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Chapter One: A fractured path from donors' purses to actual rebuilding efforts — and back again.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — TO SEE WHERE the enormous sums of humanitarian aid directed to Haiti after its catastrophic earthquake in 2010 went, a good place to start is the ocean harbor. That’s where the island’s shore meets the rest of the world. And the best place for that is here at the seaport in the nation’s capital: Port-au-Prince, near the earthquake’s epicenter.
There, at this moment, a gigantic “supermaritime” cargo ship called the Sarine is off-loading more than five metric tons of rice that has just arrived from Miami.
If you think of the rice as post-earthquake assistance money — the individual grains as donated dollars — you might get some idea about what’s happened since the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. Not to mention a sense of where the individual rice grains (or the dollars) have gone.
And, like the grains of rice aboard, the dollars mount into the hundreds of millions; even billions. According to some reports, the United States government, American individuals, families and humanitarian groups donated approximately $3 billion. That’s just from America with a total of something like $12 billion coming from all donor nations for funds to be disbursed.
Still, somehow, no one seems quite sure precisely how many grains — or dollars — we’re talking about. The accounting seems to have a sliding scale that can move hundreds of millions of dollars one way or another. At the time of publication, President Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and the co-chair of overseeing the nation’s re-construction for the last two years, hasn’t responded to repeated requests by GlobalPost regarding specific aid and cash donation figures.
“If you read the reports, you’ll see that actual Haitians got less than 1 percent of all the American money pledged.”~Robert Fatton, Jr., University of Virginia professor
Where those billions went following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that left a government-estimated figure of 220,000 people dead — and at least 1.6 million more homeless — remains a confounding mystery. Inside of the recovery effort, however, are unquestionable successes along with the failures. And, to be fair, because the money came in so quickly and in such great volume, much of it has been wasted or lost like so much rice spilling on the docks. Or stolen, like the sacks of rice from here which will end up in Haiti’s black market for food.
The situation grows complicated … fast. And the metaphor here of this crane off-loading rice by the metric ton packs a still larger and more complex metaphor, according to aid experts, about this country’s history along a still-active fault line of aid, politics and blame in the aftermath of the quake.
As for this specific ship, the Sarine, it has a double-steel hull and is roughly 330 feet long. And now, pulled up to the quay in Port-au-Prince, the “grabbing box” from a huge off-load crane reaches down into the vessel’s hold, and, like the hand of God, lifts another half-ton or so of rice out — hundreds of thousands of individual grains of rice. Then the loose rice is dumped into a white, V-shaped steel hopper whose nozzle sits inside a small hut on the Port-au-Prince waterfront.
Using gravity, the hopper directs the rice into 25-kg (55-pound) white plastic bags, with blue stars on their fronts and the words “AMERICAN RICE” written on their sides. After that — using a sewing machine — the top of each bag is sealed.
As I watch, over and over — bag after bag after bag — a man running the V-shaped hopper turns to me. He rubs his belly.
“I’m hungry,” he says in French.
“Well,” I respond, “why don’t you take some rice for yourself? There’s a lot.”
The man flashes a grin back, and shrugs. “Yes,” he says, “that’s possible. But I’m not that kind of hungry.”
The rice bags move from the factory along an assembly line to waiting trucks which will travel deeper into Haiti to feed a nation still suffering from hunger on a vast scale.
But the economy of rice in Haiti says everything about the condition the country is in. The US government subsidizes and "donates" ton after ton of rice in Haiti and in so doing has through the last several decades completely undercut Haitian rice farmers and left them destitute and migrating into cities where they live in hovels that were destroyed by the quake.
As recently as the early 1980s, Haiti