Six months to the day since the earthquake, the UN Mission Chief in Haiti and assorted celebrities, politicians and NGO officials at the presidential palace were receiving medals for their help with the country’s recovery effort. On the same sweltering morning, I was in the Champ de Mars camp right opposite the palace grounds.
It’s a place where women are raped so frequently it takes place in broad daylight, where gang members roam the narrow, stinking tented alleys with weapons, and where newly-orphaned street children fight over the odd piece of change handed out by aid workers stopping to take photos in front of the ruined palace.
At the President’s medal ceremony, there was talk of hope and progress. It was acknowledged that better performance was needed to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. But that was followed quickly with reminders of the scale of the tragedy and of the achievements made over the past six months.
Outside, nobody in the camp even knew the significance of the date, such is the day-to-day nature of existence for many here. Our friend Joel Joseph arrived in Champ de Mars on the first night after the quake. He had just watched his house collapse with his young daughter inside. He hasn’t worked for months, but he speaks four languages, in a small, sad voice that only gets louder when he’s asked about the international aid effort.
Joel says the lack of obvious progress has convinced many Haitians of conspiracy theories: that NGOs are paying families to stay in camps to prolong the emergency and receive more funding; that reconstruction and rubble-removal are on hold so the government can extract the maximum from international donors. “Even this isn’t for us,” he added, pointing to food distribution by Brazilian peacekeepers just meters from where foreign media were gathered for the medal ceremony. “They haven’t done this here for months, why today? They pretend to help us, but the truth is we’re not receiving any help at all.”
During my six months in Haiti, I have seen an aid effort proceed on an uneven course – from its problematic inception, to successes in disease prevention, and back to somewhere in between. As the UN Mission Chief Edmond Mulet and others freely admit, the sense of urgency has been lost here. That might sound hard to believe when there are more than 1.5 million living in squalid camps, exposed to the elements with extreme weather on the way, but it’s true.
And for most Haitians, the failures of the aid effort are more obvious than its successes. The fact that in six months only 5,500 storm proof shelters have been built in the entire country, the huge rise in assaults on women in the camps, the rubble spilling out over every neighbourhood, a city which still looks much the same as it did in the days just after the quake…
Perhaps it’s a little early to be giving out medals?
SEBASTIAN WALKER is a reporter for Al Jazeera, where this dispatch originally appeared.