Between Relief and Development: Haiti One Year Later

  • Posted on: 12 January 2011
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Today marks one year since the earthquake.  There has been a great deal of commentary, dialogue, and debate over what is going well, what is not, what should be improved and how.  Much of Port au Prince is still in ruins, a cholera epidemic has yet to peak, and the most recent elections were a debacle.  The anniversary provides an opportunity for us to consider what will get Haiti out of survival mode and on the path to development.  Doing so will depend in large part upon the Haitian government, its willingness to change, and ability to lead.


Looking back on the days and weeks after the earthquake, there has never been a more complex urban disaster in the Western Hemisphere.  Prior to the earthquake, the Haitian government was slowly getting better at governing.  However, the earthquake devastated the government, which lost many civil servants, all but one of its buildings, and most of the equipment and records in them.  Imported food and fuel could not get in.  MINUSTAH took heavy losses, including the death of Haiti Mission Chief Hedi Annabi.  The Port au Prince airport and seaport, at least initially, were inoperational.  Access to clean water and sanitation facilities, already poor, deteriorated.  First responders, such as the Haitian Red Cross, themselves lost homes and loved ones.  Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and International Organizations (IOs) lost offices and staff.  When humanitarian cargo began entering the country there was a shortage of places to store it due to the destruction of numerous warehouses.  Thousands of prisoners escaped in the chaos, raising concerns about violence and kidnapping.  The Cluster System suffered from weak leadership and had difficulty coordinating hundreds of different organizations.  Certainly, there were other challenges as well.


To be sure, the response could have gone better.  More effort should have been invested in including Haitians in the Cluster System and other coordination mechanisms.  Holding meetings in accessible locations with French or Kreyol translation from the onset would have been useful for engaging community groups and leaders.  Security should have been established and maintained in the spontaneous settlements, including through night patrols, community mobilization, and other measures. Protection of women and children in the camps was recognized as a serious gap far too late.  Still, there is no disputing that the NGOs and IOs, working heroically under extremely difficult conditions, saved many lives. According to the United Nations, four million people received food assistance, emergency shelter materials were delivered to 1.5 million, safe water was distributed to more than a million, and a million more benefited from cash-for-work programs.


Humanitarian responders deserve credit for their efforts.  Generally speaking, the international community is stronger at humanitarian response than it is at helping a country transition through recovery and into development.  In Haiti's case, it became and still is caught in the limbo that exists between relief and development.  How did this happen?  After the earthquake, hundreds of thousands fled Port au Prince to secondary cities and the countryside.  With basic food and livelihood assistance, many would have stayed.  Both donors and responders were overwhelmingly focused on Port au Prince and the greater south, but a broader country wide strategy was also needed.  The neglect of water and other priority issues outside of Port-au- Prince certainly played a role in Haiti's vulnerability to water borne diseases like cholera.  Failing to find opportunities, many of the displaced returned to Port au Prince and to the camps.  Over time, the population living in camps swelled with those who were not victims of the earthquake so much as victims of abject poverty.  Sadly, for someone living in Cite Soleil, life in a camp represents a significant step up in terms of access to services.  If we could do it all over, services should have transitioned from camps to neighboring communities and then to broader systems in Port au Prince and beyond.  Access to health services actually improved for many after the earthquake, given that care was (understandably) provided for free by NGOs and IOs.  However, this had the unintended consequence of shutting down many private sector facilities.  Managing camp services is expensive and these funds could be put to reconstruction activities - if the displaced had other options.  However, many do not have the luxury of alternatives.


We were very lucky that a hurricane did not pass directly over Haiti in 2010.  The results would have been catastrophic.  Even without the wind and pounding rains a hurricane would have brought, the conditions in the camps are difficult.  There has been a significant drop in the number of Haitians living in camps overall.  According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 810,000 people are still living in informal sites in Port-au-Prince and the provinces. This represents half the figure of 1.5 million in July.   IOM reports that this is the first time that the camp population in Haiti has dropped to below one million.  The largest declines are being witnessed in the south in rural and semi-urban areas where housing options are more easily available than in Port au Prince where land is the primary issue.  Some 200,000 are reported to have left the camps either because they now have transitional shelters, left to live with friends or extended families, or returned to homes that were damaged.  A shelter assessment determined that over half of houses in Port au Prince were determined to be safe for habitation (green), 26 percent could be made safe with significant repairs (yellow), and 21 percent of the houses are unsafe for habitation requiring demolition (red).


