Haiti PM: We Can Rise Out of Our Postquake Squalor

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Erika Santelices / AFP / Getty

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive

The first downpour of Haiti's rainy season came on Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday, a day when Christians ponder their mortality. Most Haitians are Roman Catholic, but they hardly needed the reminder — not after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 of them. Marie Chantal, a baker who is living in a vast and squalid shantytown on the Champs de Mars park in downtown Port-au-Prince, says the rain that leaked through her makeshift tent on Wednesday night made her grieve more for the two children she lost in the quake when their house collapsed. To comfort her surviving child, 6-year-old Jean, Chantal wrenched what she could from the wreckage, including her white lace curtains, and hung them in the shack. "But I still can't protect him from the rain," says Chantal, 45. "We were supposed to receive real tents by now. Where are they?"

At his damaged residence overlooking the capital, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive asks the same question. Next month, he's going to New York City to convince donor nations like the U.S. that Haiti has a "good recovery action plan," one that "won't just rebuild what was destroyed but present the Haiti that we're all dreaming of" 10 years down the line, he tells TIME. Yet the only dream Haitians have right now is of something waterproof over their heads — shelter that their officials and foreign relief agencies seem unable to deliver in appreciable quantities more than a month after the earthquake. "Clearly, they're waiting for more from their government and the international community," Bellerive concedes. "When you still have 10% of your population living in the streets, when basic human shelter problems aren't resolved yet, you can't say you're satisfied."

Such is the mix of anticipation and frustration forming, along with the rain clouds, over the western hemisphere's poorest country. Haiti's challenges seem even more daunting now that a new study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington has re-estimated the earthquake damage from $5 billion to between $7 billion and $13 billion, making it one of history's worst natural disasters. "This has never happened to a country before," says the European-educated Bellerive, 51, a doctor's son and international-relations expert. "Forty percent of our GDP was destroyed in 30 seconds."

Still, echoing the sentiments of many development experts, Bellerive insists the quake's obliteration has yielded an opportunity to realize changes in Haiti — in as early as "four to five years," he believes — that might not have been possible before. The most important, he says, is the "deconcentration" of half a million Haitians away from Port-au-Prince. (There, he admits, the death toll was so high in large part because Haiti has had "no policy on controlling the population" of more than 2 million in a city where barely a million can fit.) As a first step toward creating enough jobs to keep relocated Haitians in the now sparsely populated provinces, Bellerive is urging international donors to aid a massive resuscitation of agriculture in a country that imports an astonishing 75% of its food.

This is hardly the first time the world has heard renaissance rhetoric about Haiti, a republic long crippled by chronic political and natural catastrophes. And experts say it will take far more than just new agribusiness, especially housing and manufacturing, to make the relocation plan anything besides a pipe dream. But Bellerive — who along with the head of state, President René Préval, last week hosted Nicolas Sarkozy in the first ever visit to Haiti by a French President — sees an unusual air of cooperation between Haiti and the international community now. That, he hopes, will create "more efficiency" in the rebuilding process. "Efficiency is something that has never really been tried before in Haiti," he says. "Haitians and foreigners have never really worked together on these problems."

First they have to prove that they can work more efficiently on immediate postquake urgencies like temporary shelter. Port-au-Prince's roads and streets are passable now, many businesses are humming again and the vibrant color of Haitian food markets has begun to compete with the gray ocean of crushed concrete. But so far only about a quarter of the 1.2 million Haitians who lost homes have been given tents (which relief agencies argue are scarce right now on the global market) or plastic sheeting (which those agencies now say is more practical than tents). Sanitation is even scarcer, causing health officials to raise dire warnings about widespread disease. Amid increasing Haitian anger and desperation, the Washington Post reported last week that the head of the U.N.'s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs sent an e-mail to staff saying he was "disappointed" by their performance.

Even when Haiti and international donors reach the point of working together on longer-term recovery projects, there remains a great fear that much of the billions of dollars involved will fall prey to Haiti's notorious official and business corruption. To assuage that concern, Bellerive says that what matters most to his government is that "Haitians will be at the leadership of the vision, the action plan and the implementation. That doesn't mean we have to receive the money. In fact, if that's the best way to prove we're being totally transparent, it would be best that we not receive one dollar into government hands." At the same time, he adds, "this notion that there is no government here, that you should somehow put Haiti under global control, is not only dishonest but demeaning to the country's capacity to start again."

While it's hard to imagine the Haitian élite ceding its inordinate wealth and power to the grass roots in that process, Bellerive insists the government, like international donors, wants decentralization. Despite the recent creation of a federal reconstruction commission, he says, "much of the rebuilding authority has to go to mayors and local leaders if this is going to work." Asked if he expects to make Haiti a more democratic and functional country in the end, Bellerive says, "Government reform should be part of this process, not just a consequence."

In the meantime, the Prime Minister acknowledges Haitians' growing ire over a perceived lack of government leadership on their broken streets. Préval, whose presidency ends next year, has come under sharp criticism for his remote and lackluster example during the catastrophe. Bellerive, who took office in October, has as a result become more of a focus for Haitians and foreigners alike — including Haitian Americans, viewed as critical to the rebuilding effort, who began arriving en masse on Friday after commercial flights resumed service into Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture airport.

Bellerive can at least be refreshingly blunt. For all his dreams about an agri-boom on Haiti's central plateau, he's quick to note that "our goal at the moment isn't to escape poverty. It's to escape misery so we can get back to poverty." Haitians like Marie Chantal would agree: they'd gladly take back their lives of poverty — with at least lace curtains in the windows — than face the misery raining down on them now.