Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
This year’s earthquake profoundly affected Haiti’s children, leaving many of them without parents or access to schooling. The disaster also complicated the process through which many children are adopted by families in foreign countries. We explore the challenges facing Haiti’s children in the wake of the earthquake.
- Maude Sanon Water Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion Sector, Save The Children
- Melanie Megevand Protection Coordinator, Haiti, American Refugee Committee
- Kenneth Merten United States Ambassador to Haiti
- Georges Revolous Child Protection Sector, Save The Children
Photo Slideshow: Restavek Children in Cite Soleil
WAMU 88.5’s Sabri Ben-Achour photographed Restavek children in Cite Soleil Wednesday:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 in Washington and from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still living in tents and makeshift camps scattered throughout the cities and the countryside, many of them are children who've been disconnected from their families and cut off from schooling and basic health services.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, we'll hear from men and women who have been working with the children in camps, as well as from Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti. But first, WAMU 88.5 Sabri Ben-Achour spent part of the day yesterday at a school for what people in Haiti call restavek. Others call them child slaves.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOURYou'd never know it was a school. But tucked down an alley by the pier in Cite Soleil, that's Port-au-Prince's largest and most dangerous slum, is the Wharf Jeremy school.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOURSheet metal walls, tarp for a roof, it's the size of a garage and inside are about are about 100 children dressed in pink and wine-colored uniforms. That is where we found...
ROSALYN DAYSRosalyn Days (sp?).
BEN-ACHOURRosalyn Days. She is 15. She is basically a slave. Do you live with your mom and dad?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN(Foreign language)
MANWith a woman. She calls the woman aunts, but she isn't that -- really her aunts.
BEN-ACHOURHow did you get to live with this woman?
MANIt was around 7 or 8 year old. She doesn't remember in which countryside she was. But the woman went to the countryside and then she said that she didn't have kid in Port-au-Prince here. And then she talked to her mother and then her mother gave her to the woman to come and live with another place.
MANHer mother wasn't totally happy with this. But she didn't want to come. But her father said, yes, she has to come because they will send her to her school here to go school.
BEN-ACHOURWhere are they now? Have you seen your parents since?
BEN-ACHOURIn 8 years, you've not seen?
BEN-ACHOURDoes she even know where they are?
MANShe remember the neighborhood she was living with -- in. But then she doesn't know which way to take back there. She doesn't where it is.
BEN-ACHOURAre you mad at your parents?
DAYSNo. (Foreign language)
MANAt first, she wasn't mad at them because they forced her to come here, she -- to come to school and all. But the woman starting mistreating her.
MANSometimes when she mis-done something and the woman don't correct -- put corrections on her, she just beat her or say some swears that -- some words that she can't hear.
MANThe woman has four kids. She is the one to bath all of the four kids, to braid them, to clothes them, to do everything for those four kids and then take them to school. Then she has to the rushing after everything in the house, she's -- it's (unintelligible).
MANThey are not nice with her. They didn't show respect to her. They used to say same words that her mother used to tell her. They say the same words to her, too.
MANThey tell her about her body. So says, this or that part of your body stinks, so stuff like this.
MANShe's -- she has only been sent to school very recently. And it is because some neighbors said that you can't keep the kids in the house there all the time, not sending her to school. That's the reason why she ending being come here, come to school.
BEN-ACHOURDoes she ever -- have you?
BEN-ACHOURDoes she do your hair?
MANWhen she's, you know, coming to school, the mother braid her. But when she's not coming, she has to do it on her own.
BEN-ACHOURWhat makes you happy?
MANShe's never happy because she's living far from her parents. And then, she's thinking all the time if -- she's wondering all the time if she was their -- her parents, would she have to be living like this? And she even thinks that if she was there, would her parent and her mother, how hard living would be. She believes that she would happy sometimes being with her parents.
BEN-ACHOURRosalyn Days' story did start looking up. She's in school now. She can write her name, her parents' names. That's the only unique part of her story, though, that she made it to school at all. The rest of the story is pretty common. Poor family tempted by someone who promised to send their daughter to school in the city where there was opportunity. Mom and dad let her go to become what's known as a restavek.
