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Haiti news: SOS ready for the long haul

Haiti news: SOS ready for the long haul

After providing emergency aid to victims of the devastating earthquake for almost a year, SOS Children now wants to contribute to a sustainable reconstruction in Haiti.

The expansion of SOS Family Strengthening Programmes should facilitate long-term basic care for thousands of children; a third SOS Children's Village and at least ten state schools are planned. A considerable challenge for the staff on the ground, it turns out, because progress is slower than had been hoped.

SOS worker Peter Lomoth tells us more...

"It is morning in the SOS Children's Village in Santo, and the heat of the day already hangs heavy in the air. Driver Paul Jean starts the engine; he is wearing a checked shirt and a red peaked cap. Since February he has been delivering relief supplies – sacks of beans, flour and sugar, cases of cooking oil, canned fish and milk powder. Ten months after the devastating earthquake struck on 12 January 2010, SOS Children's Villages is still providing food to around 14,000 children in Haiti. Supply trucks deliver to 112 food distribution points that were opened after the earthquake in emergency camps, slum areas and schools, and the 16 community centres near the SOS Children's Village, which existed before, but which now provide for far greater numbers of children.

This morning there are nine food distribution points on the list. "In the beginning we had to carry the relief supplies over the rubble on our backs, because the trucks couldn't get through to the people", says Jean. Now the roads have been cleared at least, but the traffic is still chaotic: it often takes him four hours to travel 30 kilometres. Either side of the road, the scene is still one of destruction, there's no sign of reconstruction. There are lots of heaps of rubble that have still not been removed, people are still digging out of them anything they can make use of, such as bent iron out of the concrete. Sometimes they come across human remains trapped under the dense rubble. Then it comes again, the awful smell of death, which lingers so gruesomely in your nose. At the roadside, traders with barrows full of sugar cane sticks try to earn a few Haiti Gourdes. Women sell avocados, beetroot, yams and plantains. They sit on the floor, in amongst the rubbish, the mud and the rubble. Life somehow goes on. Community children waiting patiently in hope of food

After 12 January, for many Haitians nothing was as it had been before: they lost relatives, friends, houses, jobs, schools. More than 220,000 people died, around 300,000 were injured; according to figures from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) up to 1.3 million are still living in emergency relief camps, half of them children. In Port-au-Prince more than half of all buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the presidential palace, the parliament building and most ministries, schools and hospitals. 18,000 public employees are estimated to have died. For a centralised State that was failing even before the 12 January, it was the death knell. Jean turns off into a side street. In front of a concrete building several young people are already waiting for the SOS delivery, they lift sacks and boxes from the truck bed, carry them down a narrow alleyway to the community kitchen, where mothers from the neighbourhood cook together. "350 children come here to eat a midday meal every day, because their parents cannot adequately provide for them," says Joseph Jean Dieufort. He leads a community committee – four of them oversee the preparation and distribution of food, with support from SOS social workers. Usually it's maize and beans with some fish and sauce. "Fortunately, the children are no longer malnourished, thanks to the deliveries of food", he explains. "But now they need something for their heads as well as their stomachs, as most of them can't go to school."

SOS Children's Villages' emergency relief is supposed to continue in the current form until January 2011, and then be replaced with long-term reconstruction projects. There are plans to ensure long-term basic care for thousands of children by extending SOS Family Strengthening Programmes, some of the food distribution points are to be turned into new community centres, at least ten state schools are to be built. "The people have real needs that extend beyond the emergency relief", says the interim SOS National Director, Dionisio Pereira, formerly Director of SOS Children's Villages in Cape Verde. He is sitting in his temporary office in the SOS School in SOS Children's Village Santo – the national office was destroyed by the earthquake, a new one is to be built next year. "In the community centres we want to support families to be able to look after themselves in the long term". The children will continue to be given food there, with the parents helping out with cooking, cleaning and repairs, and able to take literacy, hygiene and educational courses there. "If a mother comes to us and learns to sew, that will enable her to provide for her whole family in the long-term," says Pereira.

For the future, there are also plans, in cooperation with other NGOs, for micro-loans to be offered so that small family businesses can be established in the area around the community centres.Pereira heads an international team of SOS co-workers who came to Haiti after the earthquake in order to get long-term reconstruction projects off the ground and so to help the local co-workers steer things back towards orderly operation.

