Five years ago, on 12 January 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti. An estimated 3.5 million people were affected, while 220,000 people are thought to have died. Everyone in Haiti on that dark day remembers where they were.
Just to test the nation further, starting in October 2010, Haiti was impacted by a cholera outbreak which has to date killed an estimated 8,562 people and infected about 700,000 others.
Haiti had not had cholera for over 100 years. It was ill-prepared to respond anyway, never mind during a period of earthquake response. Tropical storms Isaac and Sandy also hit the country, in August and October 2012 respectively, hampering the earthquake response, bringing more fatalities and leaving large parts of the country under water.
Five years later in Haiti, however, the landscape has changed. That is not to say that the then poorest country in the western hemisphere, even with a massive investment of donor cash, now looks like Dubai but, after over 3 years of relatively stable government, there is a difference.
Five years after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti the landscape has changed - with more children in primary school than ever before - Plan Haiti Country Director, John Chaloner
Gone is most of the estimated 19 million cubic metres of rubble generated by the earthquake; over 1 million people – some 10% of the entire population of Haiti - made homeless by the earthquake have been rehoused after living in camps since the earthquake.
Roads, especially in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, have been repaired and many paved for the first time. Houses damaged by the earthquake have been rebuilt and small businesses have multiplied. Several international standard hotels have been constructed as have a couple of large supermarkets.
More children in school
The collapse of the education system, with about half the schools in the country being affected by the earthquake, has been reversed and today there are more children in school, at least at the primary school level, than ever before.
Of course the Haitian government, huge amounts of cash, donors, the alphabet soup of UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations, plus a cacophony of other aid groups et al, have contributed to the recovery to date but, as could always be argued in times of crisis, it is ordinary people who prove themselves extraordinary.
Youth emergency response
Haitian youth were the first group of people to respond to the aftermath of the earthquake. Organising themselves quickly they were digging people out of the rubble and searching for medical help almost immediately.
Haitian families, whose homes were intact, invited other families to shelter in their houses and courtyards providing mattresses, food and shelter. As women organised in their neighbourhoods to distribute any relief supplies they had to the needy, so men provided security for them. The roll call of local heroes is long.
Challenges of course remain. Haiti has suffered from appalling - and often brutal - governance for decades and many Haitians have voted with their feet leaving the country to seek better prospects elsewhere.
During the past 4 years some 80% of the staff in my office having babies have chosen to deliver them in the USA or Canada – not a comment per se on the Haitian health services but a move to guarantee their children an alternative nationality and better prospects in the future – just in case!
The country remains poor with a still fragile education system, poor and expensive health services and high unemployment. The government mantra is that ‘Haiti is open for business’ and indeed it is, but services are poor - especially electricity supplies - with some main and many feeder roads in poor condition which impacts negatively on a largely agricultural economy.
One gain from the earthquake, however, has been the end of the state run fixed telephone system and the introduction of mobile technology which is popular and widespread. The chattering classes are here in Haiti not just in the parlours of the western world!
The biggest challenge remains governance, however, and the need to build trust in the workings of government. In a world where faith in politicians is at an all-time low Haiti faces another uphill struggle. But Haiti survives and its people move on. When I go back home to the small village in the United Kingdom where my family live, I’m often approached by local people who, with pained looks on their faces, ask how things are in Haiti these days.
My stock reply now is that they should realise that Haiti is a Caribbean island and that many North American and European holidaymakers pay good money to spend a week or 2 viewing and learning about Haiti’s history, admiring the spectacular scenery and soaking up the sunshine on the beaches. All these attributes and a people who are used to dealing with adversity – there’s hope!