MS. TATYA UNGEROkay. The word itself comes from French, reste avec, to stay with.
BEN-ACHOURTatya Unger (sp?) is with KNH, a German group that's trying to get restaveks in school.
UNGERIt's often perceived as a very benevolent thing to take in a child from another family, nourish it, send it to school. So it's not perceived as something that actually violates these children's rights, which it definitely does. Because most of the time, it turns into children becoming slaves in these homes.
BEN-ACHOURUnger estimates that 10 percent of Haitian children, that's 300,000 children, are a restaveks. The majority are girls of which, she says, it's estimated that half are sexually abused. But attitudes and the economics behind them are hard to change.
UNGERTo change a whole culture, institution in a country, it's very hard and it's gonna take a very long time. And the problem is it stays very much closed in the homes of the children so not a lot comes out.
BEN-ACHOURSome projects, like the one that brought Rosalyn Days to school, involved recruiting teachers to go into homes and convince families to let their restaveks attend school.
UNGERI'm hoping that all the efforts by all the different organizations working with this problematic, may actually bring it into the open and that people think about it and they deal with it and they hear about it and they understand that it's not helping these children.
BEN-ACHOURIn Cite Soleil, I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, we'll hear from three people working with children inside of Haiti's campsites day in and day out. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIA tent city is hardly a place for a child, but this year's earthquake left many of Haiti's children in sprawling camps, often without access to their parents or to education or health care. Joining us in the studio are three people who have been working inside of the camps, helping to do everything from reconnecting children with their families to providing basic schooling. Melanie Megevand is protection coordinator in Haiti for the American Refugee Committee. She used to live in your neighborhood. She's a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. Melanie Megevand, thank you for joining us.
MS. MELANIE MEGEVANDThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMaude Sanon works in the water sanitation and hygiene promotion sector for Save the Children. Thank you for joining us.
MS. MAUDE SANONThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Georges Revolous works in the child protection sector for Save the Children. Georges, thank you for joining us.
MR. GEORGES REVOLOUSThank you.
NNAMDIMelanie, let me start with you. More than a million Haitians are still living in makeshift camps scattered all throughout cities in the countryside. These aren't exactly the ideal places for children. It's my understanding that creating child-friendly spaces was one of your chief goals in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
MEGEVANDYes, that's exact. Essentially, ARC was not present prior to the earthquake. We arrived a few days after and immediately started seeing what interventions were most needed and how to best do that. One of them was to provide child-friendly spaces. Child-friendly spaces are usually set up in emergency settings, both after natural catastrophes or conflicts, and their primary purpose is to provide a physical safe space for children.
MEGEVANDOut of that, we try to provide children with a routine, which usually has the effect of diminishing the levels of distress that come with a disrupted community or a disrupted routine. And so we try to provide that so that the children can recreate bonds with their peers and slowly begin to recreate ties in their community, redefine it and get back into their usual activities.
NNAMDIHow difficult was the task of creating child-friendly spaces in a situation where an entire city was devastated and its population displaced?
MEGEVANDIt was extremely difficult. And setting up such activities such -- like any humanitarian intervention requires a lot of coordination, a lot of coordination with other humanitarian actors, a lot of coordination with local officials, with local organizations to ensure that you can reach the most vulnerable and make sure that you cover the most places that you can and to avoid duplication of activities.
MEGEVANDARC is not the only one working in child-friendly spaces here in Haiti, which is a good thing as well because there are millions and millions of children who have been displaced from this earthquake.
NNAMDIGeorges Revolous, in the immediate aftermath of the quake, we heard a lot about the challenges of reuniting children with their families and providing for children who have been separated from them. How do the problems on that front now compare with what we saw last January?
REVOLOUSImmediately after the earthquake, (word?) respond to the challenges, so (unintelligible) working group to set up mechanisms in order to bring support to children (word?) of all Haiti. The first thing we did, we put in place a working group on separated children with the government and specifically (word?) and the Ministry of Social Affairs, partners like UNICEF, (word?) organization, and then we have divided the country between all the agencies so that each agency take the lead of the (unintelligible) in the department.
