Haiti One Year On: Change That Makes A Difference

Shaye Gary Shaye, Haiti Country Director, Save the Children

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I’ve been working in Haiti since April and I’ve seen quite a bit of progress, especially over the past few months. 

But first before I share with you what we’ve doing to help Haiti’s children, let’s take a moment to reflect on the events of January 12, 2010.

As most people know at least 230,000 people died in the earthquake in a country that was tremendously poor even before the disaster. Indeed before the quake only about a third of Haiti’s population had access to safe drinking water, and half of Haiti’s children weren’t in school. 

The quake occurred here in Port-au-Prince – Haiti’s capital – the nerve centre of the heavily centralized country. Not only did the earthquake impact people in Port-au-Prince but also in places like Leogane, and along the south coast. Much of Haiti’s essential infrastructure was damaged, but I was especially shocked to learn that 4,000 schools were destroyed. It was a catastrophic event.

IMGP0268_64470A three-story building reduced to rubble.
Photo Credit: Kate Conradt 

Save the Children immediately responded to the earthquake. Because we’ve had a presence in Haiti for over thirty years we were able to mobilize staff both here and from around the world to mount one of the largest humanitarian responses in the agency’s 91-year history.  

Following the disaster, Save the Children focused on child protection, health, education, and livelihoods. We expanded our programs, and began work in Léogâne, as well as Jacmel, which is located along the southern coast where we had not previously operated.

Until recently there were 1.3 million people, about sixteen per cent of Haitians, living in tents. When I say tents we’re really speaking of plastic sheets and poles. These are not tents that people would take camping anywhere in the world. These are tents that are more like kite plastic held up by a few wooden poles. To believe it you really have to see the situation in which people are living. It is a standard below what I would say is sub-human.

HAITI-8552_71137Residents outside their tents at the Camp de Fraternite shelter camp.
Photo Credit: Lee Celano/Getty Images for Save the Children

During a strong hurricane there is absolutely no way that these plastic sheets and poles will withstand the wind and rain.

Beyond that another 500,000 people relocated to live with family and friends in rural areas. They’re part of the hidden earthquake-affected population that are not visible. They place a huge burden on their families in the rural areas who already had a hard time feeding themselves before the earthquake. Now these families have permanent houseguests who didn’t just come for a meal or a visit, but for the unforeseeable future.

The challenges that we face are multiple. The government, which was not strong before the earthquake, was further weakened since the disaster took the lives of many government workers as well as destroyed much of the existing infrastructure. Although NGOs have some successful partnerships with the government, more often than not the NGOs themselves either provide the service like, say, a health service, or it does not exist. All of us would certainly prefer that this was not the case, but this our reality.  

An example of that would be the fact that 80 per cent of the schools are privately owned in Haiti. These are not private schools like in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia. These are schools whose owners operate them in the community as a service or small business. Many of these schools were destroyed last January, and many of the families whose children attended these schools can no longer afford the annual school fees of a few hundred dollars. As a result too many children are missing out on the chance of an education.

But when our team and I talk to Haitians, education is always the highest priority. It’s where they want to invest in their children’s future. It’s critical to them that these private schools open as soon as possible. That’s why in 2011 Save the Children will partner with 154 schools through teacher training and resource materials, enabling 45,000 children to get an education.

DSC_6683_74579Students file into a Save the Children school in Port-au-Prince.
Photo Credit: Susan Warner

On top of the quake in late October cholera came to Haiti starting in the Central Plateau, and has now expanded throughout the country. As of today, there have been 3,600 deaths as well as over 150,000 confirmed cholera cases.  

But these are just the reported cases. Many people living in rural areas don’t have access to cholera treatment centres, where literally within one to three days a person who has cholera can walk out healthy. 

The tragedy though is that we can save lives from cholera, but then people walk back into the conditions which are breeding grounds for the potentially deadly bacteria – dirty water, poor sanitation, and crowded conditions – all of which contribute to the rapid spread of cholera, and if left unchecked, can be deadly, especially to young children.

R10-HA___2021_81255Will, 3-years-old, washes his hands at a Save the Children health clinic.
Photo Credit: Susan Warner

Nevertheless Save the Children is saving lives through our tensoon to be sixteen cholera treatment units, and also through our water and sanitation community outreach programs where we promote safe hand washing, and basic sanitation practices. While these are simple practices we need to reinforce the messages and repeat them over and over, while also addressing basic sanitation issues. 

