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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

Haitian diaspora reaches back home

Smaller aid efforts succeed where the large agencies fail.

necessary to rebuild a country devastated by the 7.0-magnitude quake that leveled whole swaths of it.

“That’s not what Haiti needs now,” said Wladimir Louis-Charles, a physician and healthcare consultant from New York who has traveled regularly to Haiti to treat earthquake survivors. “Haiti needs a diaspora that says, ‘I’m going to work and change things.’”

A woman beckons for help in the aftermath of Haiti's January 12, 2010 earthquake.
(Ron Haviv/VII)

While acknowledging the good that comes from the nearly $2 billion US dollars annually in formal and informal remittances that diaspora Haitians contribute to the island, according to the World Bank’s estimation, Louis-Charles was critical of disaster tourists who “arrive on Wednesday and leave on Monday” under the guise of doing charity work. People need to come and stay awhile, he said.

He expressed dismay that so little had changed on the ground after so many promises. If anything, there seemed to be less sense of urgency among relief workers and more sense of resignation and acceptance of their fate among quake victims, Louis-Charles said.

“They get used to the talk, the visits, the photo shoots but they know nothing is going to come from that,” he said of the patients he meets in various hospitals, clinics and campsites. “Many people ultimately say to themselves, ‘this is the fact, this is where I’m going to stay and this is my life,’” he said.

Haitians abroad seem to be adjusting their focus as well. At a community meeting in Boston this summer, the burning topic was the temporary protected immigration status afforded some Haitians who were allowed to enter the United States after the quake. The conversations alternated between the concerns of those too afraid to renew their paperwork out of fear of being sent back and those who championed filing before the deadline, seeking jobs and financially benefitting families back home.

And in New York, at a brainstorming session of Haitian-American activists that included a philanthropist, community organizers and aid organization workers, the debate centered on generating a list of priorities for Haiti, like education, infrastructure and governance and the best way to lobby policy makers for reconstruction financial transparency, for example. Similar meetings as part of a listening tour were taking place around the country, the group said.

But despite the slow pace on the ground, some like Ivens Louius, a physical therapist, remain active and optimistic, believing it is their duty to get their country back on its feet, with or without international help. “We have to bring what we can to the country,” he said.

Louius, 28, spent the first days after the catastrophe watching streams of homeless quake victims with crushed limbs and open wounds stagger into the Dominican Republic rehabilitation center where he was working at the time, their plight compounded by their inability to speak Spanish.

At first, he worked with international specialists to mend broken bones but in little time he decided his country needed its own center to treat such vulnerable victims, especially since disability means exclusion from society. “In Haiti ... having a disability means that life is over,” he said.

On a shoestring budget garnered from contributions from a small group of founders, he established Fonhare, a rehabilitation center on Haiti’s north coast that has treated more than 360 patients — regardless of their ability to pay — since opening in July. To be treated there, some travel from as far away as the capital of Port-au-Prince, a seven-hour bus journey.

“How could people live in a situation like that?” is what Freau Lamonge found himself asking when he visited his homeland last summer for the first time since the quake.

Overflowing portable toilets, naked children bathing nearby under the open sky and the unbearable stench at former tourist hotspots like Fort National and Champs de Mars overwhelmed the 47-year-old radio personality from Boston’s Radio Energy.

Though recent announcements of free education for all Haitian children, that “Haiti was open for business,” and investment projects for bringing factory jobs as well as a Marriott Hotel endorsed by Bill Clinton were heartening, he worried these would remain unfulfilled promises again.

“There is not a plan,” Lamonge said. “We’re trying to push the economy, but with what are we pushing the economy?

“It’s like when someone has a fever and you only treat the symptom,” he said. “Fever is only a symptom.”