Better than What?

The first time I visited Haiti, in 1994, a U.S.-led multinational military force was helping to keep the peace. Since then, Haiti has endured a series of health-related crises, government meltdowns, civil unrest and horrific natural disasters.

In the past 20 years, I have returned to Haiti on many occasions — usually as a journalist to cover something unpleasant. And each time I have expected (or rather, hoped) to find a country that has somehow managed to become a better place for its 10 million people, especially the poorest among them.

Each time, however, I have been disappointed — more or less — even as I have been amazed at the kindness, generosity, resiliency, good humor, and optimism of the Haitian people. A better place? Better than what?

In late November-early December, I returned to Haiti yet again, this time not to cover something unpleasant but to mark the anniversary of something unpleasant: the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that shook the country on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, killing up to 300,00 people and leaving 1.5 million “internally displaced,” as the United Nations likes to put it.

This time, the Haiti that I’ve known (or think I’ve known) appeared on the surface to be the same: hot, noisy, teeming with humanity, street vendors cheek by jowl along city sidewalks, traffic clogging the streets in Port-au-Prince — and a stunningly beautiful countryside populated primarily by subsistence farmers struggling to survive. A better place?

True, the piles of rocks and rubble that seemed to be everywhere in the aftermath of the earthquake have been removed. Ninety-two percent of the Haitians who were made homeless by the earthquake have now been provided with temporary housing, and “only” 104,000 people still live in camps, according to the International Organization for Migration.

A 600-acre, job-creating industrial park is now open for business in the north of the country. And a 175-room luxury hotel has been built by Marriott in Port-au-Prince and will open its doors in February 2015, providing “upscale amenities” like an outdoor poor, and “world class service to business and individual travelers alike.”

One of the first people I met on this latest trip to the country was the Rt. Rev. Jean Zache Duracin, Bishop of Haiti, the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church, with more than 83,000 members and 100-plus congregations. We spoke briefly on the grounds of Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, which was completely destroyed by the earthquake, in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince.

Bishop Duracin has said previously it was “a miracle of God” that saved his life during the earthquake, which leveled his residence. His wife was seriously injured. He said when I met him late last month that, even though construction on the new cathedral has not yet begun, even after five years, the facilities and services associated with the cathedral have been up and running for some time, including primary, secondary, trade, and music schools.

Duracin, speaking before presiding at a Sunday worship service in a temporary, open-air worship facility that has been built to accommodate about 300 people, said that about $2.4 million has been raised so far to rebuild the cathedral, or slightly more than 10 percent of the estimated initial total cost of the building of $21 million. Figures released by the Episcopal Church three years ago showed that by the end of 2011 a total of $1.5 million had been raised by 92 Episcopal dioceses.

The Haitian bishop he does not know why the funds have not been released to begin construction, adding that on the Haitian side they are ready to begin now. He said that he hopes that construction will begin sometime in 2015. Behind him, over an eight-foot-high corrugated steel fence, I could see the rubble-strewn site of the destroyed cathedral, which today looks essentially the same as it did just after the earthquake five years ago.

The head of the architectural firm selected to design the new cathedral — Thomas L. Kerns of Kerns Group Architect in Falls Church, Virginia — said at a speech at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this year that the total cost of the cathedral and related structures could climb to roughly $25 million in three years, assuming an inflation rate of 7.3 percent a year. “It’s going to be a great gift to the city,” he said.

Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, said that he would not comment on the exact amount of money pledged so far “because of safety concerns in Haiti.” But he said that the amount pledged is “roughly” $2.5 million. He said the total cost of building the cathedral has been estimated at $21 million-$25 million, adding that the estimates are correct “to the best of our knowledge, but they may be a little bit outdated.”

Bishop Sauls said in response to a series of questions from TLC that a date has not yet been set to begin construction. He said the Episcopal Church is working with the Kerns Group and the Diocese of Haiti on revising the phases of construction. “We are exploring beginning with the narthex rather than the nave as a way to make some definite progress,” he said. “We hope that starting with [the narthex] will inspire the completion of the entire building.” He called the narthex a very dramatic and inspiring part of the design.