However, in a country where only half the people have completed fifth grade, it’s a challenge to get our message out about safe sanitation practices.

One year since the earthquake we understand why some people would be disappointed with the slow pace of recovery in Haiti, and why things are not better.  All of us working here would very much like to accomplish more. But it’s important to remember that things were bad in Haiti – the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation – long before the quake.

Nevertheless we see progress. These past weeks I have visited programs together with some of our Save the Children supporters from around the world. I was in Leogane – the epicentre of the earthquake – where one could see rubble clearance, evidence of rebuilding, people restoring family assets, and refurnishing their houses. There is definitely a commitment and steps being taken here to help rebuild lives. 

That said the process has been slow.  All of us would admit to that – all of us who work cooperatively within Haiti’s NGO community. Indeed after I finish writing this blog I will attend the weekly meeting of NGOs where we share what’s working, what’s not working, and what type of support we need. We ask ourselves what we can do collectively to improve the situation. 

I’m proud to say that since January 12, 2010, Save the Children has extended a lifeline to over 870,000 Haitians – more than half of them children. Today we continue to work with local partners, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and others to bring basic services to the Haitian population.

I believe in our work in Haiti. I believe we do make a difference. On Wednesday I visited the Eddie Pascal School – a school that was destroyed during the quake. Now children study in tents. In schools like these, where we provide assistance like teacher training, it is a delight to see Haiti’s children receive an education. And with all of the constraints that we face, I am pleased when I see one more child in school, and another child receiving quality medical care as well as lives being saved at one of our cholera treatment units. While seeing progress on a one-by-one basis may seem slow, it is precisely the kind of change that does make a difference.

R10-HA___1759_80097Rose, 10-years-old, attends a Save the Children school in Leogane.
Photo Credit: Susan Warner

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Haiti One Year On: Education as a Recovery Mechanism

PK_morley_miles_ramm_00 Carolyn Miles, Chief Operating Officer, Save the Children

Leogane, Haiti

Thursday, January 6, 2011

 

As I left Haiti today to travel on to India, my last remembrance was of a beautiful little girl named Beatrice (pictured below) who sang a little song in Creole for us inside her tented classroom. I thought of how because of a few hours time she was there today. 

Beatrice sings a song

We visited her school in Carrefour that is supported by Save the Children donors and heard from the headmaster how the three story school where Beatrice had studied until the quake had totally collapsed in January 2010, pancaking one floor on top of the other into a heap. Thankfully the children had already left by the late afternoon, otherwise, he said that literally hundreds of his students, including maybe the lovely little girl I met today would have been crushed. Tragically, the school did lose 4 of its students and many families lost loved ones.

But by April, Beatrice and her classmates were back in school – in tents versus a cement building but starting back to learning all the same. Getting kids back to school quickly after an emergency is one of the most effective ways to help kids deal with the trauma of a disaster.

The three large tents now each hold three classes, separated by a fabric barrier and filled with small wooden benches and desks. They are noisy and get hot in the spring and summer and until reinforced with more tarps recently, they leaked in the heavy rains. But no one we talked to – not the headmaster, not the teachers, not the parents, and certainly not Beatrice were unhappy with their tented classes. They were just happy to be back together as a school and learning. While the headmaster waits for access to land where he can rebuild, the tents will serve as classrooms for about 160 children.

Reading a magazine

Many of the schools like this one are what are called "private" schools in Haiti. Because the school system can't provide enough classrooms and the demand for education is high enough, a private school industry has existed for many years in Haiti. Parents pay between $100 and $300 per year for school, not including books, uniforms, and supplies. This cost represents a very big sacrifice for many families.

And the headmaster told us that this past year many of the parents could not pay school fees because they lost jobs and homes and spouses. He was hanging on, trying to keep his school running, paying rent and teacher salaries. The support from Save the Children in the form of tents, furniture, teacher training and supplies was a big part of what kept his students in school.

