Haiti: Ten years on
[Ten years ago, the BBC’s Caribbean Service set up special programming to connect the people of Haiti with support lines. Debbie Ransome, the service’s then head, looks back on the award-winning BBC collaboration.]
Every now and again, a small team of people have to face a major challenge that stretches their resources and forces them to take on a much higher profile than they could have imagined.
That’s exactly what happened to the BBC’s Caribbean Service 10 years ago, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on 12 January 2010.
Before that momentous event, the service had provided daily radio bulletins and a magazine programme to the Caribbean, as well as a daily online news service.
Based in what was then the BBC World Service headquarters at Bush House in London, it also provided tips, expertise and other snippets on things Caribbean to the wider BBC.
But all that was in English and aimed chiefly at English-speaking territories in the region. Now the task was to produce an entirely new programme from scratch, broadcasting in Haitian Creole – not about news but providing a lifeline for a stricken people who had been overwhelmed by disaster.
Koneksyon Ayiti (Connection Haiti), as it was known, made a big impact. By the end of the first month after the quake struck, even the US National Security Council’s chief spokesman saw us as the main outlet for getting out on-the-ground information for Haiti. Through our broadcasts, we were able to unite a Haitian-American mother in the US with her son, whom she’d thought dead in Port-au-Prince. Later in 2010, we won an Association of International Broadcasting (AIB) award for the programme (photo of the award-winning team from the Caribbean Service, the World Service newsroom and the BBC World Service Trust at the top of this page).
Key to all these special programmes were my team’s dedication in the face of a major story and the Creole-speaking skills of two of the Caribbean Service's producers from Dominica – Ken Richards and Marie-Claire Williams.
A year later, the service was given additional support once again to run a series of TV and radio specials (in the days before podcasts) called Tent Tales, with Marie-Claire reporting from Haiti itself.
Against this backdrop, my amazing team continued to broadcast the twice-daily weekday BBC Caribbean Report and the weekly Caribbean Magazine programmes in English as part of the Americas World Service schedule. We also maintained our online presence, which had proved invaluable to the newsrooms of the Caribbean.
Koneksyon Ayiti was a marvel of collaboration. Although I was just the head of a tiny department, the wider BBC provided everything necessary – funding, World Service newsroom resources, BBC technical support – to set up a newsroom in Miami broadcasting special programmes for the people of Haiti. There was no delay, no inter-departmental foot dragging.
As I wrote at the time, we were driven by a particular mission: “We'd agreed at meetings in London, and later with the Creole team in Miami, this was not a news programme but vital information for Haitians seeking the location of a temporary hospital, water supplies, food drops and other key information.”
The Caribbean, being a resilient region, has often proved itself capable of bouncing back from natural disasters, but from the first morning, it became clear that this was much bigger.
I wrote later for the BBC: “As the agency cameramen moved into the capital, the raw footage showed the collapse of the National Palace, the loss of key government buildings, police stations, and, crucially, the local headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping team.
“We also spent large parts of the day trying to contact our man in Port-au-Prince who also files for a major news agency.
“While we couldn't get through to him by phone (most phones were out in Haiti), we could see his contributions on the wire service and it was clear he was, at least, alive.
“By day two, there were extended programmes to cover the full extent of the devastation as the picture became clearer.”
Taking stock one year on
A year later, our Tent Tales series started to give a sense of what would become the tragic picture still reflected today - of how few gains had been made, despite the global outpouring of aid, support and kind words.
In 2011, Marie-Claire Williams wrote: “We visited a number of tented communities in and around the capital, and the residents were only too willing to share their stories… Their frustration at the pace of recovery was palpable... The common message was that the government was not doing enough to improve conditions – there is not enough food and not enough jobs.”
Ten years on, little seems to have changed in Haiti, while much has changed at our end. BBC Caribbean was shut in the 2011 World Service budget cuts.
Some of our producers and correspondents are now senior and veteran voices in the Caribbean domestic media, while I manage Caribbean Intelligence within a portfolio of other Commonwealth/Caribbean interests.
