Will Hurricane Matthew Reset Haiti's Aid Relationships?

  • Posted on: 21 October 2016
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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The catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 shocked the world and galvanised a massive international response. Just over two weeks after Hurricane Matthew left a trail of destruction across the southwest of the country, already the world appears to be moving on, despite warnings that the impact is severe. The death toll stands at 546, but contaminated water sources and destroyed health-care services are contributing to the rapid spread of cholera and the storm also killed livestock and wiped out crops in many areas where subsistence farmers were about to harvest. “The death toll from the earthquake was horrible and the injuries were much worse, but in terms of the lasting effects I think many people would agree there’s a chance this is even worse than the earthquake,” said Conor Shapiro, CEO of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation which provides community-based healthcare and runs a hospital in southern Haiti. “Is the international community going to see this as the massive disaster that it is?” he added.

The earthquake generated an estimated US$9 billion in aid. By now, it’s well known that the scale of that response was not matched by the outcomes. There was a lack of coordination between the hundreds of international NGOs that flocked to the country following the disaster, but more importantly with the Haitian government and local NGOs. Consultation with the people affected by the earthquake was also minimal, hampering relief efforts and creating a lasting mistrust of foreign aid workers. UN peacekeepers failed to adequately treat their waste-water resulting in a cholera outbreak that has claimed at least 10,000 lives. According to Emily Troutman, a freelance journalist who was based in Port-au-Prince from 2010 to 2012 and now edits her own blog Aid.Works, just 3.5 percent of the aid that poured into Haiti in the three years after the earthquake went to preparing for similar disasters.

In recent years, donor support to Haiti has dwindled. However needs remain: from cholera to drought to the assiting people still displaced by the earthquake, said Enzo Di Taranto, head of office for OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian coordination department, in Haiti. He noted that the 2016 humanitarian response plan for the country was only 32 percent funded and that disaster preparedness was one of the most under-funded components, along with projects to strengthen government capacity. “There wasn’t a solid preparedness structure for a disaster we all knew was coming,” he told IRIN. The government did have a contingency plan and its Department of Civil Protection together with the humanitarian community carried out evacuations in many coastal villages and small islands that Di Taranto said “saved many, many lives”. The government and local NGOs broadcast public service announcements, warning local residents about the hurricane. According to Marilyn Lawney, executive director of the Haitian Health Foundation, which is based in hard-hit Jérémie, many people didn’t believe the warnings. Even if they had, she added, “I’m not sure what they could have done”. There were few buildings in the area that could withstand the Category 4 storm. “Where do you go when the infrastructure is weak?” said Shaprio. “There were some shelters, but not enough.”

The World Food Programme had pre-positioned enough food to feed 300,000 people for three months ahead of hurricane season, but most of the aid was warehoused in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The difficulty of transporting supplies along damaged roads to often remote communities in the south meant that by 18 October, WFP had only reached 77,000 of the estimated 806,000 people in urgent need of food aid. Last week, frustration at the slow pace of aid delivery was already boiling over. Several aid delivery trucks were attacked and shots were fired at a food distribution point in Chambellon, according to MINUSTAH, the UN’s peacekeeping force in Haiti. Lessons clearly have been learned from the chaos that followed the earthquake. UN agencies and INGOs appear more aware of the need to channel assistance through government structures, but the hurricane arrived just ahead of a presidential election that has now been postponed, leaving the country’s immediate recovery in the hands of a fragile, provisional government. “There is a will by key players to empower national authorities so you break the dependence from external partners, but this is a bit tricky because you can do that only when there is capacity,” commented Di Taranto.

Observers such as former Haiti correspondent and author Jonathan Katz argue that it’s the interference of foreign NGOs that has contributed to Haiti’s weak institutions and government and that they must now move towards forging long-term local partnerships and empowering Haitians to lead their own recovery process. Research by Mark Schuller, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University and author of “Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti”, in eight camps where people displaced by the earthquake were still living found that less than five percent of respondents knew why INGOs directed aid where they did. “There needs to be a new relationship to decision making and these need to be made public, not only to possible donors, but to people on the ground because beneficiaries have no idea why INGOs make the decisions they do,” Schuller told IRIN.

The calls for more partnership are not only coming from outside observers. A statement issued by the Popular Democratic People’s Movement, a Haitian civil society organisation, days after the hurricane warns that the government “must not tolerate, or allow any international, multilateral, bilateral or non-governmental organisation to side-step the authority of the state or local organisations to coordinate and manage in their place”. Meanwhile, the Haitian embassy in Washington, DC has released a list of “best practices for disaster relief efforts in Haiti” that urges those wishing to assist to “operate under the guidance of local government officials and/or with organizations that… already have systems in place on the ground.” Haitian people need to be treated “not just as survivors or victims but experts and leaders; they know best where the aid needs to going and they need to be trusted with making decisions,” said Schuller. “But there is an urgent lack of resources at the moment, so we can provide resources.” So far, a flash appeal launched by the humanitarian sector in Haiti in conjunction with the government, has only raised $26.5 million of the $119.8 million asked for the emergency response. “What we’re hearing is that people are asking not to be put in camps in a state of dependency,” said Schuller. “They don’t want temporary shelters; they want reconstruction using their own skills.”

