Michelle Obama spotlights Haiti relief efforts

Tuesday's unannounced visit to Haiti by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden highlights progress by Haiti relief workers in the three months since the earthquake, and how much rebuilding lies ahead.

Brennan Linsley/AP
First lady Michelle Obama, Haiti's first lady Elisabeth Debrosse (r.), and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph Biden (l.), paint with children at a center for displaced children in Port-au-Prince, Tuesday.

When first lady Michelle Obama spoke to workers at the United Nations Tuesday, during an unannounced visit to Haiti, the crowds broke into applause at several points. Some had tears in their eyes.

"It was a great show of support," says Haitian UN employee Christine Canal. "Now I just hope that all that goodwill will translate into something concrete for us."

That is the same sentiment expressed by international relief organizations, after Ms. Obama and Jill Biden, wife of vice president Joe Biden, landed in Haiti Tuesday morning – taking the country, and the world, by surprise.

IN PICTURES: Michelle Obama in Haiti

“It’s a reminder that Haiti is still in crisis, and that rebuilding is going to take a long time,” says Krista Riddley, the director of humanitarian policy at Oxfam America.

Today's stop by Obama and Biden is one of several high-profile visits to Haiti made in recent weeks, including American actor Sean Penn and Colombian singer Shakira. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and several Latin American heads of state have also been here since the Jan. 12 quake. And former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have flown in too.

But many hope that a visit by the US president’s wife will provide more than just a media blip – and that it will sustain promises of billions made at a UN international donor’s conference on March 31. “A lot of money was pledged in New York, and we have to keep checking in to makes sure those pledges are followed through,” says Ms. Riddley.

Three months after the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit this country, the nation is still reeling from what many call among the worst natural disasters in modern times. Over 220,000 were killed. A million remain homeless.

During their trip, Obama and Ms. Biden flew by helicopter to the presidential palace, which was damaged as so many other government building were in the quake, to visit with Haitian President Rene Preval. Obama and Biden and Haiti's first lady, Elisabeth Debrosse Preval, also visited a children’s center that tends to quake victims. There, the Associated Press reported that Obama danced and clapped with the children, and the women sat down to do some arts-and-crafts.

"It’s powerful. The devastation is definitely powerful,” Obama was quoted as saying after flying in a US army helicopter over the destruction of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Despite Haiti’s strained history with the US, the Obama administration is generally very popular, and many welcomed the American first lady – even if the president himself has yet to visit. The US has given almost a $1 billion in humanitarian aid and pledged the same amount to help the country steer its reconstruction.

The surprise visit, which is the first solo international trip by the first lady, who is en route to Mexico on a three-day visit, will resonate especially for Haitian women, says Riddley. “Going alone without the president, being a female, probably boosts the spirit of women in Haiti.”

It was billed as a way to underscore the commitment the US has to ongoing relief efforts, and to thank those who have helped. That reflects Haitians attitudes.

How Haitians view relief efforts

In a survey released by Oxfam Tuesday – to mark three months since the quake – 64 percent of Haitians surveyed said they believe international NGOs did a ‘very good,’ ‘good,’ or ‘decent’ job in the emergency earthquake response.

Of 1,700 Haitians surveyed, top priorities for reconstruction are jobs and schools. Shelter and a strong agricultural sector factored next as priorities. Unemployment was the No. 1 concern of Haitians before the earthquake. The survey shows it’s still No. 1, followed by corruption, violence and insecurity, and irresponsibility of the government, the Oxfam survey showed.

UNICEF also released a three-month report on its efforts since the quake, noting that "there has been no significant disease outbreak or increase in malnutrition rates, over a million affected people are receiving clean drinking water, and over 200,000 women and children are benefiting from selective feeding programs."

But UNICEF says that the key challenges ahead include "provision of sanitation, risks of violence against women and girls living in displacement camps, and the broader issue of much-reduced government and civil society capacity."

IN PICTURES: Michelle Obama in Haiti

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