REVOLOUSAnd then we have trained a lot of volunteers and our staff, the staff of partners, too, so that they can better understand the (word?) to identify separated children. And then after, they go in the field to (unintelligible) camps, orphanages, where we can find separated children.
NNAMDIHow would you compare the experience of children living in camps who still have access to their families to those who been at it on their own?
REVOLOUSSo, you know, in Haiti, we have this culture. When people see a child, they don't want to abandon this child so there is still a sense of community. So they are separated with their families, but they still have someone to look over them. But (unintelligible) challenges, you know, this situation is creating, I can say, the child domesticity. When the child is not with their proper families, they build (word?) conformity so it's a risk for the domesticity.
REVOLOUSIt was havoc, as we seen in Haiti. So this is something where looking with that. We are looking to strengthen the sense of community (unintelligible) Actually, Save the Children is working to set off child protection communities at the community level so that the communities can prevent, address and refer cases like sexual abuse, mistreatments, (unintelligible) child domesticity, trafficking (unintelligible) as a main form of trafficking in Haiti.
NNAMDIMaude, public health is a concern throughout the camps. The country is still fighting through a cholera scare. What specific threats do these health challenges pose to children living here?
SANONIt's awful to say, but it's very, very, very difficult because, as you know, still a lot of children is still living in camps. And unfortunately, a lot of parents don't have enough money to send their child in school so they are always in needs and in emergency, I can say. I say emergency because a lot of agency have -- used to think that we are not in -- now in emergency. But I'm sorry. We are still in emergency here and all -- we have a lot of children that is in suffering in this camp.
SANONSo Save the Children action is always focused on children and whatever we do, it's just about children. Right after the earthquake, we make assessment and we were only focused on children even, you know, the first needs after some catastrophic things like that is those about water and sanitation. But even if given all the structure, all the latrine and everything -- so we need to give them also proper messages on hygiene and what we have done and we continue to do through schools, CFS and everything.
NNAMDIThe concern is underscored, Melanie Megevand, by the fact that we now know that the first person in Port-au-Prince, who has been discovered to have cholera, who did not leave Port-au-Prince at all, happens to be a child.
MEGEVANDYes. That's exact. Yes.
NNAMDIThat makes the concern even greater because the first -- it's first striking, it would appear, children and who the children hang out a lot with, other children.
MEGEVANDExactly. And this is a concern that is obviously been not just limited to health or to water and sanitation specialists. It's really something that has been a concern and an issue for, I think, all humanitarian aid providers across -- and not only in Artibonite, where the cholera outbreak first started, but as well in Port-au-Prince. I think, prior to this case, there was a lot of mobilization from different partners to try to prevent, as much as possible, this outbreak happening in Port-au-Prince.
MEGEVANDAfter -- my understanding is that it's always very difficult to do so. And so, in regards to children, obviously, it's a concern because children are always a whole lot more vulnerable to disease, being that they're much younger. They're much often weaker. Children in camps are probably often also more vulnerable. Although, it is something to remind people that, you know, even children living outside of camps in Haiti are also vulnerable and have been before the earthquake as well. So we are trying to take measures with that.
MEGEVANDWe are making sure that all of our child-friendly spaces have all the appropriate soap, water -- treated water, that all of our staff who are also community volunteers are all -- have all received training that has been all approved by obviously the Ministry of Public Health to ensure that we can provide the community with the best tools we can to try to prevent -- and then a lot of information campaigns.
NNAMDIWe're in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, discussing the welfare of children in the wake of an earthquake and the wake of a cholera outbreak and under the wake of a hurricane passing through Haiti. We're talking with Melanie Megevand. She is the protection coordinator for the American Refugee Committee or ARC. Georges Revolous works in the child protection sector for Save the Children. And Maude Sanon works in the water sanitation and hygiene promotion sector for Save the Children. Maude, it's my understanding that you're using arts projects as a way to reduce waste here and to promote health. Can you explain?
