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,