Why The Arts Matter: Haiti Lives

A photographic exhibition in Belfast's Waterfront Hall, organised by Oxfam, aims to raise awareness and aid the recovery in Haiti

Since the minute the goudou-goudou (the name locals give to the earthquake) made the ground rumble and shake on January 12, 2010, more than 230,000 people have died and about 1.5 million have lost their homes in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and nearby cities.

Chief executive of Oxfam Ireland, Jim Clarken, visited the region in the week after the earthquake. 'Everyone had seen the footage on TV, but it was only on arriving there that you could appreciate the scale of the devastation - which was astronomical,' Clarken recalls.

'The city of Port-au-Prince was basically flattened: everywhere you looked there were collapsed buildings and rubble. And each collapsed building you passed was, you were aware, like a tomb, a place were loved ones had died, their bodies buried in the rubble.

'The people I met were in total shock and virtually every Haitian had been affected by the earthquake in some way. But my impression was that these were resilient people, coping as heroically as possible in the most tragic of circumstances.'

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One year on and the people of Haiti are still struggling to have their most basic needs met. The country today is described as ‘in tatters’: cluttered with garbage and debris, with much of its population living in displacement camps and ‘tent cities’. There are shortages of food and water, an unstable government failing to take effective control and outbreaks of cholera exacerbating an already serious public health situation.

According to a report published by Oxfam’s Martin Hartberg last week, some one million people are still living under makeshift tents and tarpaulins hanging from wooden posts, despite nearly £10bn of donations and aid pledges. Rubble still covers Port-au-Prince and, say Oxfam, a 'year of indecision' and a 'lack of co-ordination between aid agencies and donors' has delayed reconstruction efforts.

This natural disaster has vastly tested the international community’s ability to supply and sustain aid; mass sympathy and so many funding pledges have produced limited results so far and the suffering continues. How does Oxfam respond to charges of a halting and inadequate international aid response in rebuilding Haiti?

'We have to start by acknowledging the scale of the devastation,' says Clarken. 'It was absolutely unprecedented and no one could ever have predicted this. We also have to remember how Haiti was before the quake - one of the poorest countries in the world, very underdeveloped, a place where infrastructure and government was already so weak.

'After the earthquake so many aid agencies, like Oxfam, were weakened by the disaster and many lost staff. 15 out of 17 government departments were lost in Haiti, the UN lost over 100 staff including their head of mission. So, many of the agencies who you would expect to respond immediately were already damaged in their own right - all this on top of a structure that was very weak.

'We didn’t expect that it would be possible to rebuild Haiti in a year - its problems run so deep. When you consider, for example, that Kobe in Japan - one of the richest countries in the world - suffered a massive earthquake in 1995, and it took seven years for them to rebuild that city, with all of the technology and sophisticated resources they had to hand, you can see how rebuilding Haiti in 12 months was never going to happen.'

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Since the earthquake Oxfam says it has reached over 875,000 people with services in clean water, sanitation, hygiene education, shelter, ‘cash for work’ programmes and livelihoods support. But long-term recovery means rebuilding homes, helping businesses to get going again and providing jobs and investment.

The Interim Commission for the Rebuilding of Haiti, jointly chaired by former US president Bill Clinton and the president of Haiti, is overseeing this difficult process. 'We need to see these projects moving quicker,' acknowledges Clarken.

People throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic have already offered 'incredible' support for Oxfam’s work in Haiti and, in view of the small steps being made towards a brighter Haitian future, the organisation is holding a photographic exhibition, entitled Haiti Lives, which captures something of the spirit of Haitian people in the face of the chaos.

The exhibition at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall features pictures taken by American photo-journalist Ami Vitale and the images show small moments of hope, quiet, industry and camaraderie amid the rubble: a grandmother holding her grandchildren close; children fetching water or wood; a farmer with the beginnings of a smile; panoramic views of makeshift homes and cities that have become patchworks of tarpaulin.

This is not to gloss over the very real trauma and suffering still experienced in the region, but rather a tribute to the strength of a people struggling to survive and move forwards.

'Agencies like Oxfam do good work,' concludes Clarken, 'but we have to remember that ultimately, it is the resilience of the Haitian people that makes all the difference to recovery. I have heard so many stories of heroism and seen so many images - like those in this exhibition - that capture this Haitian spirit and determination.'

If you would like to donate money to support Oxfam’s ongoing work in Haiti, visit www.oxfamireland.org or call in to one of Oxfam’s 24 shops across the province.

Haiti Lives runs at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast until January 31.