SANONYeah. Our primary observation when we work here in all of those campaign, the community in general, is that our solid waste management is -- it was not really a good thing, I can say. We can see all the waste and all the plastic bottle and everything. So in our department, we were thinking that we should really address those -- this issue. So with children, we create an activity -- a small recycling activity of solid waste and to create some artifact like handbag and everything or hat -- all those things.
SANONAnd what -- something I can -- as a success for us is that in one camp where we are doing this activity -- we were doing these activities, adult, the parents find it's wonderful and they start to recycle a plastic bottle by themself. So in the beginning, we just provide them all the basic materials to do it. But I was really happy to hear that adult and people joined together and make a committee and sit down to make beans with plastic bottle. It was amazing to know about this. And we continue the activities in all our site and each time we make a exhibition of the artifact that the children what -- has made, it's always a success.
NNAMDIGeorges Revolous, what educational opportunities exist for children living in camps? One of the first things you know is driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince is just how many children you see in their school uniforms on the street, but one assumes that those children don't live in camps.
REVOLOUSAs you know, Haiti is a very poor country so it's very difficult for the families to respond to the needs in terms of education of the child. Specifically, after the earthquake, as you know, the families lost all the things that they had before. And then, there is a no possibility for them to work exactly, to develop activities which can help them to come with the mechanisms to answer to the needs in terms of education.
REVOLOUSThere's so many -- there are so many children on the street and then our sector in education is working to see how we can provide some support in terms of education. Now, there is something that we are doing that -- to help these children. In the working group that we have, we try to create a referral system. As you know, the separated children, there are no families, no parent to bring support to them. And if -- even if we find the families, the families don't have means to respond to their needs.
REVOLOUSNow, we are trying to create this referral system by getting back to all the partners. By example, if there is a partner who is working in education as in (word?), so we try to link -- we just wanted to see how we can introduce the children in the school that brings support to.
NNAMDIObviously, it's not very easy at all in these circumstances. Melanie Megevand, there was a report yesterday on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien about the challenges facing single mothers in the camps, including those who are working. How do you see those trends on parents and how can they be relieved?
MEGEVANDI think this is really touching, a very important topic. As protection coordinator, we also work in gender-based violence. So we worked, particularly, a lot with women, many who have been victims of violence and some not. And so, we worked a lot on prevention as well. Part of the idea of having both of these services in the same area is exactly for that purpose, is to also recognize that in emergencies or after emergencies, parents and adults face huge amounts of stress as well to be able to provide for their children.
MEGEVANDAs my colleagues have said, some of them don't have the means to send their children to school. Some of them are living in dire conditions in camps. And so, being able to provide child-friendly spaces also allows parents to be able to send their children somewhere they know they will be safe. And allow them to be able to go out and to try to find the jobs, to try to find solutions for themselves and for their children.
NNAMDIMaude Sanon, those most likely to play in contaminated water would be children, especially children in camps. Is there anything you can do to educate especially single mothers who are working about what their children can do and not do while they're not there?
SANONWe -- when we will hold activities with the field, we think about target people, for example. If we walk with the children, we have special messages for children about water quality and why they should drink good water or the contamination (word?), we do it with children in one part. And after that, we do it also with parents. And in education group and in each camp by the system put in place, it's -- I think that is all the children who lives in our camp has access to good water, I can say.
SANONBecause even we make all the focus group or group education with adult and children, we make children as enactors in our activities. It's one of Save the Children's principle to get children participating in our action. And they -- as they -- we use them as a reminder for the parents. Sometimes children are more aware about what to do and what to do than the parents. Sometimes parents have a lot of stress, they forget.
SANONAnd sometimes, does the children said, oh, mommy, I have to wash my hands before eating or oh, mommy, you did not put aquatab in the water. So they always remind their parents. I think that is the inverse (laugh) that happen most of the time.
NNAMDIIt's the children who are getting the better education than them.
SANONIt's really easy. If you want, it's my lesson learned. I can say that if we want to touch the community, it's better to go through children because they never forget anything. And after that, when they arrive home, they will repeat everything to their parents.
