PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - If there is hope in Haiti, it can be found in Mertilus Aland.
The 18-year-old eight-grader is flourishing in a new school built after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, dreaming of one day becoming a doctor in the violent Haitian slum he calls home.
“Who knows where I’d be if it wasn’t for this place,” he said.
Bankrolled by a roster of Hollywood celebrities, the Academy of Peace and Justice is Haiti’s first free secondary school and draws hundreds of children from Port-au-Prince’s biggest slums.
Its success stands out in Haiti, which is still struggling to lift itself from the rubble left by an earthquake two years ago that killed roughly 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless.
Despite billions of dollars pledged by donors to help Haiti rebuild, reconstruction efforts remain painstakingly slow, with only incipient signs some progress may be taking hold.
The recovery effort, one of the world’s biggest humanitarian and reconstruction operations involving more than 12,000 aid groups, has faced intense criticism that the international aid community has been too slow to shift gears from emergency aid to helping develop one of the world’s poorest countries.
The dusty streets of the Haitian capital offer a glimpse of the work that remains. More than a half a million people still live in a critical situation in crowded tent camps, many without running water or electricity.
Few new or renovated buildings can be seen. And throngs of Haitians line the streets every day in a jarring reminder that 70 percent of the population is either unemployed or underemployed.
“It’s been two years and I’m still here in the camps,” said Jerome Mezil, a 28-year-old who lives in the Sainte-Therese tent camp in the capital’s Petionville district.
Some tent camp dwellers say they fear life outside the camps will be even tougher.
“I’m worried when I leave, I’ll be totally forgotten,” said Margalie Theano, 40, standing amid shelters made with bed sheets, tarps and cardboard in a downtown plaza.
Most Haitians agree the huge influx in aid, much of it from foreign governments and international aid organizations, that poured in after the January 12, 2010 quake helped to save thousands of lives.
But many worry not enough is now being done to provide Haitians with jobs and address deeply-rooted problems like education that could help Haiti begin to shed its image as a basket case of crushing poverty and underdevelopment.
“The most important thing for me right now is finding work,” said Martella Antoine, a 32-year-old mother of two in a tent camp just blocks from the presidential palace. She lost her job as a store clerk when the building where she worked was leveled in the quake.
There are, however, signs of tepid progress.
More than half of the rubble that once clogged much of the Port-au-Prince’s streets has been cleared. Haiti’s battered infrastructure received a boost with the completion of new roads linking the country’s north and south with the capital of Port-au-Prince.
And this week the government will inaugurate a university donated by its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. A new U.S.-funded, 320-bed medical training facility in Mirebalais, a small rural settlement an hour’s drive north of the capital, is also nearly complete.
But international aid and Haitian officials acknowledge aid problems still persist.
“The aid is too scattered, there is a lack of coordination ... and the aid does not sufficiently meet the priorities of the government or the international community,” Prime Minister Gary Conille told Reuters recently.
Cecilia Millan, Oxfam’s country director in Haiti, said the two-year anniversary “must be a call to action” and lamented an “apparent slowness of reconstruction.”
The recovery effort was hobbled from the start by a Haitian government accused of failing to assert its leadership after the country’s tragedy. Long wary of chronic government corruption in Haiti, many nongovernmental organizations and aid donors also began to set their own priorities, often with little coordination.
The outbreak of a cholera epidemic that has sickened more than half a million people and taken more than 6,500 lives since October 2010, along with a disputed presidential election and a political crisis that later deprived Haitian President Michel Martelly of a working government for months have only complicated the quake recovery.
In an address to parliament on Monday, Martelly laid out Haiti’s stark reality: more than 8 million people live without electricity, 5 million are illiterate and 8 out of 10 Haitians live on less than $2 a day.
Housing for the hundreds of thousands made homeless by the quake remains a crucial issue.
Although the number of tent camps has fallen, it has not translated into new, permanent housing for many.
Thousands of quake victims have been relocated after accepting cash and other assistance from aid groups. But many face a jobless future and Vincent Cochetel, regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said countless tent camps have been dismantled through forced and sometimes violent evictions of homeless people by powerful landowners seeking to reclaim their property.
