Ask anyone in the subsistence farming town of Baradères, ravaged by Hurricane Matthew’s rampage through southern Haiti, how they will rebuild their shattered lives and the answer in the local creole is always the same: “Bondye konnen” — only God knows.
A brown river runs along what was the main road into town, past a broken bridge and a pile of rubble where five houses once stood. A tin roof lies on the ground, the walls it rested on crushed by Haiti’s fiercest storm in half a century, which slammed into the poor Caribbean nation a month ago and denuded the lush landscape at a stroke. Worse still, livestock and the rice, banana, coconut and other crops on which most people depend have been devastated.
Magdala Delva’s despair is evident as she fishes a squashed sieve and pink sweater from the wreck of her home. “It’s life. It’s over,” she says.
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, reliant on $2.2bn in annual remittances from its diaspora — nearly double Haiti’s exports and foreign direct investment combined. More than 20 per cent of the government’s annual budget comes from foreign aid or direct budget support.
Matthew is the latest catastrophe to hit a nation that has still not recovered from the 2010 earthquake that killed 200,000 people, flattened Port-au-Prince, the capital, and caused damage and losses of $8bn, equivalent to about 120 per cent of gross domestic product.
Despite a global commitment to spend $9bn to “build back better” after the earthquake, some aid agencies have faced criticism for meagre reconstruction results, with funds swallowed by their large bureaucracies and accusations they have been over-reliant on foreign companies rather than using Haitian organisations, which could have helped kick-start the economy.
No one wants a repeat of such problems. But as the post-hurricane aid effort gathers pace, some in poor areas feel out of sight and out of mind. One relief convoy has been looted and locals say that in some areas residents have been robbed after queueing for hours to collect rations.
Maarten Boute, chairman of Digicel, Haiti’s main telecoms operator and a prominent businessman, is among those calling for a new approach. He argues that the way to help Haiti is to source relief locally, buy Haitian exports and generate investment and tourism.
Matthew should prompt a “revisiting of the whole aid industry” to ensure a sharper focus on productive projects with Haitian partners, he argues. One project in particular stands out as a broken dream. The planned Caracol industrial park, intended to boost the garment industry after 2010, has fallen short on its job-creation goals, and farmers who lost their land for the project complain they were not properly compensated.
“This is a long-term job. We’re not just rebuilding the hurricane damage, we’re laying the foundations for the future,” Mr Boute says.
Some $40m has so far been committed to post-Matthew restructuring under a $119m UN appeal. But talk of reconstruction feels hopelessly premature in isolated rural communities such as Baradères.
Jocelerme Privert, interim president ahead of rescheduled elections set for November 20, did visit the town after the hurricane, with 333 food kits and other aid from Colombia. But locals say this was far too meagre for the 52,000-strong community. Although residents acknowledge aid agencies are focusing on worse-hit areas, such as the southern coastal town of Jérémie and Les Cayes, a port, they say the lack of roads makes conditions dire. “We feel isolated, abandoned,” says Madsen Cadet, a schoolteacher.
In the absence of any significant outside aid a month after the hurricane, communities across the country are largely fending for themselves. In Baradères locals have taken in neighbours and scarce food is shared.
Lysius Kedna does not plan to hang around. Washing sheets in murky water, the 25-year-old is counting the days until she leaves for the capital to study. “We don’t have a house or food — everything is flattened. There’s nothing to live for here now,” she says.
The hurricane is likely to trigger an exodus of people such as Ms Kedna from rural areas, swelling Port-au-Prince’s bursting capacity and adding to the country’s already formidable challenges. More than half Haiti’s population is aged 24 or under and the World Bank estimates 58 per cent live below the poverty line, with thousands still in precarious tent cities years after the earthquake.
In a country long blighted by corruption, the government is setting up a body to centralise the reconstruction drive in an effort to improve co-ordination. But in Baradères, Dieu Mondésir is taking things into his own hands. He is up early hammering salvaged metal to a makeshift frame to try to put a roof over his family’s head. The few sticks of sugar cane he saved will cover the cost of the nails he had to buy.
But the plight of his neighbour Jean Fabien signals the depth of the challenge. Mr Fabien also lost his house and fields, as well as his rice harvest and five cattle, three pigs and 10 goats. “Before the hurricane, I wasn’t rich but I was comfortable,” he says. “Now I have nothing.”