Crise, one of the 57 campsites in which we are working. Here we met our Community Development Workers, who were in the middle of doing a Hygiene Promotion demonstration. These workshops have been a key part of our workload since the earthquake struck; but since the Cholera broke it is even more important. Haven’s message is simple but incredibly important. It incorporates 6 basic principles:
• Always use latrines, never defecate in the open
• Always wash your hands after toileting, before handling food, after changing diapers, before and after collecting water, before going to sleep at night and first thing on waking
• Never drink untreated water
• Keep prepared food covered at all times
• Full body washes with soap and clean water daily
• Never walk barefoot – always wear washable shoes or sandals

We also brought Leslie to see the Gabion rubble House. The Haven team have termed this the rubble house, as it is literally built using the rubble from the toppled buildings. Rubble is used every step of the way from the foundation through to the plaster! We are particularly proud of this project as we are the first organisation to pilot the method, and we are attracting a lot of attention as a result.
After Leslie left I took a visit to see the Iron Market - the Haitian version of the IFSC! This area was also demolished by the earthquake which Irish businessman and Haven Board member Denis O’Brien, invested in to get this district up and running again. It has now reached completion. It was due to be officially opened this week, but the ceremony had to be postponed because of the political protests. The opening date is now rescheduled for mid January which is a relief to the project team there as recent unrest has caused some delays.
Tonight we are having our final team meeting with our entire staff, both local and expat, based in Haiti. We will give each other updates on what is happening across the country on all of Haven’s sites, covering all topics, from community development, to cholera, shelter, and of course our diminishing budgets!
Once all that is done we will kick back for a little bit of a Christmas party in the Haven house. Haitian Jackson, who was due to perform for our volunteers in October finally gets a gig and it promises to be great craic. Come Saturday our group will disperse, some bound for rural Haiti, Dublin, Longford, Galway and of course the Republic of Cork.
Gerry and Gareth will hold the fort until we return, needless to say there will be plenty of excitement waiting for us on our return in 2011.
Happy Christmas to all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Politics and more politics..

Hi all,
I spent a lot of time in Gonaives this week and have been paying close attention to the news keeping myself updated on what is happening in the Presidential Election.

It was announced this week that government protégé Jude Celestin and former first lady Mirlande Manigat were the top two candidates who were to advance to a second round run-off in presidential elections, scheduled for January 16th.

By early morning all hell had broken loose, furious supporters of eliminated candidates set fires and put up barricades in the streets of PaP after hearing the outcome. The results were immediately questioned in country and abroad, threatening more unrest for poor Haiti already wracked by the cholera epidemic and still recovering from the devastating earthquake. Popular carnival singer Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly trailed Mr Celestin by about 6,800 votes - less than 1%, according to the results released by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council.

Despite the madness in PaP, Gonaives remained relatively calm and we were able to carry on with a normal working day. The project in Gonaives is progressing well and the 80 new houses should be to wall plate level by the end of January.

Haven is preparing a Cholera mitigation proposal to cover our beneficiary areas of Mount Blanc, Jubalee, Raboto and Latanere. A WASH cluster has been established in the area. This is a group of NGO’s (UN, Red Cross, Government of Haiti) looking after Water and Sanitation in the Gonaives area. They have welcomed our Havens presence as we have a good reputation for building and Gonaives badly needs latrines.

This morning at 6 am, Security gave me the all clear to return to Port au Prince as it was raining and the barricades were being abandoned. Worst luck, it had stopped raining by the time we hit the outskirts of the City and true to form the ‘manifestations’ had started again in earnest. Getting back to the safety of the house was greeted with a huge sigh of relief.

The Haven team are now on ‘lock down’ once again, we are all hoping the unrest will come to an end now that Haiti's Electoral Council (CEP) has just released a note to the press saying that a special recount for the first 3 candidates for President of Haiti: Michel Martelly, Mirlande Manigat, and Jude Celestin is being considered.
In the meanwhile we have plenty to keep us constructively occupied finalising project proposals for Phase 2 Rubble housing, permanent housing submissions to the Haiti Reconstruction Commission (HRC), Cholera proposals for IA, CGI reports and other such fun stuff you never really get around to on a normal day.

Joe Grealy just called from Quanaminthe to let me know we have our first suspected case of Cholera in Bas Dilaire. We made contact with our partners Plan International and they are providing super support.

Now, if only I had stocked the fridge with a few beers before heading to Gonaives! Ah well, roll on the Christmas party………..


Friday, December 3, 2010

We dont have snow but we do have politics...

PaP, 03rd. December

Hello from a scorching Haiti,

Ireland and Haiti have something in common this week; it’s definitely not the weather but rather that both country's political future is hanging in the balance.

On 28th November, the election took place for the next President of Haiti. A successor to Rene Preval has yet to be announced. Despite numerous allegations of vote rigging, the various organisations monitoring and observing the election seem happy with how the day proceeded and are confident that the result will be fair and valid.

The latest update put the musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly and the former first lady Mirlande Manigat at 39% and 31% respectively, with the preferred candidate the previous president René Préval, Jude Celestin, on 12%.

