LES CAYES, Haiti — For years, the road from here to the coastal city of Jérémie has been paved with good intentions, but never with asphalt.
Well-meaning international organizations and donors built schools in the villages that dot the roadside, purchased goats for children to raise and sell and donated supplies for home repair. But those projects came and went, barely making a dent in the region’s gripping poverty. All the while, the road itself deteriorated into a 62-mile stretch of rocks and mud, making travel difficult and sometimes deadly.
Last week 40 passengers were killed when their bus overturned trying to cross the flooded Riviére Glace — Ice River —that dissects the passage, according to government figures from the incident.
Now, the passage known as National Route 7 is in the middle of a $142 million development project that in many ways is a model of the successful, long-term development Haiti desperately needs.
GlobalPost set out to find what insight this road can offer the myriad of small reconstruction projects underway here and throughout Haiti that are largely failing to bring about lasting change despite billions of dollars in post-earthquake reconstruction aid.
The journey begins with the history of the road and the lives of its travelers.
Five years ago, the trek through the mountains that separate Jérémie from the city of Les Cayes and Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince would take a rural farmer seven hours to travel by public truck — on a good day.
During the rainy season though, the truck might get stuck in deep mud multiple times along the way, or break down altogether. If that happened, your vegetables might spoil while you slept in the shade of the vehicle, waiting for a replacement part to slowly make its way up from Les Cayes.
If you were fortunate enough to make it to your destination — a market in Port-au-Prince — with some of your products intact, chances are you would have spent most of your earnings to pay the cost of transport, leaving little with which to feed your family or pay your children’s school fees.
Now, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Canadian government are rapidly changing all that. National Route 7 is only two-thirds complete and yet already it’s cut the travel time between the two cities in half. The cost of traveling the road by bus or truck has gone down because more drivers are willing to make the journey, which requires far less fuel than it used to because the road is smoother.
Subsistence farmers who used to stack their yams, bananas and carrots along the road and wait for passing customers instead journey to weekly markets in nearby towns, which are becoming crowded with new vendors.
“I’ve been selling here forever,” said Jane Bazil, a 30-year-old vegetable grower and mother of eight who depends upon the market in the town of Duchity to sell her crops. “More people come now — come to sell, to buy. With the road today you can make it here in three hours. It used to take five.”
But this road isn’t being built with any of the $10.2 billion in aid pledged to by donor countries to help Haiti rebuild from the earthquake. The project started in 2008, two years before the disaster that killed tens of thousands of people and sent many fleeing cities back to rural areas like this one. The road’s impact may last far longer than the short-term aid projects that are sometimes riddled with corruption and waste — pitfalls on Haiti’s own road to recovery.
The are many such failures: the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently spent $2 million US taxpayer dollars to build a temporary home for Haiti’s Parliament, but the agency failed to furnish the building, which required legislators to draw three-quarters of a million dollars from the nation’s small public treasury to finish the job.
And in the year following the earthquake, USAID spent $140 million on a food aid program that helps American farmers but has been blamed for undercutting Haitian producers who can’t compete with foreign food imports. The amount spent on that program is nearly identical to the $142 million road project that most Haitians say is helping, not hurting, Haiti’s rural population.
“Haitians think the NGOs are like the government — they absorb the money and there is no service,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner who advised the government’s post-earthquake reconstruction plan. “There aren’t many NGOs involved in big infrastructure like roads or ports — nobody’s doing that.”
The comprehensive reconstruction plan that Voltaire worked on promoted a strategy of decentralization, moving people out of overcrowded urban centers like Port-au-Prince that became death traps when the earthquake hit. Instead, the plan asks donors to encourage development in smaller urban centers and rural areas.
“We invested a lot in infrastructure outside of Port-au-Prince,” said Ronald Baudin, finance minister under René Préval — Haiti’s president at the time of the quake.
Funding from international institutions like the IDB, Pan American Health Organization and the United Nations routinely goes to long-term and often rural projects like this one.
The IDB is currently implementing $245 million worth of transportation projects in Haiti, including National Route 7. The World Bank is funding approximately $30 million in transportation development including road re-paving in fiscal year 2012 alone, and the European Union is funding a $53 million road from Haiti’s second largest city, Cap Haitien, down to Port-au-Prince.
But Haiti’s Interim Recovery Commission, charged with approving all publicly funded reconstruction projects, allocated only 20 percent of the $2.38 billion it received from donor nations exclusively toward improving Haiti’s transportation infrastructure.
USAID allocated only $113 million (7.5 percent) of its total $1.5 billion in post-earthquake funding to rehabilitate roads and ports, among other development projects.
And unlike institutional aid, spending by NGOs and individual donors continues to focus on either short-term projects like debris removal, temporary services for people living in camps, or house construction. Little of that aid reaches Haiti’s southwestern peninsula where National Route 7 is being built.
Of a sample 343 reconstruction aid projects nationwide totaling more than $408 million, only 16 projects worth $1.5 million (0.3 percent) were being spent exclusively in the two regions through which the road passes, despite them being home to 15 percent of the Haiti’s population, according to data mapped by Interaction, a coalition of American NGOs.
A trip along the road reveals that even some of these projects are failing to achieve long-term progress. Slowly, a motorcycle makes its way along a dirt path leading to the village of Saut-Matherine, home to several hundred rural Haitians who live in simple mud and clay homes. Last year the American NGO Heifer International donated cement and sand to dozens of families in the village to repair or rebuild their houses that had been damaged in the earthquake. Heifer’s masons decided how much cement and sand each family would need, and the organization oversaw delivery of the specified amounts.