In SOS Children's Village Santo, nothing is the way it was before, even though the buildings remained intact. In the weeks that followed the earthquake, up to 360 children who were unaccompanied, parentless, or in need of help found temporary refuge and care in the SOS Children's Village. A total of 270 of them are still there, some having been reunited with their families. But the Children's Village is still over-capacity. In the family houses, SOS Mothers are looking after up to 20 children, instead of the usual ten. The nursery is looking after 286 children instead of 125 and the staff of the SOS School are teaching more than 900 children instead of 500 – some of them in tents, as the school is currently being extended. In order to alleviate the situation, a new SOS Children's Village is to be built in the south of the country in the harbour town of Les Cayes; construction is due to start in 2011. It will be the third SOS Children's Village in Haiti, after Santo and Cap Haitien in the north, and it will take in the children who came to SOS Children's Village Santo after the earthquake. Perhaps others will follow.

Girls at an SOS Community Centre in Cap HaitienNext to the big football field, Francisco Erick and his team are just constructing the last of the temporary houses. They are pre-fabricated houses intended to provide a temporary home to the children who arrived after the earthquake. The first houses had been completed by March, and are already occupied, but the second delivery of materials was held up in the port and wasn't delivered until September – eight months after the earthquake. "The problem was with the customs, they wanted to make money", says Erick. "Some of the wooden beams for the roof didn't arrive at all, we had to make them ourselves." In the mean time all 62 pre-fabricated houses are standing and around 150 children will soon be able to move out of the overcrowded family houses and into the temporary houses.

Other aid organisations report similar problems. The German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) for example, which was building 1,400 earthquake-safe temporary houses west of the capital in Léogâne, had great trouble importing materials. "The authorities put a lots of obstacles in our way", says staff member Thomas Roettchen. "The storage fees in the port are very high and we only got our container released with effort and trouble, because lots of people wanted to make some money out of it." Johanitter International Assistance, which is using very modern machines to make prosthetic limbs for victims of the earthquake in Léogâne, also had similar problems. "They can only do a fraction of their work because the materials are not getting through", says Röttchen. Haiti came 168th in last year's rankings by the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International: worldwide, only a dozen or so States were more corrupt. One of the many problems in a failed State, which are now making reconstruction more difficult.

Pereira and his team will spend two years changing and expanding the structures of SOS Children's Villages in Haiti, in order to be able to cope with the after-effects of the earthquake in the long term. They will also train Haitian specialists, who will implement the changes. "It is crucial that we involve the Haitians in the reconstruction", says Pereira. People like civil engineer Freinet Sanon, for example, who over the coming years will oversee various building projects for SOS Children's Villages in Haiti. He is one of the few well-qualified Haitians who have not left the country to work abroad, where they can earn more. "It is incredibly hard to find well educated people in Haiti," says Sanon. "We have been trying for some time to recruit engineers in order to speed up our work, but most applicants aren't even able to answer the simplest of questions at the interview, and we're still looking." In other ways too, everything is going much slower than had been hoped. "Like other organisations, we have the problem that it is often impossible to find the State officials who are responsible", says Pereira. "Bureaucracy makes it harder to do a lot of the things that could help the country". An example of this is the planned construction of at least ten state schools by SOS Children's Villages; after seven years, they would be taken over and run by the Haitian State. For months, they've been waiting for approval from the Haitian Ministry of Education, for whom cooperation with a non-governmental organisation in this area is precedent setting.

And then there's the election. On 28 November, Haitians will vote in a new Parliament and a successor to President René Préval, who will leave office in February 2011. "That is making it even harder at the moment to deal with the authorities, because nobody considers themselves to be responsible", says Pereira, who anticipates a turbulent election period. The United Nations Security Council recently renewed the mandate of the international stabilisation mission of police and troops until October 2011, in order to ensure security during the election and transfer of power and to help the authorities to tackle the resurgence of organised crime, drug trafficking and trafficking in children.

It is in the emergency camps that the security situation is a big problem, as a study by Refugees International makes clear. Criminal gangs assume control, there are rapes, the pregnancy rate among young people is extremely high. "We had big problems in the emergency camps, because some people were lining their own pockets", recounts Ilú Valenzuela, who came to Haiti from Nicaragua and is responsible for the community centres, for food distribution points and for supporting families. "In some places there is a kind of mafia, and it can be very dangerous to stand up to them." But many community committees have organised themselves well, standing guard over the food supplies and working together to ensure that they are distributed fairly. "If people are organising themselves it is a good basis for establishing community centres and setting in motion long term development", says Valenzuela. "The Haitians have to take the initiative and develop the skills themselves, and that's what we want to support." 

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