PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Days after the January 12, 2010 earthquake killed their little girl and destroyed much of their house, Meristin Florival and his family pitched a makeshift tent on a hill in the Haitian capital and called it home. Two years later they're still there, living without drains, running water or electricity.
A few kilometres away, Jean Rony Alexis has left the camp where he spent the months after the quake and moved into a shed-like shelter built on a concrete slab by the Red Cross. But he's not much better off. The annual rent charged by a landlord who lives in a nearby camp jumped from US$312 to US$375, and he too has no running water.
"This is misery," said Florival, whose four-month-old daughter was crushed to death in the quake-stricken family home. "I don't see any benefits," said Alexis, whose shed is flooded with noise at night from a saloon next door that's appropriately named the "Frustration Bar".
The two men are among hundreds of thousands of Haitians whose lives have barely improved since those first days of devastation, when the death toll climbed toward 300,000 and the world opened its wallets in response.
While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former US President Bill Clinton and others vowed that the world would help Haiti "build back better", and US$2.38 billion has been spent, Haitians have hardly seen any building at all.
At the time, grand ambitions were voiced for a Haiti rebuilt on modern lines. New housing would replace shantytowns and job-generating industry would be spread out to ease the human crush of Port-au-Prince, the sprawling capital with its three million people.
But now the Government seems to be going back to basics, nurturing small, community-based projects designed to bring the homeless back to their old neighbourhoods to build, renovate and find jobs through friends.
The reasons for the slow progress are many. Beyond being among the world's poorest nations and a frequent victim of destructive weather, Haiti's land registry is in chaos — a drag on reconstruction because it's not always clear who owns what land. Then there's a political standoff that went on for more than a year and still hobbles decision-making.
After the quake, a disputed presidential election triggered tyre-burning riots that shut down Port-au-Prince for three days. The international airport was forced to close and foreign aid workers had to hunker down in their compounds.
Even after the vote was resolved and Michel Martelly was installed as president in May 2011, there were further snags. The former pop star, new to politics, took six months to install a prime minister, whose job is to oversee reconstruction projects. He infuriated Opposition politicians because his administration jailed a deputy without following the law and named a prime minister without consulting them first. They retaliated by trying to thwart him at every turn.
For six months, Martelly was running a Government with ministers of the outgoing administration. "It created a situation where it was difficult to take off," the new foreign affairs minister, Laurent Lamothe, told The Associated Press.
Another victim of the impasse was a reconstruction panel co-chaired by Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti. Lawmakers refused to renew its mandate, complaining it contained too few Haitians, though they may have been using it as a pretext to punish Martelly. But it meant that for the next six months there was no agency in place to co-ordinate home-building.
Meanwhile Government employees could be found napping at their desks while awaiting orders from their bosses that never came.
The Government and international partners say there has been some progress — 600 classrooms for 60,000 children to return to school, more than half of the 10 million cubic metres of rubble cleared, and roads newly paved in the capital and countryside.
New housing is still the most critical objective, yet the biggest official housing effort targets just five per cent of those in need, and the encampments of cardboard, tarps and bed sheets that went up to cope with 1.5 million homeless people have morphed into shantytowns that increasingly look permanent.
More than 550,000 people are still living in the grim and densely packed camps that are squeezed into the capital's alleyways and pitched on the side of rural roads. And many of those who left the camps, often being evicted or paid to go, say their new conditions are little better, and sometimes much worse.
"I certainly wouldn't call (reconstruction) a success," said Alex Dupuy, who has written books about Haiti and teaches at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "Other than putting a Government in place... I haven't seen any concrete evidence of recovery under way."
In the first year after the quake, the previous Government never set up a housing agency or a clear housing strategy, and meanwhile the camps swelled because foreign aid groups were delivering what the Government didn't: water, latrines and electricity. Former President Rene Preval identified five plots of land for new housing but only obtained one, through eminent domain.
Of the 10 best-funded projects approved by a reconstruction panel, not one focuses exclusively on housing. A US-financed US$225 million industrial park includes housing for 5,000 workers. But it's on the northern coast of Haiti, 240 kilometres (150 miles) outside the quake zone.
The highest-profile effort to house the displaced came three months after the quake, on the eve of the rainy season. The US military and actor Sean Penn bused 5,000 people from a flood-prone golf course to a cleared field in Corail-Cesselesse, north of Port-au-Prince. It was supposed to be the country's first planned community, with factories and houses for 300,000 people.
That never happened.
Today, the people of Corail-Cesselesse are ravaged by floods or bake in the heat in their timber-frame shelters. They are far from the jobs that sustained them before the quake. They speak of abandonment and lack of services.
"It looks like there's no government," said Stanley Xavier, a 30-year-old former cabbie, now unemployed. "Before they moved us out of the golf club, they made a lot of promises like they'll create cash-for-work."
"They said they'd give us jobs," said neighbour Jocelin Belzince, 39. Instead he says he has had to become an extortionist, charging newcomers US$250 for a scrap of land he doesn't own.
"It's an opportunity for us to survive; I have kids to feed," Belzince said with a smile. "It's not only us doing this. There are a lot of people doing the same thing."
Martelly's new administration has begun building two housing projects: 400 homes by the bay and another 3,000 at the foot of a deforested mountain. And Lamothe, the foreign affairs minister, says US$40 million in Venezuelan aid will be used to develop the southern coastal town of Jacmel in hopes of decongesting the capital.
But the Government's overall strategy now is to move quake survivors back into their old neighbourhoods even if many of those were slums before the quake. That skirts the land title issue, makes infrastructure cheaper and puts people closer to old friends who might help them find work.
This comes in the form of a housing project in Port-au-Prince called "6/16." The Government and aid groups are moving residents of six camps into 16 neighbourhoods to be redeveloped. Several thousand people have already left three settlements, one in a stadium parking lot, the others in two middle-class town squares ringed by amenities such as restaurants, a church and a hotel.
The programme seeks to house only five per cent of the displaced population, but Government officials say it's a pilot project that they hope to replicate elsewhere.
Residents can pay the landlord a subsidized annual rent of US$500, or accept money to build or rebuild their own homes. They also get US$150 in moving costs.
"Staying in a tent is not an option any more, two years after the earthquake," said Nicole Widdersheim of the US Agency for International Development.
Although it's more modest than the old ambition of dispersing population to new areas, "6/16" is getting some US$125 million in aid, mostly from the World Bank and the World Bank-run Haiti Reconstruction Fund.
Many former camp dwellers have moved into old, boxy apartments in the vast mountainside shantytown called Jalousie. Here young people hum Rihanna hits and fist-bump each other, saying, "respect — Jalousie," a sign that a sense of neighbourhood is taking hold.
Marise Nelson, a pregnant mother of one who received US$500 from aid groups to pay a year's rent, doesn't miss the camp in the town square which she left after two years.
"You couldn't find food. You couldn't find water. You couldn't find a community," said Nelson, a 26-year-old homemaker.
She likes her new one-bedroom house, the neighbours, the water well and the little boutiques.
"The big difference here is that I can keep the place clean," she said as she stirred a pot of white rice and her daughter peered behind her.
Meristin Florival wishes he could too. Instead, he says, he must put up with neighbours in a camp who use plastic bags for their bodily waste and toss them onto shanty roofs.
Jean Rony Alexis and his wife, Darlene Claircin, are glad to have shade from the sun and room for a table and bed, but say life is no better in the crowded Delmas section of the capital than it was in the camp.
"It's the same thing," Alexis said. "I was suffering there. I'm suffering here."