Port-au-Prince Heads to the Provinces: Little Food, No Infrastructure and No Jobs

Posted on March 15, 2010

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Haitians who fled capital strain impoverished towns in countryside

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 15, 2010; A07

LASCAHOBAS, HAITI — The earthquake that struck Haiti’s capital city has also jarred the impoverished countryside, sending 600,000 people into the provinces — where locals are now overwhelmed with the task of feeding and sheltering desperate newcomers.

Haitian and international aid officials describe the migration as one of the largest and most wrenching in the hemisphere, as internally displaced people stream out of Port-au-Prince and head to struggling provincial towns in the aftermath of the earthquake like civilians fleeing war zones in places such as Rwanda, Kosovo and the Swat Valley in Pakistan.

“They are everywhere. They are in the town, and they are sleeping in the fields,” said Gerald Joseph, mayor of Lascahobas, a farming and trading town about three hours north of the capital. “Our schools are beyond full now. Our hospital is full. All our houses are full of people. We don’t have an empty house. Where four people were sleeping before, there are now 14.”

The mayor said that by his census, his town of 60,000 had grown by 10,000 refugees from Port-au-Prince since the January quake. They leave the city with a bag of rice or a suitcase of clothes and arrive here with no jobs and little money, the mayor said. “They are poor people overwhelming poor people,” he said.

Officials in the countryside say that no help has come from the bankrupt and enfeebled Haitian government and that international aid has arrived in a frustrating trickle. In Lascahobas, the charity group World Vision fed 500 people one time, the mayor said. Nepalese troops working for the United Nations also came once to feed about 800 people.

Haitian officials preparing to seek billions of dollars in aid from foreign donors and U.S. taxpayers at the United Nations at the end of the month stress that their plan for a better Haiti includes a promise to decentralize power.

Eduardo Almeida, head of the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti, said the plans should include massive investments in infrastructure in the provinces — in schools, universities, ports, tourism, manufacturing and especially agriculture.

“Haiti is a farming culture that cannot feed itself, and that must change,” Almeida said. As an example, development officials and aid advisers repeat that Haiti is so poor, and its agriculture so ravaged, that it must import a million eggs a day from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

During years of political chaos, coups and soaring poverty, Haiti and its partners such as the World Bank and U.N. agencies have done little to bolster the countryside, where local governments are broke and mostly powerless to develop on their own. Before the earthquake, nearly a third of Haiti’s roughly 10 million residents lived in Port-au-Prince.

“Look!” said the Rev. Raphael Bernadin Desras, the priest at the St. Gabriel Catholic church in the center of the town, as he swung open the door to a storeroom. A dozen bags of rice and some sacks of beans remained in a larder that once was full. “I have enough left for the kids in my school. But everyone else? Good luck.”

Desras said “the biggest problem is that all the aid stays in Port-au-Prince.” People from the city, he said, “are our sisters and brothers, so of course we will help them.” But he complained about the dominance of the capital in all matters — government, trade, industry, education, aid.

“They have abandoned the countryside for the last 50 years,” the priest said, and he asked whether a visitor had seen houses along the road from the city. “Stick and mud,” he said.

Desras said that many of the adult children of his town died in Port-au-Prince “because they went there to go to school — because there are no universities in the countryside.”

Monique Michel, who sells clothes for a living, has a little house in Lascahobas where her family of five lived before the earthquake. Now 16 people live in her home. “We’re sleeping four to a bed,” Michel said. She said her meager savings were disappearing as she bought chickens, rice, beans and bananas to feed her sisters and their children. “They’re hungry,” she said.

“We are seeing crazy numbers of people,” said Milien Christophe, a surgeon at the Zanmi Lasante medical clinic here, who said that he now treats more patients from Port-au-Prince than from the town.

Haitian officials drawing up plans for what they call Haiti 2.0 say they envision using donor money to provide government services outside Port-au-Prince, to open “welcome centers,” and to build universities and clinics and two-lane highways in place of muddy tracks.

“If we don’t want those people to return to Port-au-Prince, then we have to provide assistance and opportunities in the provinces,” said Edmund Mullet, the acting U.N. special envoy for Haiti. “If we don’t do that, people will move back to Port-au-Prince.”

Many Haitians, however, do not think that their government, or international charities and agencies, will be able to act quickly — or at all — out in the countryside.

Asked her plans, 20-year-old Freda Antoine said she planned to get away from Lascahobas as fast as possible, once the capital gets back on its feet. “There’s nothing to do out here,” she said, using the Haitian Creole word for the sticks.