Despite some protests, both peaceful and otherwise in the run up to polling day, the event itself passed off in relative calm. Any anger or frustration was primarily directed at the Minustah, the UN stabilisation mission that has been blamed for various problems - from heavy-handed tactics to causing the cholera outbreak that has claimed the lives of 1,800 men, women and children, since mid October.

The count is currenlty ongoing, with a final result expected on 20th December. Meanwhile the people wait with baited breath.

Haven’s operations were unfortunately affected by security concerns due to the political tensions. The UN and various embassies sent regular updates warning us of potential flashpoints.

Our projects in Gonaives and Ouanaminthe have been particularly affected. The Haven expat team were on ‘lock-down’ for three days at the end of November. This has been totally frustrating for us, as our work plans and schedules seem now to be constantly disrupted due to these pockets of violence and tension which seem to start very easily.

We also have to bear in mind the safety of our national staff when demonstrations get out of hand. If we feel that our staff is under threat or in danger, we send them home until the situation returns to normal. This results in hours and days of productivity being lost as well as putting all of the team on edge.

Not only are the team on edge but our families also. This week my wife, Sinead and I decided that Port au Prince was no longer a safe place for the family to live. Unfortunately she and my two boys Reuben and Louie, left Haiti’s capital, late last week, bound for county Cork via New York and Bornacoola, Leitrim.

Despite all of the dramatics Haven is still ploughing ahead on our Transitional Shelter projects which are funded by American Red Cross, Plan international and Oxfam America. To date we have 100 T-Shelters completed, and another 600 to go. The pressure is on big time to try and increase production to 100 units per month by the end of January.

Housing construction and upgrades continue at Gonaives, Cabaret and Ti Riviere. Last big push before a well deserved Christmas holiday. Bring on the Turkey!

Our cholera mitigation programme is on-going, distributing hygiene kits, oral rehydration sachets, and holding hygiene promotion sessions in the campsites and schools in which we are working, as well as with beneficiaries in Ouanaminthe and Gonaives.

The PAHO has estimated that a massive 400,000 lives will be lost within 12 months of the epidemic taking hold. However they also stated that the rate of deaths from the infection has now slowed to 2.3%, down from 9%.

It may be dim, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Until next week!

Friday, November 19, 2010

John Wain, Country Director, Port au Prince

Hi all,

Just a note on yet another eventful week in Haiti.

Official figures we have at the moment, as of the last report published by the UN, is that 16,799 people have now been hospitalized, and 1,039 people have lost their lives.

Again I must stress however that Dr Jim Wilson of Haiti Epidemic Advisory System (HEAS) believes that there is serious issue regarding under –reporting. It is estimated that that current official figures that have been clinically confirmed only represent a quarter of the true situation.

In Port au Prince where I am based, fear of the unknown is starting to set in. Distress is spreading among the population of the capital. People are now becoming aware of the dangers of Cholera, and are hearing about the growing death toll from the infection which originated in the Artibonite/Central Plateau region of Haiti.

The community’s of Port-au-Prince: Carrefour, Cite Soleil, Delmas, Kenscoff, Petion Ville, and Tabarre have seen increased numbers of case of cholera in recent days. As Port-au-Prince braces itself for a potential full-blown outbreak in the campsites, there is now significant air-time given to health advisory notices about prevention and treatment in advance.

People no longer shake hands when they meet and the subject of cholera is widely spoken about with anxiety among the estimated one million homeless still living in tents, ten months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti.

Medcin sans Frontiers (MSF) expect that they will soon run out of space to treat cholera patients in Port-au-Prince and are anticipating having to treat patients on the pavements, on the side of the road. Many may lose their lives as a result. Some people are fearful about having Cholera Treatment Centres located in their vicinity, while at the same time many realise that this can be of great benefit if you require treatment rapidly.

International NGO's and Haitian NGO's are all working together to treat those affected. These NGO's, have established lines of communications from extremely rural locations using online groups to request medical assistance simply just by using Blackberrys and iphones.

Thanks to these modern means of communications an SOS message can be sent and received within seconds, requesting, for example, medical staff, IV Fluids, antibiotics and re-hydration salts. These messages are reaching a community of hundreds of experienced people who are ready and willing to help with supplies, contacts and advice.

The approaching election is without doubt causing tension on the streets. You can see it on people’s faces when you meet them in the street. There has been some media coverage of the protesters who took to the streets in Cap Haitien on Monday last, setting fire to two buses used to block the main road across the main bridge into Cap Haitien.

Medical teams, and indeed Haven staff were evacuated from the region as riots broke out targeting the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and UN personnel. Of course these evacuations ultimately impact on the administration of much needed medical supplies, as staff we were no longer available to treat the sick.

I cannot over state how the full extent of this epidemic has yet to be realised.
Today a case has been confirmed in the Dominican Republic. Due to the problem of suspected official under-reporting and the rate of spread of the outbreak throughout seven departments, cholera has got a choke-hold on Haiti, and perhaps the entire island of Hispaniola.

Until next week,