HAITI: A Year Later and Still So Much to Do...But One Clever Project is Completed!

Port-au-Prince's old Iron Market in ruinsOld Iron Market in ruins after earthquakeImage by NewsHour via Flickr
A year later, after the terrible earthquake that killed 220,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless, over 700,000 people are still living in tents, many with no access to clean water - which means they have little or no defense against the on-going cholera epidemic which has already claimed 3600 lives. And women living in tents find themselves the constant target of sexual assaults. Every day, at least two women report being raped but the victims are probably many more as this is the kind of crime that is classically under-reported.

Only five percent of the rubble has been removed...You read that right: FIVE percent! You'd think that was the first thing that would have been done with the billions of aid pouring in. $500 billions were pledged and so far only some $6 billion have turned up. Where has the money gone? But it should come as no surprise in a situation where there is a continuing political vacuum and corruption is rampant.

International NGOs present on the ground, from Médecins sans Frontières to the Order of Malta, are doing their best to contain cholera while the United Nations is fighting an image of the Big Bad Boy who has brought cholera to Haiti (apparently the doing of Nepali soldiers - an investigation is on-going).

But not all is dire and catastrophic. An Irish billionaire, Denis O'Brien,  has managed one extraordinary project in less than a year with the help of famous British architect John McAslan: the restoration of Port-au-Prince's historic "marché en fer" or iron market. A bizarre but enchanting iron contraption - a little like the Eiffel tower - built in France and meant as a train station for Cairo, it unaccountably ended up in Haiti. It was a lively trade centre in spite of its horrendous run-down condition, but the earthquake brought it down flat. That did not discourage Mr. O'Brien who spent $12 million of his own money on the renovation (he has deep pockets: his company, Digicel, dominates the Haitian cell phone market).

The result is astonishing: rebuilt to the latest specifications, with solar panels and earthquake-resistant structures, it is not just a simple restoration of a landmark meant to please Bill Clinton, who, as the UN's special envoy in Haiti, would  like to see Haiti "built back better". It is a working project meant to allow vendors and small traders (mostly women) to push their wares and make a living, reviving at the same time agriculture and artisanal activities. In short, it has multiplier effects or, if you prefer the term, back links to other economic sectors, precisely the sort of thing you need to revive an economy.

But it has one more thing that makes it a truly interesting and innovative project: Mr. O'Brien has also signed on to help the management of the market for the next 50 years. That's very important because that's precisely where most projects - however excellent and useful - come crashing down. While they're on-going, there's always a management structure of some sort (the World Bank loves to set them up to ensure their projects are successfully brought to completion). But after a few years - at most, two or three - the project is "handed over" to the locals and the management structure is dismantled. With usually disastrous results, as corruption and laxness kick in. The idea of setting up a management structure for 50 years to ensure the project's sustainability is a truly bold initiative, and to be highly commended.

Hopefully, Mr. O'Brien's management model for the iron market will be self-perpetuating beyond the 50 years he envisages - and for that to happen, he should make sure that the management structure he's setting up will draw in some locals: if Haitians are not directly involved in the management of their market, then it will collapse again. Ok, it'll happen 50 years later, and that's a gain on run-of-the-mill projects, but it will still collapse...


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