NNAMDIGeorges Revolous, The Miami Herald newspaper published a series of articles about child trafficking a few weeks ago. It reported that since the earthquake, more than 7,000 children have been smuggled into the Dominican Republic, and that was more than seven times the number projected for the year before that. Is there anything that can be done about that?
REVOLOUSSo there -- actually there is -- there isn't any law in Haiti to address the child trafficking. We start it as main form of this phenomenon. So I think we need to work at the community level, work with the families, to explain them when the son -- the children in Port-au-Prince and Leogane and Jacmel, wherever, so stand the solution because they don't really know the situation of the child that they send somewhere. So we have to work with the families, with the communities, with the key people in the communities, so that they can do something like processing device. So you have your -- there is someone. He lives next to you. He's in the same situation away to you, but he keep his children. Why not you?
NNAMDIMelanie Megevand, what in your view are the underlying causes of this problem?
MEGEVANDI think -- and I think this is where it's interesting. And again, I haven't been -- I wasn't present in Haiti prior to the earthquake. My understanding is that a lot of the underlying causes that we are now resurfacing or that are getting more attention now are issues that actually have been a problem in Haiti for years. And as my colleague said, some practices are ingrained in ways of doing things here in which families don't necessarily see it as something wrong.
MEGEVANDAnd they -- and so I think as he said it, it's something that needs to be address within the community to understand how did this practice come about and how is this, perhaps, unintentionally creating severe problems for children, problems which I do believe some parents are not aware of when they give their children away. And so I think all of these things need to be addressed in a sensitive manner or in a way that is proper to the Haitian context in which we really need to have the local actors from the community and the government level to be able to start to address this and to see how we can progressively curb this trafficking issue for children.
NNAMDIBecause obviously when parents give their children away, they think they're giving them away so that they can be in a better situation than the ones in which they are currently in only to discover that they may not be getting their children back.
MEGEVANDExactly. And I -- and so, you know, I think, in general, poverty is always something that creates these situations and people take advantage of that. And so I think this is where our role is to also inform parents, inform the community, empower them, empower the children themselves to be able to reconstruct their communities in a way in which they can limit themselves and not to have other people limit for them so that we empower the community to be able to protect their children.
NNAMDIMelanie Megevand is protection coordinator for the American Refugee Committee or ARC. Thank you so much for joining us.
MEGEVANDThank you so much.
NNAMDIMaude Sanon works in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion Sector for Save the Children. Maude, thank you for joining us.
SANONThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd Georges Revolous works in the Child Protection Sector for Save The Children. Georges, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining me now in the studio to continue this conversation about children in Haiti is Kenneth Merten. He is the U.S. ambassador to Haiti. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.
AMB. KENNETH MERTENMy pleasure. It's great to be with you.
NNAMDII read in The New York Times that after the earthquake, the United States helped orchestrate a baby lift not seen since the Vietnam era, that the State Department lifted visa requirements to help facilitate the process for potential adoptive families. What exactly was the plan put in motion in the wake of the earthquake? And what's the strategy now?
MERTENWell, we try to do, as you may recall if you followed the situation after the earthquake closely, there was great demand for orphan Haitians to be brought to the United States. And while we understood that desire certainly for parents who have already have a relationship with the child they want to adopt, you know, we want to have that process move and help those people, but we also need to make sure we're protecting the Haitian parents here on the ground.
MERTENSo what we were able to work out with the Haitian government, with the Prime Minister, was a situation whereby children that were already in, what we would call our pipeline, who've already been approved for adoption through our process in the United States, we were going to bring them in. We gave the Haitian government all the relevant information. They would quickly then go through that list of names. And we gave them a special file of each child with a photo, name, parents, date of birth, place of birth, et cetera, so they could have complete records.
MERTENThe goal for this was to, you know, facilitate getting these children out of here as quickly as possible, but also to really to try and protect and have a record for the Haitian parents who were here or the families who were here. Because the last thing we wanted here is to have some poor mother or father come, show up at the embassy three or four months after the earthquake and say, I understand my child was taken to the United States.