I’m proud of their work, which demonstrates that a crack team of dedicated journalists are not just for emergencies. But for Haiti’s sake, this 10th anniversary makes me ask the same question that many in the hemisphere’s media are asking: what has been achieved?
The answers do not make good listening.
Miami Herald correspondent Jacqueline Charles – one of the few specialist voices still keeping an eye on Haiti for a major news outlet – wrote on Twitter a few days ahead of the anniversary: “It’s been 10 years. It may not seem long, but for those living in awful conditions in the camps, it’s a lifetime.
“Maybe they have a sense of entitlement. But were they not promised free, better housing? Should they not have believed?”
Jacqueline’s article for the Herald talks of a “decade of aftershocks and unkept promises” and charts the lives of those still living in tent cities 10 years on.
Many news outlets in the hemisphere have been spending the anniversary trying to work out why so little has happened to improve the lot of Haitian people, who spent the pre-Christmas period protesting against their current administration.
In an article called Haiti 10 Years After The Earthquake: Why So Little Recovery Progress In A Decade? WLRN in Miami follows the journey of Jean Samson Edouard, who survived the quake while still a student, left for Florida and later returned to be a teacher in his native land.
He told WLRN that the earthquake had given Haiti “an opportunity to take off, to learn development… Unfortunately, nothing [has] happened. No planning. No leadership. No project.”
WLRN said: “It’s hard to argue with him. It took a year after the quake just to get real debris removal started. It took seven years to reopen Haiti’s major hospital. Today, Haiti is facing one of the worst food shortages in the Americas. That’s not to mention the country’s endless political upheaval — and protesters now demanding the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse, who is accused of involvement in a $2bn corruption scandal involving infrastructure project funds (which he denies).
WLRN added: “So why, after a decade, has Haiti made so little recovery progress? Many Haitians say one big reason is that the country’s spirit itself has yet to recover. When you need to be psychologically healed first, then it’s hard for you to think about development, says Marie Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian American and a psychology professor at the University of Miami. Nicolas was in Haiti during the earthquake, and she says it’s hard to exaggerate how brutally traumatic it truly was.”
In a 2019 investigative report, the Guardian newspaper used a number of freedom of information requests to try and find out where the aid money has gone. It concluded that a series of doomed multi-million dollar projects had been partly responsible for the “failed promise” of US aid.
The Guardian concluded: “Little about the US’s foreign policy toward Haiti has changed since the 2010 earthquake. The US continues to send the country surplus crops through the Food for Peace programme to this day. Hillary Clinton stepped down as US secretary of state in 2013, but her successors have championed the same sort of private-sector-focused development.
“USAid continues to spend money to boost Haiti’s textile industry, and the US government continues to advertise Haiti as a business opportunity for US investors... In spite of its failures to ring in a new era of prosperity for Haiti by building an industrial park and a port, the US is undeterred in its belief that industry and manufacturing are the key to Haiti’s future.”
Since 2010, Haiti has been hit by continued flooding caused by deforestation; Hurricane Matthew; cholera allegedly caused by UN peacekeepers; and the Oxfam scandal of abuse from those meant to be helping.
From the perspective of BBC Caribbean and continued coverage on Caribbean Intelligence of how other Caribbean countries build back from disaster, Haiti continues to appear be the anomaly that throws the Caribbean #buildbackbetter narrative out of synch.
And yet, there are many examples of the resilience of the Haitian people, no matter what hits them – to be found in their vibrant culture, civic political strength and their strong diaspora presence in America and Canada.
The last word goes to Marie-Claire Williams, in a piece that she wrote after her visit to Haiti: “Spray-painted on to buildings in Port-au-Prince is the message ‘Haiti pap peri’ – Haiti will not perish. But my Haitian Creole translator does not share the optimism of some of his fellow citizens that the country will not perish.
“’It already has,’ he tells me. ‘Look at the state of the country, there is no hope.’
“The earthquake survivors I have spoken to say 12 January is a date they will never forget. In one way or another, all Haitians were affected by the disaster.”
For me, the BBC proved 10 years ago what it can do beyond the news when it brought together the expertise from its journalistic, technical, logistic and charitable areas of work to provide a lifeline for a people still in trauma a decade later.
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