Catholic Relief Services still hopeful for Haitian rebuilding efforts

.- A year after the January 2010 earthquake that left Haiti's capital in ruins, a million residents of Port-au-Prince remain homeless amid a spreading cholera epidemic and political unrest. But Catholic Relief Services remains committed to Haiti's recovery and self-sufficiency, despite overwhelming challenges.

In the run-up to the one year anniversary of the earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people on January 12, 2010, some observers insist that foreign governments and non-governmental organizations have failed Haiti. Others suggest the country's own government is to blame for the slow progress in rebuilding, and the spread of a cholera outbreak that could likely have been prevented.

But Tom Price, Senior Communications Manager for Catholic Relief Services, told CNA on Jan. 11 that outside observers should think carefully about Haiti's extreme circumstances before assigning blame for the continued suffering. Both the pre-existing condition of Port-au-Prince before the earthquake, and the subsequent disasters that have hit the country, are contributing to the painstaking rate of recovery.

The island nation's capital, he explained, could not possibly be restored to anything like its former state– which, in itself, was already an unsustainable improvisation of hillside structures, tightly-packed slums, and haphazard architecture.

The overcrowded city was already comparable in some ways to a sprawling refugee camp even before the earthquake made it into one. It was already filled with individuals and families seeking to find work, and escape even worse conditions of rural poverty. Too many Haitians, Price said, were put in a position of staking their hopes on a city that had never developed in a sustainable manner.

He explained that Port-au-Prince was “built with the idea of 200,000 people in mind, and it ended up with close to two million” people living there. Although a million of those residents are now homeless, it is by no means clear how the capital might accommodate them in a more acceptable and permanent way. Price noted that 70 percent of these people were previously renting their housing in “slum conditions.”

When the earthquake hit, government ministries collapsed along with slum housing. A third of the country's civil servants –who might have been competent to help organize in the aftermath, and head off subsequent threats to public health– died in the disaster. The Haitian Church, another refuge for the desperately poor, lost its archbishop and found the Port-au-Prince cathedral in ruins.

Some critics of Haitian relief efforts have termed the island a “republic of NGOs” (non-governmental organizations), pointing out that these various agencies lack coordination with one another, and have failed to help Haitians find many long-term solutions.

Price did not share this estimation of this past year's work, however, and defended the record of non-governmental agencies operating in Haiti. Their work, he said, “has had great impact.”

“People in the camps, at least their needs are being met. The Catholic Church and NGOs were in place to tackle cholera quickly, when it hit. We could move supplies around the country quickly, to counter the effects of Hurricane Tomas.” That tropical storm hit Haiti on Nov. 5, 2010, flooding a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince.

Price explained that many NGOs had been charged with providing relief to areas they could barely access– since the city's roads, not built for modern vehicles in the first place, were filled with rubble that aid agencies lacked the time or technology to remove. Often times, he suggested, the generosity of donors and governments had not been a match for these sheer logistical challenges.

“I'm not sure that NGOs in general could have really done more than they have,” Price reflected, saying he was satisfied with the efforts of Catholic Relief Services' partners to overcome virtually impossible circumstances and deliver aid. Likewise, he said, “I would hesitate to criticize a government that lost a third of its civil service and half of its buildings.”

“There certainly hasn't been enough progress,” he acknowledged. “It's unacceptable to have a million-plus people in tents.”

“But with the level of devastation, and the lack of leadership –because of what happened to the Haitian government, and the wrangling over the elections right now– it's understandable how this has happened, if not acceptable.”

The results of Haiti's presidential election, held on Nov. 28, 2010, have been bitterly contested among rival parties and their supporters. Two candidates, Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigot, were recommended by the Organization of American States for a January runoff vote, following rival claims of victory.

More optimistically, Price highlighted the progress that the Haitian Church had made in 12 months– from standing in need of immediate aid, to reestablishing itself as a pillar of Haitian society capable of leading relief efforts.

“We had to work with them, to build them back up,” Price recalled. “But by the time we got to the cholera outbreak, they were taking the lead.” He described how Catholic ministries throughout Haiti took charge of setting up clinics and ensuring that international donors' resources went where they were needed.

He found that turnaround “very encouraging” to see, “less than nine months after the quake.”

He felt similarly encouraged by the progress of agricultural projects in the south of the island, “designed to give people an alternative to going to Port-au-Prince.” Price also spoke enthusiastically about an international collaboration bringing in world-class architects to redesign Haiti's church structures.

Most fundamentally, Price said, the Haitian Church was providing spiritual support in the midst of tragedy, bringing residents of the island together in a way that both encompasses and looks beyond their current sufferings.

“The anniversary itself” –which will be marked by memorial Masses– “is not just about looking at the purely material side of things,” Price noted. “It's a day to stand with Haitians – and pray.”