He said that building the cathedral in phases will mean that it will not be necessary to have the entire amount in hand before any progress can be made. He said that a study is currently under way to “refine” the amount needed to build the first phase, so that construction can begin in the near future.

“We want to make sure we have enough funding to complete the first phase of the project before entering construction contracts and breaking ground,” Bishop Sauls said. “We do believe we have enough on hand to build the narthex.” He also said the Episcopal Church is considering new strategies for raising funds.

Bishop Duracin, meanwhile, said he believes that much progress has been made in improving the lives of most Haitians over the years, particularly since the earthquake. But he emphasized, not surprisingly, that the country’s future is in God’s hands. “The Haitian people have to believe in a better future,” he said. “It’s faith in action.”

The bishop’s relatively upbeat assessment of progress on the ground, in fact, has been borne out by statistics released recently by the Haitian government and the United Nations.

The United Nations Development Program has issued a report saying that “significant” progress has been made by Haiti in reaching most of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, ranging from halving extreme poverty rates to providing universal primary education by 2015.

It said the number of underweight children under the age of five has been cut in half three years ahead of the 2015 deadline. Infant mortality is falling faster than the global average. Nearly 65 percent of households now have access to clean water (compared to 36.5 percent in 1995). The prevalence of HIV/AIDS has stabilized at 0.9 percent among 15-24-year-olds. And the country’s gross domestic product has risen from $1,548 per capita in 2009 to $1,602 per capita in 2012. It’s all better, to be sure. But better than what?

On December 11, the World Bank released its own report — Haiti: Investing in People to Fight Poverty — saying that poverty in Haiti, in fact, remains unacceptably high, and that access to and the quality of basic services is a major concern, particularly in rural areas. More than six million Haitians, the report said, or nearly 60 percent of the population, live on $2 a day or less, even as “extreme poverty” ($1 a day or less) fell from 31 percent to 24 percent between 2000 and 2012.

The authors of the report, compiled in conjunction with the National Observatory on Poverty Social Exclusion, said that the key drivers of the reduction in poverty have been an increase in better jobs in the construction, transportation and telecommunications sectors, along with large and continuing flows of remittances and foreign assistance.

A report released by U.S. State Department last June, meanwhile, said that the Haitian economy grew by 4.3 percent in 2013, while inflation remained low. Moreover, private investment, it said, reached a 10-year high, outpacing foreign aid spending by more than 100 percent.

Statistics, of course, tell only one side of the story. While the future of Haiti, as Bishop Duracin said, remains in God’s hands, it also lies, as he said, in the hands of the Haitian people.

Magalie Dresse, born in Haiti 39 years ago, owns and runs one of the country’s most successful and fastest-growing small businesses, Caribbean Craft, which designs and manufactures arts and crafts items for overseas markets. I met her at her factory near the airport in Port-au-Prince, where she employs 400 artisans, mainly from the slums. Her clients include West Elm, Restoration Hardware, TOMS, Williams-Sonoma, Lord & Taylor, and Crate & Barrel.

She said she has nothing against foreign aid, and she has gladly accepted assistance from the Clinton Foundation and other foreign sources, which has helped her build a company in the short run that otherwise might not have even survived. To say the least, foreign investors have been leery of committing real money to Haiti, and the domestic market is just not there yet. But Dresse said she looks forward to the day when Haiti will be able to reduce its dependence on foreign assistance and exist on its own, with the help of foreign investment — and not foreign aid.

It was clear from my visit with her that she firmly believes in the creativity, goodness, and promise of her fellow Haitians.

“We have to think of this country as ours,” she said in a recent interview, “not as a place where we have a business and leave. It’s a place where we want to live. It’s a place we want to leave for our kids and for generations to come.”

Gary G. Yerkey

Image: The ruins of Holy Trinity Cathedral, five years after the earthquake.

TLC on Facebook TLC on Twitter TLC’s feed TLC’s weblog, Covenant Subscribe


Online Archives