MERTENSo I don't think we've had that and, you know, I think we did a good job in facilitating that. The next step moving forward is to go back into the process we had in place prior to the earthquake which means full vetting by the U.S. authorities and by Haitian authorities, again, with the same goals of protecting both the child's welfare and the adopted families.
NNAMDIBut there have to be, I guess, conflicting pressures to both reunite children with their families under one hand and on the other hand, the other urgency to find them loving homes as quickly as possible.
MERTENWell, most of the children that we -- who's traveled to the States we facilitated were children who were already matched up with families, were kids who had adopted families waiting for them, who, under normal circumstances have we not had the earthquake, would have had to avoided another nine months, a year, 15 months before that adoption process ran its course and they were allowed to travel. We -- in a normal year, we normally process around 300 adoption cases. In the months after the earthquake, we processed, as I mentioned earlier, our entire pipeline that it turned out to be around 12,000 -- I'm sorry, 1,200 children were able to go to the United States, so.
NNAMDIOne of the things we noticed in the short period of time we've been here is how many children we see walking on the streets, either to or from school, in school uniforms. And you wrote this past May that even with all the rubble in the city, you drew a certain amount of confidence from seeing so many children walking to school during your morning drives to the embassy.
MERTENIt's true. This is my third time in Haiti and I've been amazed ever since I first came here 23 years ago that Haitians, regardless of class, regardless of income level, will sacrifice anything to make sure that next generation goes to school. They appreciate the value of an education and they will sacrifice and scrimp and save and do anything possible to make sure their children go to school and get as good an education as they possibly can. And it was a sign to me of, you know, taking those steps back to normalcy which I thought, and I still think, is important.
NNAMDIAnd people in our listening audience who are in the United States who may be assuming that the majority of these children are going to public schools free of charge would be, well, wrong.
MERTENThey would be exactly wrong. Unfortunately, there is a public school system in place in Haiti. However, the capacity of those schools is small and they're only able to take really a small fraction of the school-age children. Therefore, families need to come up with their own money and they send their children to private schools. Some of these private schools are top notch, terrific schools, some of these private schools are somewhere in the middle and some of them, frankly, are not very good, so.
NNAMDIWhat were the most immediate objectives for you in the days immediately following the quake?
MERTENWell, you know, first and foremost, after the earthquake, we wanted to make sure that the entire embassy community was safe. We were able to determine that pretty quickly after the earthquake. The night of the earthquake, we were able to do -- go through radio checks and determine everybody's location. After that, our concern obviously was reaching out to American citizens and addressing their needs. We were able to evacuate, in the weeks following the earthquake, 16,000 American citizens back to the United States.
MERTENI think that's -- my colleagues in the state department told me that's the largest amount perhaps ever, but certainly since World War II. And then, you know, after that, our -- in the very early hours, our concerns turned towards, you know, what can we possibly do to alleviate the suffering of, you know, these people. It became very obvious to us, even the night of the earthquake, that this was a catastrophic event. And President Preval called me and told me that the -- you know, the National Palace, equivalent to the White House, had collapsed. That the parliament, like the equivalent of our Capitol, had collapsed with legislators in it.
MERTENI knew that this was going to be a terrible event. And thankfully, we were able to mobilize both our partners who were here on the ground, NGO partners, the UN partners who were here. But also our colleagues from United States military who were able to come in, in large numbers and really help us get the distribution of food and water and rudimentary shelter out to people in those first weeks. And that was our 100 percent preoccupation, really, those first couple of days after we started get the evacuation of American citizens underway.
NNAMDIIn the 10 months or so since then, those of us looking from overseas continue to see hundreds of thousands of people in camps. We see a cholera outbreak followed by hurricane Tomas and we say to ourselves, what benchmarks can be used to measure progress here? What benchmarks do you use to measure progress?
MERTENWell, you know, there are a lot of ways to measure progress. I mean, I look at this, frankly, from a longer perspective since I've been involved with Haiti for 20 odd years. And before the earthquake, there had been some very definite progress here. The roads were better. There were a lot of new businesses that had opened up since my last tour here 10 years ago. Garbage pickup was significantly better. You had seen an underreported, but I think very, very important turnaround in the rate of HIV infection.
