Jan. 12, 2012
SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Thursday marked two years since the devastating earthquake tore apart Haiti. The quake killed 220,000 people and left at least 1.6 million homeless. Boston is home to about 100,000 Haitians, making us the fourth-largest Haitian community in the nation. Today, many are frustrated at the pace of recovery… and the flow of financial aid.
The Haitian Coalition operates from a small apartment in a housing project just blocks from Tufts University. Lince Semerzier, who runs the bare-bones office, said the Haitian Coalition has been struggling financially to keep up with the needs of people who moved here after the earthquake:
"You have a lot of great organizations, Haitian organizations that are doing more with less," he said. The coalition is one of a number of groups that have been instrumental in providing services — "mental health support services and also working on finding shelters for families."
On this day volunteers are taking calls from Haitians from Somerville out to Pittsfield who are frustrated about the conditions of family members and friends left behind in Haiti. Two years after the earthquake, most are still living in temporary housing built by the Red Cross and other organizations.
Semerzier was recently in Haiti. "You should see what they’re building. It's like little boxes — and they're calling them houses," he said.
Melinda Miles, a Haitian American from Northampton, works in Port-au-Prince for TransAfrica. "It’s true that there were billions of dollars pledged and also donations that came in from various NGOs," she said. "What we’ve seen is that despite that fact there were over one and a half million people displaced, very little of the money has actually gone for the construction of housing."
TransAfrica is one of several organizations monitoring how money is being spent in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. "One of the goals that was set in the first year… was to build 125,000 transitional shelters. Now we're at the two-year mark and there still aren't even 100,000 shelters," Miles said. That means more than half a million people are living under tarps and tents.
Michael Delaney is with Oxfam America, based in Boston’s North End. He agreed that two years after the earthquake, housing remains the most intractable problem. But, he said, non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam, are dealing with a major catch-22: Before they can move people out of the camps and help them rebuild, the government has to deal with the issues around land.
"There’s a lot of open land that can be used for new housing programs but there hasn’t been a bold action" to use it for low-cost housing, Delaney said.
Yet increasing numbers of Haitian Americans blame the slow pace of development in Haiti on the non-governmental organizations themselves. Semerzier described it as"an international mafia." He criticized groups such as Oxfam and the Red Cross for not hiring qualified Haitians and Haitian Americans for jobs in these projects.
Semerzier’s organization is competing for the same limited pot of money for development work in Haiti, and that may color his opinion. But a new investigative report by an independent journalism group, Haiti Grassroots Watch, concurred with many of Semerzier’s concerns.
"A foreigner will get eight times what a Haitian will get for the same work," said Jane Regan, a college professor and journalist in Port-au-Prince.
Where does the money go? Some has gone to good purposes, such as cholera treatment pills for the water supply and tarps, she said. However, "there has been little accountability and also little participation of the actual eventual beneficiaries, and therefore there has been a lot of waste."
Haitian organizations and watchdog groups also point out that a good deal of the funds earmarked for Haitian development and relief in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake have helped save lives and jumpstart an economy that had been left for dead. A few weeks from now, the Haiti Coalition of Somerville will take a delegation of medical professionals to Haiti from the Cambridge Health Alliance. They will be accompanied by Haiti Grassroots Watch. That way, Regan said, no one will have to wonder where resources go once they reach Haiti’s shores.
AN ORPHANAGE SHAPED LIKE A 'B'
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.