Both before and since the earthquake in Haiti, there has perhaps been no greater American advocate for the country’s revitalization than Bill Clinton. The former president likes to tell how he spent his honeymoon in Haiti and fell in love with the nation, its history and its people. After leaving the White House, Clinton served as the United Nations’ Special Envoy to Haiti and used his foundation to continue his philanthropic work with the country as well.
Now, despite his long relationship with the country, Bill Clinton is facing major criticism over the conditions of the temporary shelters his foundation provided for displaced Haitians following the January 12, 2010 quake.
In an article titled, “The Shelters That Clinton Built,” Isabel Macdonald and Isabeau Doucet reporters from The Nation found that the temporary housing units that the former president’s foundation had provided the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission were not the safe homes Haitians were looking forward to. According to the article:
However, when Nation reporters visited the “hurricane-proof” shelters in June, six to eight months after they’d been installed, we found them to consist of twenty imported prefab trailers beset by a host of problems, from mold to sweltering heat to shoddy construction. Most disturbing, they were manufactured by the same company, Clayton Homes, that is being sued in the United States for providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with formaldehyde-laced trailers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Air samples collected from twelve Haiti trailers detected worrying levels of this carcinogen in one, according to laboratory results obtained as part of a joint investigation by The Nation and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.
Macdonald and Doucet’s article continues:
Any number of factors might be contributing to the headaches and eye irritation reported by INHAC staff and students. However, similar symptoms were experienced by those living in the FEMA trailers that were found by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde. Lab tests conducted as part of our investigation in Haiti discovered levels of the carcinogen in the sixth-grade Clinton Foundation classroom in Léogâne at 250 parts per billion—two and a half times the level at which the CDC warned FEMA trailer residents that sensitive people, such as children, could face adverse health effects. Assay Technologies, the accredited lab that analyzed the air tests, identifies 100 parts per billion and more as the level at which “65–80 percent of the population will most likely exhibit some adverse health symptoms…when exposed continually over extended periods of time.”
Reacting to The Nation’s report, Clinton’s foundation said they would be sending experts to check the 20 faulty shelters in Leogone. According to The Associated Press:
Foundation Chief of Staff Laura Graham says the independent experts will evaluate the 20 shelters in the town of Leogane. Graham says any construction deficiencies will be fixed.
Housing conditions in Haiti have been the subject of much debate since the earthquake. While safety was the priority of many aid groups and officials, in the immediate aftermath and the following hurricane season, most displaced Haitians simply wanted a roof over their heads. With aid groups waiting on pledged funding from foreign donors, many Haitians began using whatever materials they could find to built homes of their own. The makeshift constructions, often made from whatever was left around, became a cause for concern and some aid groups tied with financial red tape gave Haitians guides for building safe structures as they took matters into their own hands.
Jim Kennedy, CARE’s Shelter Coordinator in Haiti told MediaGlobal in an interview last year:
“We’d all love to magically have all the materials we need right here right now, but I think we have to accept this is an emergency of enormous scale. The rubble clearing alone is literally clearing out a city. Bringing in the materials to build will be bringing in a city…Of course people are building back themselves. If you were in a situation where your house had fallen down, you wouldn’t wait around; you’d roll up your sleeves and get to work. So where NGOs need to double up their efforts is not emphasizing just build back better, but also stressing build back safer.”
In the midst of the chaos, Clinton’s foundation was one of the first organizations to deliver on their promise to provide shelter. Still, the report and Clayton Homes’ involvement in Haiti’s reconstruction is troubling given their similar issues providing shelter to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina.