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December 21, 2012 7:19 pm
Nearly three years after the earthquake that killed her mother and forced her into prostitution, Shirlie is slowly putting her life back together again. The shy 21-year-old lives in a single room with her brother in Christ Roi, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, capital of Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries.
The city’s streets are noisy with the brightly coloured minibuses, known as tap taps, that ply its potholed roads; the bustle of vendors laying out vegetables and clothes for sale; and the compas music that blasts from car radios. Down the corridor from Shirlie’s flat, kids play and joke. Her accommodation is modest to say the least. It lacks running water and has one broken light bulb. She cooks on a stove in the corner of the room, and sleeps on a mat while her brother has the single bed. “It is what it is,” she says, shrugging, as she speaks through a translator. “I suffered a lot.”
But the room is a big step up from the tent camp where she made her home in the wake of the earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and rendered many more homeless. In Haitian Creole it is known as the goudou goudou, after the sound it made as it shook the ground beneath their feet.
Port-au-Prince, surrounded by mountains, and green in the October rainy season, was desperately poor even before the goudou goudou, with more than half of all Haitians surviving on little more than $1.25 a day. Those there on January 12 2010 said the ground shook for about a minute, all it took for their houses to tumble down and their lives to change for ever. At the peak of the crisis about 1.5 million of Haiti’s 10 million people lived under canvas – the tarpaulin shelters mostly gifts from international donors – and there are still some 350,000 people in tent camps.
A particularly brutal rape brought Shirlie to the attention of Kofaviv, a local group that helps victims of sexual violence and is funded by the Global Fund for Children (GFC), which backs grassroots organisations that work with vulnerable children and is the Financial Times’s partner in this year’s Seasonal Appeal. Kofaviv helped Shirlie with food, medical treatment and skills training, found her a place to live and paid her rent.
The earthquake shattered communities, says Marie Eramithe Delva, co-founder of Kofaviv. Life in the camps “made women more vulnerable. They don’t have doors … so men can move easily through the camp and rape women and children.” Shirlie no longer works as a prostitute. Kofaviv’s help, she says, “rescued” her. The group is one of GFC’s 11 Haitian partners. The Washington-based funder injects small bundles of cash and management expertise into grassroots groups around the world for between five and seven years. Eight programme officers search for underfunded groups that operate below the radar and help them to raise cash. Since 1997, the GFC has invested about $26m in 500 such groups, reaching eight million children across the globe.
This approach has a particular resonance in Haiti. Even before the earthquake, the island had been known as the Republic of NGOs for the proliferation of big-money foreign aid donors who often bypass its weak and volatile government. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, international donors pledged to give more than $5bn worth of aid for 2010-2012. Roughly half of that money has been disbursed, according to the Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti, but many Haitians feel it has achieved little. Though the streets of Port-au-Prince are mostly clear of rubble, reconstruction has been slow. Less than 1 per cent of humanitarian and recovery funding made its way directly to local groups, says Kristin Lindsey, chief executive of the GFC. Yet they are “the first responders and they are the lasting ones,” says Victoria Dunning, the GFC’s vice-president for programmes. “It is in their DNA to respond and to adapt.” Their resilience and creativity – often while international aid agencies are still getting their bearings – is evident in many of the projects the GFC backs in Haiti.
On the nights when rain renders the ground a muddy mess, Claudie Simean’s three children sleep on the rubble she keeps inside her tent in Camp ENAF 3, a cluster of just over 20 tents, in Port-au-Prince. Most nights it is so hot inside that her children sweat in their sleep. During the day, there is little for them to do. “They don’t go to school, they don’t do anything,” she said. “One of the biggest problems in the camp,” agrees Lemy Magdalie, the camp co-ordinator, “is that there are a lot of children who don’t go to school.”
For the parents who can’t afford to buy books or pay school fees, weekly readings – organised by GFC partner Li, Li, Li! – provide welcome relief. A dozen or more children listen, their faces rapt, as local reader Sophia Remy tells them a story in Creole. The boys and girls peer at the picture book Remy holds in front of them, as she recounts a tale of a walrus with a sore tooth. “Li, li, li!” she declares, the Creole for “read, read, read”. “La, la, la!” they respond with enthusiastic shouts. Since 2010, Li, Li, Li! has reached about 60,000 children through camp reading sessions. Slowly, people are being evicted from the camps by landlords eager to get their land back. As the camps disband, Li,Li Li! is already considering how it can set up libraries and take its readings into community centres.
But the lack of alternative accommodation means there are still likely to be people in camps in three years time. Larger agencies promised to help, but have not delivered, people in the camp say. “To me it is heartbreaking,” said Stevenson Jean Paul, who works for Li, Li, Li!. “We were not supposed to be living like this. After three years, the government and the international community should have done better.”
. . .
On a weekend visit by the Financial Times in late October, Champs de Mars, a vast plaza in the centre of Port-au-Prince, buzzes with young people in conversation and at play. It is hard to imagine now, but just months earlier the square was covered in thousands of tents. It was here that Shirlie came after the earthquake. It was packed and squalid; she remembers that food and water were in short supply. What help there was came with conditions. Those in charge of food distribution refused to give her anything unless she slept with them. “When I was hungry or needed something, I slept with people. When I needed water, and because I didn’t have money, I had to sleep with people,” she says. Poor health has made it hard for her to earn money this year. Her rent is due at Christmas. She does not have the 30,000 gourdes she needs and will look to Kofaviv for help again.
In Champs de Mars, life has almost returned to normal. Nearby stands Neg Mawon, the statue of a shackled slave calling others to arms. Untouched by the earthquake, it remains a potent symbol of the slave rebellion that made Haiti the world’s first black republic in 1804.
After decades of military rule, corruption and a natural disaster that overturned what little development gains had been made, many Haitians want to regain what has been lost. “All of us are trying to save what can still be saved in Haiti,” says Daniel Tillias, one of the GFC’s programme managers. He looks after a sport and education project in Cité Soleil, one of Haiti’s most notorious slums. Hundreds of deprived children benefit from the centre he runs on the site of a disused factory. Starting from the ground up involves struggle. “So much has failed,” says Tillias. “No one wants to be the next guy to fail.” In this context, he says, GFC’s support is crucial.
Local groups alone cannot solve Haiti’s problems, says the GFC’s Lindsey, but they are doing work that no one else does. The groups “we are supporting now,” she says, “are helping to rebuild for the long term.”
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