But today, many of those homes remain half-built and unlivable. They have no roofs and often the cement block walls reach only four or five feet from the dirt ground. That’s because many families ran out of materials before the work was finished.
“They said it would be enough to build the structure of the house, but it wasn’t,” said Elirese Clirgé, a 50-year-old who now lives with her husband and 10 children in a single, 12-foot by 12-foot room constructed using Heifer’s materials. Outside a few cinder blocks mark the base of a second room Clirgé began to construct before she ran out of cement.
“I don’t have any money to finish this,” she said.
Her neighbor, 70-year-old Regulus Tilus, built the walls of his home two-thirds of the way up before he ran out of materials to complete them and build a roof.
“They said it was supposed to help. It did help me get started, but I wish they would help finish it,” he said.
Like most short-term reconstruction projects taking place in the communities along this rural road, this one too began with the best of intentions. Wilbert Georges, Heifer’s coordinator for the region, said the organization hoped to quickly invest money there so residents could rapidly repair their homes before the coming rainy and hurricane seasons.
But he said some residents ran out of construction materials because they chose to reconstruct their home using cinder block rather than the mud and cement mix that was the norm for most homes in the area.
“The idea was to rebuild their house in the same way. But many started to build a different sort of house,” he said. “If a person’s house fell, if one person wanted block, then they all wanted a house like that.”
The residents of Saut-Matherine question why Heifer only set out to help them build back their homes in the same, unstable fashion that caused them to collapse in the first place instead of investing in standard, cinderblock homes.
The half-finished houses seem an apt symbol of the failure of patch-up aid projects that contrast with the visible progress of the new road being constructed nearby.
To date, IDB has completed 14 miles of National Route 7 with asphalt paving, drainage ditches and other civil works like small bridges. Haiti has only about 2,100 miles of roads according to the IDB, compared with more than 12,000 in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“IDB investment projects are by definition long-term undertakings and they always include money for capacity building,” said Peter Bate, an IDB spokesman. “The project is connecting a potentially very productive region of Haiti with the rest of the country.”
The Brazilian construction company that’s building the road, OAS, employed 745 people last year, 90 percent of them Haitians. Unskilled laborers earn only minimum wage — $5 per day — but workers say they’re appreciative of any wage at all in a region that desperately lacks jobs.
The work hasn’t always gone smoothly. In April 2011, residents who say their vegetable gardens were ruined by debris from the construction process barricaded the road with rocks to stop company vehicles in protest of a delay in being compensated for the damage, which was the responsibility of the Haitian Ministry of Public Works.
Near one of these roadblocks, 70-year-old Elimene De Bois sat in the cargo space of a large truck, sweating in the mid-day heat.
“We left Monday, but the truck broke down,” said De Bois. It was Wednesday. “My money is all gone, and I’m hungry.”
De Bois says she paid the driver $12.50 for the trip to Port-au-Prince plus $4 for each bag of charcoal and grapefruit she brings — an expensive trip considering charcoal sells for only $15 to $20 per bag at market, according to the World Food Program.
“We had a flat tire because the road isn’t good,” said the truck’s driver. “The road is still dangerous. There are accidents.”
Sometimes, those accidents are deadly. The Rivière Glace, which all vehicles must traverse, becomes perilous when the water rises after heavy rains and has claimed dozens of lives over the years. Just last week, it engulfed a passenger bus, killing approximately 40 people according to Haiti’s Ministry of Civil Protection, although the bus driver says only eight died.
In August 2008, 14 people died at the same spot when their bus overturned in high waters during a tropical storm.
The river isn’t the only peril on the road. In March 2011, a bus full of people crashed into a roadblock, killing nine and injuring 24 more.
To those who have lived in the region their entire lives and remember such tragedies, National Route 7 is a long time
coming. They hope the new road and new bridge over the Rivière Glace will at last allow them to travel without risking their lives.
“People have been born and died wanting this,” says 90-year-old Deubemi Bazile, who sits at a small wooden table along the road in the town of Duchity, picking green beans from their pods. She says she used to sell four pounds of the beans for just 30 gourde, less than one dollar. Now she charges the equivalent of four or five dollars because merchants can sell them at faraway urban markets where they draw a better price.
A 40-minute hike south into the mountains from where Bazile sits de-podding beans, Resnel Pierre Louis weeds in his 300 square-foot garden of green onions and cabbage, which he rents from a landowner for $25 per year.
“In Haiti, everything depends on transport. When the hurricanes come, we can’t get to our fields and the crops flood,” he said.
Beyond its effects on local agriculture, the road is also connecting residents to basic healthcare and Haiti’s justice system for the first time. A police station finally opened last year in the town of Duchity halfway between the two cities, and a judicial office down the road now handles personal property, land tenure and other legal cases so residents don’t have to truck — or sometimes, walk — the 20 miles to Les Cayes, also home to the nearest full-service hospital.
Pierre Louis Jean Jacques, who works for the Brazilian construction company directing traffic on the road, hopes the new road will attract more foreign aid projects here by making the area more easily accessible.
“There will be more people traveling,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of visitors, whites, NGOs.”
But to many Haitians, NGOs remain decidedly focused on projects that are either short-term in scope or focused around Port-au-Prince, far from Haiti’s rural southwest.
“Those (regions) have been isolated for 200 years,” said Voltaire. “It’s a big change in their lives. I think we need more roads, more infrastructure, more energy — that’s what they should prioritize.”