A recurring theme, and a major source of frustration, has been the indecisiveness of the Haitian government in making the hard policy decisions that would move the recovery process forward.  The role of humanitarian responders is not to make policy.  As a sovereign, albeit battered country, the Haitian government has ultimate responsibility for the well being of its people.  While Haiti has suffered many natural disasters, this is perhaps the first time that the Haitian government was placed "in the driver's seat" to the extent that it was.  Unfortunately, the government lacked the technical and managerial expertise to properly lead the response.  This should not have come as a suprise.  The Haitian government would have needed a massive surge of capacity to carry out what it was being asked to do.  Perhaps partner governments, regional organizations, and multilateral institutions could have provided advisors for key decision makers and ministries, helping the government to work through what needed to be determined, by when, and what would happen if conclusions were not reached.  The Preval Administration, now embroiled in an electoral fiasco, failed to develop a strategy for finding durable solutions for the displaced.  This is directly related to the lack of a policy framework for land tenure, eminent domain, and resolution of the inevitable conflicts that will occur over land disputes.  While land tenure reform may very well upset the elite, many of the displaced will remain stuck where they are without it.  Policies are also needed to actively promote decentralization so Port au Prince does not become the sprawling, over-populated mess that it was before the earthquake.  Policies promoting dual citizenship, eligibility for elections, and overseas voting would encourage the Diaspora to play a more active role beyond sending remittances.  Haiti needs managerial expertise and the Diaspora has it.  Encouraging them to consult/work for governmental institutions would be a step in the right direction.  While many (in particular those with families) would not be willing spend the rest of their careers in Haiti, many would come back for a year or two if the right incentives were in place.


Haiti is often referred to as a "republic of NGOs" or a "nation of projects."  Thousands more projects won't result in development unless the government is able to demonstrate leadership.  It needs to clearly articulate what should be done, where, with what level of resources, and what level of coordination. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), the planning body for the Haitian recovery, was intended to be the primary planning mechanism for the reconstruction effort.  The IHRC, has proven itself to be very good at approving projects, less good at producing results.  To date, the IHRC has approved 14 U.S. government-funded projects worth more than $330 million in the areas of shelter, economic development including credit guarantees for small businesses, debris removal, and the reintegration of disabled persons. To be fair to the IHRC, it does not control funds for the implementation of the projects it approves.  Only one third of the approved projects have donor funding to back it up.  Unfortunately, some donors long ago made pledges which have not turned into much needed contributions.  In a nation of small rather than large projects, the IHRC has yet to fully demonstrate a strong role.


Whoever becomes the next President of Haiti will need to build the leadership, capacity, and accountability of governmental institutions.  Over the short and medium term, Haiti will remain a country where the vast majority of services are provided by local/international NGOs and IOs.  By developing and disseminating policies, setting and enforcing standards, and coordinating with local and international partners, the Haitian government can become a better steward of these services even though are provided by other parties.  As the government demonstrates accountability over time, donors might increasingly consider direct budgetary support.  It will take many years, there will be setbacks, but Haiti's future depend in large part upon transforming a government that provides few services to one that is competent in all its core responsibilies.


Bob Maguire's brief entitled "Transcending the Past to Build the Future" notes "Haiti's poverty, like its governmental weakness, is a product of its political culture...any effort to build a stronger, more resilient Haiti, one that is less dependent on external help, will depend on changing a political culture based on nepotism, clientelism, ineffective bureaucratic administration and politically motivated violence to one that embraces public service, institution building, trust and a fight against corruption...this will require an "effort of transcendence" among not just Haitian political and economic elites, but also religious, university, civil society and peasant leaders.  To this, I might also add media representatives to keep the aforementioned parties honest.


While it may be overshadowed by the immensity of what remains to be done, some progress is being made and there are signs of hope.  Camps are less congested.  Rubble is being removed.  Plans are moving ahead for a major industrial park.  The Iron Market is an example of something that actually was "built back better."  Partners in Health (PIH) has broken ground on what may become one of Haiti's best hospitals.  Certain Ministries, such as Health and Water, have received high marks for their post earthquake performance.  The Organization of American States (OAS) may (please!) soon broker an end to the electoral impasse.  Haiti's governmental and multilateral partners remain engaged in helping the country recover.


In December, Trenton Daniel (Miami Herald) wrote a piece on the fanal lights which are a sentinel of the holiday season in Haiti.  One artist noted that the fanal is a reminder that amongst all the violence and anger, there is a softness.  There is also strength and great resilience.  Better times are ahead and Haiti will slowly emerge from this darkness. 


I sincerely hope that 2011 will be the year of transition, transformation, and transcendence that Haiti deserves.  Thank you for everything that you have done, are doing, and will do to help Haiti recover.  Please feel free to post your thoughts and  feelings on this past year in the comments section below.




Photo Credit:  Matthew Marek


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