MERTENI think it's one of the great untold public health stories that's out there, where Haitian infections had been 10 years prior, somewhere in the 6 percent range. It's now down below 3 as if, you know -- it's a huge drop, I don't think equaled anywhere else. So there have been real benchmarks prior to the earthquake.
MERTENSince the earthquake, what do we look at? Well, in those early days, we were looking at things like schools opening. You know, they were able to get a lot of the schools open in April. Again, I thought that was an important step towards normalcy for people. You know, the fact that they were able to get the banks open within a week, that was an important step.
MERTENNow, we are in a different phase, as you point out. I mean, we are in the process of helping rebuild -- helping the Haitian state rebuild itself and helping the Haitians help their people as well. We still have our humanitarian infrastructure in place. You know, the international community is providing to the people in camps, still providing water to at-risk populations in camps, still providing food.
MERTENYou know, there is rubble being removed. Houses are still -- starting to be reconstructed. People are -- you know, we have a program, for example, where we are refurbishing houses that were damaged but not critically so, so that people can go back and move into their own houses and their own neighborhoods.
MERTENBut this is, whether we like it or not, this is, by its very nature, is gonna be a slow process. I was just out today looking in, in one of the most affected neighborhoods here in Port-au-Prince, an area called Delmas. And this is an area where you have some sort of rabbit warrens of streets where you have very few roads where vehicles can pass to get in there. And this is an area of small sort of, you know, one-room cinder block houses, which -- many of which collapsed, many of which didn't.
MERTENBut in order to clear those small lots, you really need to do it by hand, and it's going to take time. And, you know, the Haitians have been very active. You know, we have been paying for cash-for-work programs to get people out to pay them so they can put money in their pocket for clearing these lots. The U.N. has been doing that. The Haitian government has been doing that. So, you know, it is, in many respects, a painfully slow process, but it is a process that's moving forward. I think we are all impatient, all wish it could happen faster.
MERTENBut I think, you know, one of the key things we need to remember as we move forward here, I think the Haitians have announced their desire to do this, and certainly it's been our intention to help them because we want them to build back better. We don't want to, you know, to help them rebuild Port-au-Prince, which has substandard housing for 90 percent of the population. We would like to help them put into place, you know, proper sanitation, water, electricity, these sort of things. These are things we're going to be working on over the coming months, and I think these are important things to do.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kenneth Merten. He is the United States ambassador to Haiti. We're in the middle of election season here. And after the devastating earthquake, a lot of walls have fallen. But for those walls still left standing, competing for space on those walls, are the signs of people running for president or running in legislative elections. Everywhere you look in Port-au-Prince, you see these signs. What do you think is at stake for Haiti in this election, and what concerns do you have about the contest that's about to take place?
MERTENWell, I think this is a crucial election for Haiti. I think -- obviously crucial for Haitians because this period of reconstruction is not something that's just going to last for six months. This is gonna be an ongoing process for the -- for, I think, the coming years, and I think that's appropriate. I -- it's also important for the international community. I mean, certainly for the United States, our goal has been to work with the Haitian state. We need a partner here that can -- that has the capacity to take on the responsibilities of any normal government, of looking after its own people.
MERTENAnd a lot of what our strategies are designed to do here is to help the Haitian state, whether it's an area of public health or energy or agriculture, is -- you know, fill the need that -- the needs that aren't currently being met by the Haitian state. So we need a partner not only in the president, but in the legislature, who can make decisions, who can reflect the values and desires of the Haitian people and, very importantly, help us operationalize those desires.
MERTENWe need -- you know, our goal here is to help the Haitians rebuild a Haiti that they want, not something that the international community imposes on them. And that's gonna mean somebody who has a vision, somebody who can take decisions and someone who knows how to work with the Haitian body politic, but also with the international community.
NNAMDIIf these elections manage to take place without significant violence, without significant question as to the fairness of the elections, it will be an indication of some stability established in Haiti. How important is that stability to what -- whether you're talking about the United States government or the Haitian people need, and that is seeing more investment in Haiti? How important is the -- are the elections in that process?
