Haiti: Where Building a Hospital Can Be Illegal

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Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Camp Corail, a tent city north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Rodrigue Jean and his neighbors are building a desperately needed medical facility in Haiti, but in doing so they're also violating a new government decree. The cinderblock clinic is going up in a sprawling squatter camp called Canaan, one of many that have sprung up in a mountain valley north of Port-au-Prince since January's massive earthquake. Some 30,000 families have settled in Canaan, lured by the Haitian government's announcement that it acquired the land for them via eminent domain. The problem is that Haiti's threadbare treasury apparently can't pony up to compensate the owner, and now the government is backtracking — and banning the construction of social infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and streets in the camp.

Jean laughs at the restriction. From the entrance of the clinic, where doctors have agreed to work for nominal fees, he gestures toward Canaan's four schools, its convenience stores and its rough new streets being carved out of the dusty valley. "Only death can pull us out of here now," says Jean, 33, a Port-au-Prince electronics salesman who lost a child in the quake that killed more than 200,000 people, but whose wife is expecting a baby any day now. "I mean, what government is going to tear down a clinic?"

It's a good question. And his defiance is also a sign of how impatient Haitians have become with the slow pace of recovery — and with a weak government that's only beginning to find its reconstruction groove. Canaan isn't one of the squalid tent camps that still house most of the 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the quake. Its residents live in sturdier, 190-sq.-ft. (18 sq m) "t-shelters," or temporary housing, with plywood walls and tin roofs, built largely by foreign NGOs like the Chile-based Un Techo para Mi Pais (A Roof for My Country). With $2 million funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Techo has erected almost 700 t-shelters in Canaan, and is urging the government to drop its infrastructure ban. "If you don't allow formal urban planning in these communities," warns local Techo director Sebastián Smart, "you're just going to end up with gigantic rural versions of Port-au-Prince slums."

The cholera epidemic that this week reached Port-au-Prince has given the postquake housing crisis a new urgency. So have the looming Nov. 28 presidential election (in which the handpicked successor of President René Préval is running second in polls) and the increase in often violent evictions of tent-camp dwellers from privately owned properties. Perhaps as a result, the transfer of displaced Haitians to t-shelter communities, a critical first benchmark for recovery, finally appears to be quickening.

Since August, the number of t-shelters built in Haiti has jumped from fewer than 10,000 to more than 19,000 — close to half the target of 45,000 set for the quake's Jan. 12 first anniversary by the Shelter Cluster, an umbrella body of aid groups including the U.N. Although quake rubble remains a daunting obstacle to finding available land for t-shelter communities (even now, less than a tenth of quake debris has been removed), housing advocates say Préval's government has begun to tackle Haiti's medieval land-title system and is presenting guidelines for identifying who owns what property and how to obtain it for the displaced. "That's a crucial link that was missing before," says Lilianne Fan, a Shelter Cluster coordinator. "We've got a more impressive reconstruction framework now."

Priscilla Phelps, a senior housing advisor to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive — which is managing most of the $10 billion reconstruction aid pledged by international donors — agrees. "I've gotten great cooperation from the government," she insists, especially regarding a new property-mapping system modeled after one used in Southeast Asia after the catastrophic 2004 tsunami. "We're seeing a lot more housing being built in rural areas."

And the provinces are exactly where Haiti's future may lie. The government wants many if not most tent-camp dwellers to rebuild their urban neighborhoods. But many development experts advocate relocation: establishing viable communities in the underpopulated heartland for the thousands who lost their homes in the overpopulated capital. Tapping its economic potential, they say, is key to making the western hemisphere's poorest country something more than a basket case so dependent on international aid that even before the earthquake, foreign NGOs had effectively become a substitute for government. (Officials blame the bloated NGO presence — even Homeopaths Without Borders has a delegation in Haiti — in large part for Port-au-Prince's current traffic paralysis.)

Creating provincial "poles of development" by promoting local agriculture, tourism and garment manufacturing, says IDB Haiti representative Eduardo Almeida, "is really the best, if not the only, way to develop [Haiti] from here on out." Almeida, whose organization is heading an aggressive t-shelter construction effort in areas outside Port-au-Prince, also agrees that Haiti can't afford to "just construct new slums" in the process.

But Canaan and places like it are a reminder of the difficulty Haiti faces in reconciling the need for well-planned communities with the claims of well-heeled property owners — like the Haitian real estate development firm Nabatec, which owns the land that 30,000 Canaan families have made their home. Nabatec's president, Gerard-Emile "Aby" Brun, says the Préval government's blunder may now cost him both the 600 acres (245 hectares) where Canaan sits and the $19 million he was supposed to receive for it under eminent domain.

Nabatec, Brun claims, had also planned an industrial park for the valley — a source of jobs that he feels may well have benefited the very families now squatting on the land. Equally important to Haiti's development, he insists, are "clear signals that private investment is supported." And he rails at groups like Techo for continuing to build t-shelters in Canaan and arranging the delivery of potable water and other services. "They are violating the [government decree]."

But Nabatec's critics say the land had been idle for too long for the government not to consider it a logical refuge for quake victims. And Techo's Smart insists the NGOs can't turn away families "who have no other place to go," since land for t-shelters is still so scarce. "In the face of the emergency in Haiti," says Smart, "we feel we're doing the only thing we can do." At one of Canaan's schools, principal Joseph Laurent, dressed in suit and tie, herds children wearing uniforms into a sprawling UNICEF tent for classes. "I don't think the government is going to send these children back to Port-au-Prince," says Laurent, whose academy back in the capital collapsed in the earthquake. As its biblical name implies, they see Canaan as their promised land.