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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?"

Haiti La gonave 2013
A man walks along the rim of a ferry at the wharf in Anse-a-Galets on Haiti's island of La Gonave. (Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

In post-earthquake Haiti, a forgotten island is left to recover on its own

Thousands sought refuge on the island of La Gonave four years ago. But little help ever arrived, something permanent residents know all too well.

ANSE-A-GALETS, Haiti — To traverse the 13-mile stretch of Caribbean Sea to the island of La Gonave, one must choose between three types of boats, none particularly safe.

First there are the “fly boats,” speed boats with outboard motors that race a dozen people from one side to the other. From time to time they flip over. Few records exist as to how many people survive.

Then there are the two large steel ferries that carry a few hundred passengers slowly across the sea each day. In 1997, one of those ferries sank, killing 200.

Last, there are the sailboats — wooden ships built from hand-carved lumber and pieced together with hammered nails. Their canvas masts are reminiscent of those in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise. They carry everything from rice to dry cement, motorcycles, cars and trucks.

In better times, Haitians travel to and from the 300-square-mile island as a matter of routine, however risky. In times of emergency, like the massive earthquake of four years ago, they come to La Gonave in droves.

In the first 19 days after the earthquake, 630,000 people fled Port-au-Prince, 7,500 of them to La Gonave, according to a 2011 study. Untold thousands more fled there from other earthquake-affected areas. Some NGOs put the total at 20,000, which would mean the island’s normal population of approximately 100,000 increased by between 15 and 20 percent almost overnight. 

To feed and house them all would have required a substantial amount of the $9 billion pledged by international governments for Haiti’s recovery. But little of that aid — or the aid allocated by private donors — reached the people of La Gonave, GlobalPost found. Most of the migrants returned to the mainland in the months after the earthquake, leaving permanent residents in a dire state.

In fact, the two largest towns of the often overlooked island remained among the 12 most food-insecure towns in all of Haiti even two years after the earthquake, according to a World Food Program survey. The island’s food crises deepened in October 2013 when Hurricane Sandy hit, flooding and uprooting crops and washing away seeds.

Of 180 aid projects worth $239 million tracked by an alliance of US-based NGOs, only three involved any activity on the island whatsoever and only one was implemented exclusively on La Gonave. None of the 71 health-related projects totaling $96 million took place there, nor did any of the 101 projects tracked by the World Bank.

A Haitian government website that keeps records on approximately 700 post-earthquake aid projects found just two that graced La Gonave:

* Canada disbursed approximately $450,000 to the Canadian NGO Hope International Development Agency to distribute food to families overwhelmed by relatives and friends fleeing Port-au-Prince. The program also built grain storage silos to store food in the long-term and distribute seeds to farmers to plant the following season.

* The Inter-American Development Bank disbursed some $5.4 million in financing to the island for agricultural technology to improve crop yields.

La Gonave’s relative exclusion from Haitian and international development aid isn’t new. In Haiti, aid has nearly always centered on the capital of Port-au-Prince.

A 2002 audit of US Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Haiti discovered that no one from the agency’s robust food aid program had even stepped foot on the island during the four years prior to the audit.

In response to the audit, USAID said, “the example of the island of La Gonave used by the auditors, was a true exception rather than the norm in view of the logistical difficulties involved in serving the island.”

Indeed, La Gonave is so remote that the epidemic of cholera that has spread to nearly every corner of Haiti barely touched the island. Four months after the outbreak began, a visiting USAID official found that the primary cholera clinic in Anse-a-Galets was receiving only one to three cholera patients a day, most with mild symptoms. Not a single case of cholera was contracted in the town of Grande Source, residents there say.

Like most of the small communities scattered across La Gonave, Grande Source remains mostly untouched by foreign aid but for the work of Roots of Development, a Washington-based organization that invests in development projects there