Photo Credit: IRIN



By Joel Dreyfuss

I’ve come to dread writing about my native Haiti. It seems that when I sit at my desk and tackle the subject, my fingers are writing about yet another disaster. This time it’s the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, with a death toll in the hundreds and tens of thousands left homeless. The United Nations is appealing for $120 million to address the devastation that has hit a poor island nation that seems to have neither the capacity nor the luck to avoid catastrophe. In 2010, it was the devastating earthquake that took an estimated 300,000 lives; a couple of years later it was the cholera epidemic, a disease unknown in Haiti until inadvertently introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops. Only this past summer did the U.N. end years of denial about its role in a disease that has killed 10,000 and sickened 800,000. There is no indication that any victims will be compensated. A new cholera epidemic could already be underway.

On a comparative scale, 1,000 deaths from Hurricane Matthew (the count as of last week) would seem far less disastrous than the previous crises — but the tragedy is about more than the casualty count. Consecutive disasters have not left Haiti the time or the ability to recover from one event before receiving the next deadly blow. The southern region of Haiti, less developed and less densely populated than the rest of the country, was generally spared by the earthquake of 2010. News reports indicate that the hurricane may have been even more devastating, destroying as much as 80 percent of the housing stock in Les Cayes and Jérémie, two principal cities in the south. The U.N. estimates that 175,000 victims are in temporary shelters and that 1.5 million need help.

Haiti, which has so long prided itself as the first nation to throw off the shackles of slavery and maintain its independence for more 200 years, once again confronts the reality of its dependence on others for even the most basic services. As the Haitian newspaper Le National editorialized last week: “Matthew has certainly confirmed the failure of the state, a state unable to count the victims. Worse, unable to come to their aid.” The editorial concludes: “Haiti is on its knees; it’s a fact.” As Le National indicates, Haitians bear some of the blame for this helplessness. Too many unscrupulous politicians and businessmen saw the post-earthquake relief effort as an opportunity to get rich. Too many will once again be maneuvering for positions at the trough of foreign aid. But foreigners have some responsibility as well. Much of the $14 billion pledged in 2010 never materialized. What did reach Haiti was diverted away from the government to NGOs and consultants out of fear of corruption and arrogance about who knew best for the country. One result: The government of Haiti never acquired the resources to build an emergency response capability or improve its fragile infrastructure. The United States led an effort to manipulate elections and put into office a president it believed most compliant to its concerns.

Haitians are not standing still. Business leaders immediately made supplies, generators and transportation available. Volunteers cleared debris and swept roads. The hundreds of organizations created by Haitian émigrés in the United States, Canada and France went to work collecting money, food and clothing to ship to Haiti. They have grown accustomed to dealing with disaster and know not to wait for governments to act. But in the long term, Haitians see their native land and the tangible evidence of their history disappearing as a result of these serial disasters. To audiences in New York and Paris, the names of towns badly damaged by Hurricane Matthew are just names. But to us Haitians — Les Cayes, Jérémie, Les Anglais, Les Coteaux, Port-a-Piment — each has special meaning tied to our personal histories. These were once charming seaside towns with their own bustling trade and a relaxed lifestyle away from the frenzy of Port-au-Prince. Some, like Les Cayes, have ancient roots, dating to Columbus’s explorations in the early 1500s. Jérémie was known as the “city of poets” for spawning some of our best-known bards. These towns suffered when the Duvalier regime centralized power and continued to decline from neglect after the dictators were gone. The hurricane could be a death blow for some.

Just two years ago, while researching a book on my family’s 300-year presence in Haiti, I took a tour of those small towns along that isolated southern peninsula and was struck by the beauty of their curving, white sand beaches with nary a tourist in sight. It was at Les Coteaux that my French colonial ancestor started an indigo plantation in the early 1700s. Les Cayes was where his sons and daughters married and Jérémie was where his grandson, a signer of the Haitian declaration of independence, died in 1804, just months after helping win independence from Napoleon’s France. My family lost our home in Port-au-Prince in the 2010 earthquake, making my ties to Haiti more tenuous. I imagine that thousands of Haitians abroad will feel the same sense of loss after Matthew. They will continue to support relatives, but the disappearance of memories in brick and stone portend a perilous fraying of connections to a country so dependent on millions of dollars from abroad for its own survival.

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