I've recently returned from Port-au-Prince, Haiti and have had a chance to reflect a bit. It has been six months since the earthquake, which has prompted some press assessments of the current state of affairs. Some of my favorites are here, here (an extremely informative article by Washington Post's Jonathan M. Katz), and here (this great piece in the New York Times article by Deborah Sontag). (I hope that Sontag and Katz win awards for their Haiti reporting). My experiences were consistent with the reporting in these articles.
Port-au-Prince imposes itself upon many of your senses. The first thing that I noticed was that tent cities were basically everywhere. In fact, we (my college roommate and I) stayed in a tent on top of a church building. The tents were of varying quality. The types that we saw ranged from some state of dilapidation to uninhabitable. I'm sure there were some very nice tents (I've seen pictures) and I'm sure that some of the tents that we saw were nice, but six months later, almost all are pretty worn out. Additionally, many of the structures that we saw were essentially tin structures with a tarp thrown on top. One could not help but be struck by the difficult living conditions of what seems like the vast majority of the population in Port-au-Prince. Nevertheless, one could not be struck by the sense of personal cleanliness in Port-au-Prince. The school kids' uniforms were spotless. Even in hard circumstances, people often dressed very nicely.
The traffic was quite remarkable. It seemed as if people driving was a city-wide game of chicken with horns blaring. Though the major roads were in pretty good shape, many of the side streets were in poor shape. Moreover, they were quite narrow, filled with people, and makeshift markets. We were often awoken (at 4 or 5 in the morning) by the crowing of the roosters, the barking of the dogs, and singing that indicated the start of sunrise services. Notwithstanding their circumstances, it was great to hear people laughing and having fun. There is an infectious playfulness in Haitian society. It is particularly evident when people are courting one another, but it manifests itself across relationships and it was fun to see and to sometimes be a part of it.
We saw few signs of rebuilding. Individuals were doing the best that they could. It was not atypical to see one guy with a sledgehammer trying to tear down a whole building/house and another guy with a wheelbarrow getting rid of the rubble. If this is the future of reconstruction in Haiti, it will be decades before there is any progress. We saw few heavy equipment. If the rebuilding phase has begun, we did not see evidence of it.
We also did not see enough of the aid organizations. We saw many of them driving by in their air-conditioned vehicles, but saw few people on the ground. This is not to say that they have not done good work. In some of the tent cities, clean water was provided by the aid groups, and in others latrines were installed. But I was very surprised at the relative invisibility of the aid groups. We walked all over Port-au-Prince and Delmas and through many of the tent cities. We did not see enough of the aid groups. This is a serious question that has to be addressed.
I found the Haitian people to be entrepreneurial and in relative good spirits. One of the more remarkable experiences that I witnessed was watching the Haitian kids go to school in their various uniforms. 85% or so of the schools in Port-au-Prince are private schools and they are everywhere. One of the stereotypes that people have of Haiti is that Haitians are uneducated and do not care about their education. That could not be farther from the truth. In the midst of devastation and calamity, Haitian parents are scrapping to save whatever they can and send their kids to school. Moreover, almost all of the private schools that we saw were operating under tents or temporary structures. These schools are doing the best that they can to stay open and to educate the kids. Education is highly valued in Haiti. The problem is that the opportunities are too few. The reconstruction of Haiti must include the private schools. They must receive assistance to rebuild because they are a critical institution in Haiti.
People there are suffering, but they are also taking ownership of their situation as best as they can. I did not notice any violence or felt threatened in any way. Presidential elections are scheduled for November in Haiti and that will be a big test. Haitians need to see some visible progress that their infrastructure can be rebuilt and made better than it has ever been. This is the primary task of the international community. The real question for me is not whether the Haitian people are capable of doing what it takes to rebuild their country; the real question is whether the international community is capable of doing what it takes to help.