Since May 26, the Haiti News Project has been trying to donate a shipment of computers and cameras to Haitian journalists. Finally, on Thursday, nearly two months later, the long odyssey ended. The story of what happened — red tape, paperwork, needless delays and a bureaucracy that can’t get out of its own way — is one small example of why, on a much grander scale, Haiti’s recovery from the January earthquake seems to be going nowhere.
A great many people from all over the world saw the terrible destruction of the 7.0 earthquake on Haiti’s already destitute and impoverished people, and rallied collectively to help them. The losses were of epic proportions: 1.5 million people displaced; more than 250,000 killed.
In quick order the international community pledged $5 billion to help Haitians fight their way out of the rubble. Amazingly, thanks to nearly universal support, it seems this time that Haiti not only would be helped to recover, but could be rebuilt better than it was.
Six months later, a depressing reality is taking shape: an improved Haiti may still be possible; but for that to happen, Haiti needs to get out of its own way.
Our consortium of media groups from Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States pledged to do its part by helping Haitian newspapers and journalists recover from their losses and become viable again. We offered advice and technical assistance. We helped line up low-interest loans, promised to re-equip newsrooms, to train journalists and to establish a journalism center for ongoing watchdog reporting.
Damage and losses from the earthquake nearly put Haiti’s media on life support. Thirty journalists were killed and more than a dozen were injured. The offices of two newspapers, Le Rouleau and Haiti Liberte were destroyed. Le Matin, the country’s second-largest newspaper, suffered severe damage; and the largest paper, Le Nouvelliste was forced out of its offices in Petion-Ville. The disaster cut deeply into the newspapers’ primary revenue source — advertising. So many businesses that buy newspaper ads were destroyed or badly damaged that newspapers’ income dropped by 75 percent. And no one expects a quick recovery.
To survive, newspapers downsized operations, including dismissing staff. Some reporters joined to the flood of NGO’s (nongovernmental humanitarian organizations) arriving in the country where the pay was good and the work similar.
In May, the Haiti News Project began to send laptop computers to newspapers and journalists in small lots via reporters and couriers. In early June, we purchased 20 computers and two digital cameras to be delivered by traditional means using a local distributor to ship the equipment. We added two donated used digital cameras and four lenses to the lot.
We asked for an exemption from Haiti’s usual 30 percent Customs fees to maximize the amount of equipment we could buy and because the laptops and cameras would be given without cost to struggling journalists. The Haitian government must approve exemptions, and it does so through the Ministry of Commerce, which issues a letter of authorization.
Considering that Haiti was in a deep crisis and our charitable cause was meritorious, it seemed that the government would quickly approve. That, however, was not to be the case. We sent and re-sent letters to the Ministry, asked the Haitian Consul in Miami for help and appealed directly to the Prime Minister. After six weeks, nothing had happened. Getting the exemption seemed impossible. It also became clear that getting the equipment into journalists hands was more important that avoiding Customs’ exorbitant fees, which for this shipment would be $3,600.
But there was a surprise in store for us at the Customs office at the airport in Port-au-Prince. A Customs official explained that because the equipment was being donated and was valued at more than $5,000, it would have to go through the government’s formal “SGS” process. The process requires an authorization letter from the Minister of Commerce and support from, or designation as, an NGO. This was a classic Catch 22, revived to cruel effect in impoverished Haiti.
Two days of anxious pleadings to government officials produced nothing useful. The computers seemed destined to sit for weeks or months in a Customs black hole. That has been the fate of much larger shipments, including of essential medical supplies mere days after the earthquake.
This is the point where a sharp understanding of how things work in Haiti saved the day. The woman who served as driver and translator on my visits to Haiti suggested we hire the owner of a local import-export business as broker. The man obviously had done this before. He was well-acquainted with Customs rules, and its seemingly discretionary rule makers. In a matter of hours, he had sliced through the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, paid reduced Customs fees and presented me with a bill that nearly matched the 30 percent duty.
On Thursday evening, I delivered the first Dell Mini laptop to Desmond Loramus, 42. Before the earthquake, he covered cultural affairs for Le Nouvelliste’s Ticket magazine. Loramus survived the quake but lost his home and his job. He has been living in a tent in Jean-Mary park since Janauary. He spends his days at a Reporters Without Borders compound that has become a place of refuge and comfort for dozens of displaced and dispirited journalists.
Loramus was happy and grateful for the laptop. He will use it to look for work and to research and write freelance stories, he said. The computer will help him become whole again.
That is something for which Haitian government should be removing barriers, not erecting them.