This school is one of 270 in Haiti that Save the Children has supported. Education is a key program for the future of Haiti and we hope to invest more and raise more funds for education in 2011. It remains the most important thing we can focus on for Haiti's children and meeting Beatrice today just made me all the more convinced that school has to be a big part of what Save the Children does in Haiti this year.

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Haiti One Year On: Revisiting Leogane

PK_morley_miles_ramm_00 Carolyn Miles, Chief Operating Officer, Save the Children

Leogane, Haiti

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

 

We started out early today to head to Leogane – the same drive I made 10 months ago on my first visit after the earthquake. With a beautiful morning dawning we started out and I have to say, I was hopeful as we passed into the epicenter area, the hardest hit by the quake.

Heading out to survey Save the Children programs

There were significant signs that progress was being made. All along the coast of the southern finger of land out from Port-au-Prince, rubble removal was evident and most importantly, the regular "busyness" of Haiti had returned. Little stalls selling clothes, mangoes, shoes, and all manner of car accessories – sometimes all from the same little wooden shop – had re-established root on the sidewalk or the edge of the road. Motorbikes and cars clogged the busy road and people were on the way to jobs, and kids to the first "official" day back to school, spiffed up in clean uniforms and shoes.

The camps and tents along the way were larger though, with more people and looked more established than I remembered. Clearly there were still many people who had not moved back to their homes or towns.

As we drove into Leogane city, I was again struck by the number of people out on the streets and the contrast with those much quieter times after the earthquake. People then were still living in fear of the aftershocks and many were in full mourning for the ones they had lost – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and so many others.

 

Sharing a story

 

We reached the Save the Children office in the middle of town and hundreds of people were there – volunteers and staff all with particular assignments to go work in the camps, on water and sanitation projects, or with local schools. We quickly said hello to Samuel, the head of Leogane office and headed out to the programs. As we drove down the road, several large trucks full of rubble rumbled by – it seemed here in Leogane the clearing process was still needed but a lot of progress had been made.  We saw backhoes and frontloaders – both non-existent in the country after the quake – moving tons of rubble. They say only about 10 percent of the rubble has been cleared in Port-au-Prince still but Leogane clearly had made much more progress.

We first visited the recently completed school constructed by Save the Children just down the road from the center of town. While today was the first day of school officially, many of the kids typically don't show up till later in the week. Still, there were about 60 children there, dressed in crisp white shirts and blue skirts or shorts, the girls' hair with white ribbons, beads and bows. Many of these children were living in tents or simple plywood houses after the earthquake and we marveled over how much effort must have gone in to preparing them for school.

The school itself was very uniquely constructed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes, with open vents along the top and sides and wood construction meant to "give" with flaps of plastic sheeting that could be rolled up and down depending on the temperature and winds.  The headmistress of the school spoke with us and seemed very happy with the way the school and her pupils were starting the new year.  

Making new friends

In a class of what looked like 4th graders, the lesson was on fractions, with a little girl next to me afraid to raise her hand. I urged her on, but she confided she had not remembered to study fractions over the holiday break with a shy smile – kids are the same everywhere. I thought about my own 3rd grade daughter who also didn't do much studying over break!.

We headed next to the Save the Children health clinic and baby tent.  The clinic is made up of two open air shelters and 3 small medical services structures. In one, a midwife examined pregnant moms, gave advice on family planning, and examined toddlers.

In another, a full pharmacy was operating with medicines available free to the local residents. In the third building, several nurses weighed and measured babies, helped mothers breastfeed and gave out supplemental food to malnourished children. The malnutrition rate in Haiti was over 60 percent before the earthquake and it continues to be a major problem. Mothers could take home supplies of Plumpy'nut, a peanut-based meal in a pouch which significantly reduces malnutrition in young children, from the health clinic.

Visiting with patients of a cholera treatment unit

The clinic was impressive, with over 50 patients being served when we arrived. Our worry was about on-going funding though, as much of the earthquake funding would soon be used. In fact the ability to keep many of the programs going without increased funding is a constant worry for our staff in Haiti. Though we raised over $88M for the response, clearly there were many programs that were going to have to continue. Our original 5 year plan called for a budget of $175M and we are far short of that goal now.

But as we headed off from the health clinic, I knew we had to continue these programs somehow and hoped that the anniversary of the earthquake might remind people of the needs in Haiti again.

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