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1.13.2011 The year of surviving in squalor

From The Economist Print Edition

JANUARY 1st was the 207th anniversary of the day that Haiti became the second country in the Americas to declare independence. To mark their achievement of an equivocal freedom, Haitians traditionally eat pumpkin soup. This year some did not bother. “None of us felt like celebrating,” said Micheline Michel, whose home is a shanty of bed sheets opposite the ruins of the National Palace. Instead, she spent the holiday hawking old clothes around the concrete carcasses of buildings that litter the city centre.

Around 1m Haitians have been living like Ms Michel in tents or under tarpaulins since January 12th last year, when Port-au-Prince was devastated by a huge earthquake officially estimated to have killed 230,000 people. A year that began with goudou-goudou, the onomatopoeic neologism Haitians use to refer to the quake, ended with cholera on a death march across the country, a sometimes violent electoral dispute and a palpable vacuum of leadership.

When she and her family sought refuge in their shelter last January, Ms Michel believed they would stay for a couple of weeks or maybe a month. “I never imagined that a year later, we’d still be living in such absolute misery,” she says. Few did.

But when visiting journalists parachute in to Port-au-Prince for the anniversary of the earthquake, they will see few signs of progress and many of stasis. Rubble still blocks many streets. Even if the work of removing it goes according to the official schedule, less than half will be cleared by October. Only about 30,000 temporary shelters have been built. The National Palace, the emblem of Haitian sovereignty, has yet to be demolished, let alone rebuilt. The tent camps that dot the city look ever-shabbier, and their inhabitants thinner and more bedraggled.

This landscape of neglect and degradation mocks the widespread hope in the weeks after the quake that Haiti could “build back better,” as Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to the country, put it. The government’s promising reconstruction plan, unveiled at a donor conference in March, envisioned moving many people outside the swollen capital and injecting economic life into rural areas, as well as rebuilding Port-au-Prince.

Little of this has happened. The only official relocation site is a barren wasteland on the outskirts of the capital which shelters fewer than 10,000 people, many of whom feel they were tricked into moving there. Donors pledged $5.8 billion for recovery and reconstruction until September 2011. But less than half of that has been disbursed, and a big chunk has gone on debt relief rather than fresh funds.

The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), with an equal number of Haitian and international members, was supposed to act as a powerful, open and accountable executive agency. But it has met rarely, its mandate expires in nine months, and at its fourth meeting in December the 12 Haitian members complained in a letter that they felt left out. Haiti remains a “republic of NGOs”, as officials put it, some of which are doing vital relief work and others just getting in the way.

Some of the frustration stems from unrealistic expectations. Pamela Cox, a World Bank official who sits on the IHRC, points out that even rich, functioning states have struggled after catastrophes, as the United States did after Hurricane Katrina. Although she concedes that planning for reconstruction should have started earlier, Ms Cox says she sees progress: 400,000 houses have been assessed and classified by structural engineers, debris removal is accelerating and the economy has held up.

State institutions were already weak and dysfunctional in Haiti before the earthquake knocked out the capital. René Préval, the president, was in the last year of his mandate. Even so, many Haitians believe that his government demonstrated little will or concern for its people, or ability to meet even minimal expectations. However, the ruling party sprang into life when the campaign for a general election kicked off in October. It spent ostentatiously on the campaign.

Distracting though the election might have seemed, Haitians need a legitimate government to deal with the political issues at the heart of rebuilding, including land tenure, property rights and spending priorities. Investors and donors similarly need a legitimate government to ensure that their funds are not wasted.

But the election on November 28th became another setback. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians did not receive voting cards; around 4% of polling stations were trashed; and the Organisation of American States (OAS) withdrew its observers in mid-afternoon, leaving the count unsupervised. The official result declared a run-off between Mr Préval’s unpopular candidate, Jude Célestin, and Mirlande Manigat, a constitutional lawyer, excluding Michel Martelly, a popular musician. That ignited several days of sometimes violent anti-government protests.

The OAS is overseeing a thorough recount of the tally sheets. The run-off scheduled for January 16th has been postponed until at least February. The recount is a practical necessity but has no basis in electoral law. Perhaps the miracle of an effective and legitimate government will yet emerge. But it may be that outsiders’ biggest mistake last year was not taking more trouble to ensure that the election went better than reconstruction.