MERTENI think the elections are very important in that process, and it gets back to what I was saying. We need someone who can operationalize the decisions that the Haitian government can take, and someone who can make decisions. You know, as we were talking earlier, the United States is -- and other international donors are going to be investing a lot of money here over the coming years. But in my view, frankly, absent a robust -- absent robust international investment, foreign investment in Haiti, I think those investments are going to be placeholders, frankly.
MERTENWhat we need is a Haitian government that has sufficient revenue to perform the functions its -- it needs to perform. We also need jobs here. We need people who are employed, who can pay for, as we were talking about, school earlier, who can actually find hope for themselves and the future for themselves here in Haiti without having to look to the United States, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere to find that hope. And that's where I think a lot of what this election is about.
NNAMDIThere's no shortage of willing help in Haiti. There are literally armies of aid workers and non-governmental organizations on the ground. What concerns do you have about whether all that energy is being channeled effectively and the role that the United States can help to play in that process? We mentioned in previous interviews, 14,000 non-governmental organizations here doing all kinds of different work. How do you see the U.S. helping to coordinate and make that work more effective?
MERTENWell, the United States -- I mean, that this is a great question. The NGOs here in the ground play a role that is absolutely necessary. They are providing services, filling gaps that the Haitian government or private sector or other civil society organizations aren't able to provide here in Haiti today. I think that over the longer term, that is not sustainable for Haitians. I think Haitians need to increasingly, you know, be -- hopefully, will have the wherewithal to take control of their own destiny and fulfill their own needs.
MERTENBut that is some time off. In the meantime, we need to work -- all of us together here, NGOs and donors together with the Haitians under their guidance, to move forward. In terms of coordination, I would say that one of the important means for coordination is the IHRC, the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, which is chaired by former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. This is a forum that is made up 50 percent of Haitians, 50 percent of international community representatives.
MERTENIt was set up for that precise purpose to coordinate for either the Haitian government or donors or even NGOs to propose projects to say we propose doing, you know, X, Y or Z, building bridge over X river. And you know, is there anybody here who could fund it? And the Haitians may say, hmm, we don't want a bridge over river X. We want a bridge over river Y, but -- and then somebody else could pitch up and say yes. And we even some money and some expertise that could do that. That's the real reason for having better organization there.
MERTENYou know, coordination amongst so many organizations is, by its very nature, difficult. And we work hard. I know my colleagues from USAID and our partners here, our NGO partners, do work hard to try and coordinate our efforts. But as you say, there are a lot of actors here. And I'm not going to tell you that there are not times when coordination isn't as optimal as it should be. But we -- I think we all -- everybody is here working with the best of intentions and I think we're all trying to pull in the same direction.
NNAMDIWe talked with members of the Haitian diaspora living in the United States. Most of them speak English, some of them speak Creole and not French, some of them speak French and not Creole. You speak English, French and Creole. You've been involved in Haiti, as you pointed out, for some 20 years. That's a heck of a personal investment in Haiti. Why?
MERTENBoy, that's a really good question. I, you know, I was -- the state department sent me here, my first tour because I happened to be a French speaker in my class in the foreign service when we came in. I'll be honest with you, I was not eager to come to Haiti. It was not my first choice. It wasn't even on my list of choices. And they assigned me here and said, well, we need a mature officer. I got here. And I will be honest with you, from my very first hours on the ground, I fell in love with the place. I really enjoyed it. We made Haitian friends here who we are still in touch with, who we still see, who we see regularly, who we've come back to visit for a vacation.
MERTENI guess my investment really is the human element here. We've made a lot of friends here over the years and got to know a lot of people. It's also a place where, I think, you know, we have a lot of historical interest with the United States. And I think it's a place where I'd like to believe we can make a positive difference. I personally like to believe I can make a positive difference and I think that's one of the things that keeps me coming back.
NNAMDIKenneth Merten is the United States Ambassador to Haiti. Thank you very much for joining us.
MERTENWell, it's absolutely my pleasure. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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