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Land disputes and rubble have stalled the job of rebuilding Haiti

You couldn't find Stephen Harper at an event marking the anniversary of Haiti's devastating earthquake this week, and that's a sure sign there's not much to celebrate. He made Haiti Canada's top aid priority, but can't claim that Ottawa helped the world find the path to reconstruction.

Last year, Mr. Harper earned kudos for making a quick disaster response, hosting a reconstruction conference and promising Canada's commitment to long-term reconstruction. This year, two of his ministers marked the anniversary, fielding questions about slow rebuilding.

The Harper government can't be held responsible for the slow pace of rebuilding, and the problem is that nobody can. Former governor-general Michaëlle Jean, now UNESCO envoy to Haiti, complained that the system isn't working. So who's responsible for the system?

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Two bottlenecks have blocked the move from relief to rebuilding: land and rubble. Among international donors and in Ottawa, they're recognized as key obstacles to reconstruction in Haiti.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Tuesday that Canada's projects have waited on decisions from Haiti's government and international co-ordination, "but we are demonstrating leadership with the size of our contribution."

He echoed frustration with Haiti's dysfunctional government, but Canada is also supposed to be a leader in the international co-ordination that's lacking. Ottawa plans to contribute more than $250-million to Haiti this year. Canada is one of the major international players there.

Canada provided much-needed shelter, food, water and health care after 1.5 million people lost homes; it still does. For the longer term, Ottawa's aid agency, CIDA, is doing more in post-earthquake Haiti of what it has done for years: funded a long, diverse list of projects in education, health and agriculture. All good, but something else was needed. The world was supposed to pool money and plan with Haiti how to rebuild. But reconstruction hasn't really started and nearly one million people are still in camps because of obstacles such as a lack of land and rubble.

The land problem rests squarely with Haiti itself. Most land is disputed by several who claim to own it, but land is needed to build housing, roads, waterworks and schools. "How do we do that when nobody knows who owns the land half the time?" said David Morley, CEO of Save the Children Canada.

Haiti's government will have to expropriate land, but it is weak and was unwilling to make decisions during an election campaign. The election-results crisis means more limbo.

But that doesn't fully explain why more rubble hasn't been cleared. Some estimate only 5 per cent of the rubble, 10 million to 20 million cubic metres of it, has been removed, though the UN resident co-ordinator Nigel Fisher believes 10 to 15 per cent has been cleared. Most streets are passable, but rubble still prevents house repairs and new building, according to Oxfam International's one-year review.

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The land question complicates rubble removal, but most aid officials can't understand why so much is still there. Haitians wouldn't have objected if other countries had rushed in to move it, and sent bulldozers and trucks.

"I remember thinking [soon after the quake]it would be great if an engineering corps from the UN brought in a whole bunch of backhoes, because the Haitian government wasn't going to have the wherewithal to pull it together. Or if, when the Canadian and American militaries were around, they could have brought in some engineering corps to clear it out, " Mr. Morley said. "I don't understand."

International planning walked over the rubble. Canada pledged $400-million for rebuilding, but only $1.5-million to remove debris. The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, co-chaired by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive, was supposed to co-ordinate global aid, but debate over its mandate delayed work for several months, Mr. Fisher said. It finally released a strategy to remove 40 per cent of the rubble last month.

Canada put $31-million into that Interim Reconstruction Committee, just enough to be a member. It sends most directly to agencies and NGOs. Oxfam's report found countries still insist too much on their own aid plans, when more co-ordination is needed, but it also blasted the Reconstruction Committee for failing to co-ordinate.

But it's Canada's job, as much as anyone outside Haiti, to pool money and push progress on a common global plan that tackles the obstacles. Whether an effective international plan would have pushed Haiti's government to free up land is anyone's guess, but it would have cleared some rubble. And it still must this year.

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs from Ottawa

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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