“It’s not because they’re no longer in camps that a solution has been found for those people. They remain displaced,” Cochetel told journalists on a conference call last week.
He said many of these people had moved on to live in densely packed slums, like one with an estimated population of 90,000 that has sprouted around Corail-Cesselesse, a planned community for quake survivors north of Port-au-Prince.
“They are time bombs for the future,” Cochetel said.
How to get Haitians working in a country where more than half the annual budget comes from international aid is also among the myriad of challenges.
“The best resource Haiti has right now are its people, but there has been very little investment in them,” said Joceyln McCalla, a leading Haitian-American development consultant.
Some 300,000 Haitians have found temporary work in construction and rubble clearing, said Jessica Faieta, the U.N. Development Program’s senior country director for Haiti. But there is little prospect for more permanent jobs.
Haiti’s tiny economic elite, which controls a large swath of the economy, is only “slowly” beginning to help, said Denis O’Brien, chairman of the Irish-owned telecommunications company Digicel, which is Haiti’s biggest foreign investor.
Questions also hang over how the government will be able to coordinate aid efforts going forward.
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, a body created to help direct aid and co-chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, ended in October when Haitian lawmakers allowed its mandate to expire. Martelly has signaled he would like to extend it, but it is unclear if there is support in parliament where some lawmakers voiced concern not enough Haitians were included.
Mark Schneider, a senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, warned restoring the body was a key step for the government. “That needs to be done,” he said. “You need a mechanism for donors to deliver money to projects. It gives more confidence.”
McCalla said Haitians also needed to do more to engage donors and influence the direction of aid efforts.
“Part of the problem is there is a lack of cooperation among Haitians themselves, who should be able to say ‘These are the people who know how to get things done and these are the people you should be talking to,’” he said.
In a potential blow to Martelly, reports surfaced recently that some $26 million have vanished from a new government education fund he set up. Martelly hoped new charges on cellular phone calls and remittances from abroad would help fund new schools.
O’Brien, whose company has rebuilt dozens of schools since the quake struck and has pledged to build many more, said he had not spoken with Martelly but was assured by government officials the education fund had not been tampered with. “I believe the money is safe and sound,” he said.
Some Haiti aid contributors have sought to chart their own path.
The Artists for Peace and Justice, a group of Hollywood stars including Clint Eastwood, Penelope Cruz, Russell Crow and Nicole Kidman among others, partnered with a local Haitian foundation to help build the school that 18-year-old Aland now attends.
Paul Haggis, a Canadian screenwriter and producer who sits on the group’s board of directors, said it raised $4.5 million during a brunch held days after the quake.
“Everyone said look to the big NGOs, they’ll help,” he said. “But the money that is there has so many preconditions and red tape attached, it’s impossible to get anything done.”
After buying land and setting up a temporary school with classrooms of concrete walls, the school opened in October 2010. A newly-built and larger school building was then constructed and inaugurated late last year.
The 800 students attending the school receive free lunch and free medical care at a nearby hospital.
Haggis said the decision to build the school was not easy amid all the death and destruction wrought by the quake.
“We took a lot of heat for it, even from our own members,” he said. “People said, ‘What the hell, there are people dying, how can you be running through the slums looking for schools?’”
“What we have pitched to our people is that this is for the long term,” he said. “Haiti has had too many quick fixes.”
As the school reopened on Monday after vacation, students in brown uniforms lined up in a rocky courtyard to raise the Haitian flag.
Aland was among them.
Born in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s largest and most notorious slum, he is trying to make up lost time. After his father and a brother died in 2005, Aland, who speaks with a stutter, said his mother did not have enough money to pay the administrative fees for him to attend public school.
He spent the next three years outside of school before one day building up the courage to carry his report card to an elementary school run by the Haitian partner of Artists for Peace and Justice and asked if he could attend.
“I know education will determine my lot in life,” he said. “It’s hard to believe anything good came out of the earthquake, it caused so much pain and suffering. But it helped me get here,” he said.
Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman