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Column: Haiti is slowly recovering - but criticising aid agencies doesn't help

Aid agencies are criticised for the slow place of recovery in Haiti – but that criticism puzzles Tom Arnold of Concern.

Local women working in Concern shelter workshop helping to build Transitional shelters in Port-au-Prince
Local women working in Concern shelter workshop helping to build Transitional shelters in Port-au-Prince
Image: Jennifer O'Gorman

ON THE TWO-YEAR anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, I feel it is important to reflect on the very significant progress that has been achieved in helping people recover from one of the world’s worst natural disasters on record, and to address some of the issues surrounding the unfounded criticism about the efforts of international aid agencies’ work on the ground.

To understand the scale of the catastrophe two years ago, it is important to remember the unique nature of the Haitian context. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti was a massive blow to a deeply impoverished country: 75 percent of Haitians earned less than the equivalent of €1.50 a day; only half of the country’s children were in primary school and the majority of the population had no access to electricity.

Unprecedented scale of destruction

Coping with the effects of the earthquake on top of this was a challenge of unimaginable magnitude, not only for the families and communities directly affected, but for the government and aid agencies that had to respond. It was precisely the unprecedented level of destruction in the densely urban setting of Port-au-Prince which killed 230,000 people, razed 250,000 homes and displaced 1.5 million people that set this catastrophe apart from other natural disasters.

It has been somewhat puzzling, then, for the international aid community, Concern included, that certain commentators and news reports since have focused solely on what they perceive to be the slow pace of the recovery in Haiti. To put the event in context, after the earthquake in Kobe in Japan, which claimed more than 6,000 lives, it took seven years for the population, income levels and industrial sector to recover to pre-earthquake levels.

What is disheartening – as the CEO of an aid organisation that prides itself on the close partnerships it has forged with local communities to bring about great changes in Haiti – is that there has been very little said about the tangible improvements on the ground since the earthquake.

Progress since the earthquake – and the challenges

Let’s look at some facts: the number of people living in displacement camps has decreased from 1.5 million to about 550,000; five million cubic metres of rubble has been removed; 75 per cent of children living in camps are going to school; and almost 100,000 transition shelters have built. There is evidence of progress in the areas of job creation and infrastructure development—including 430 kilometres of new roads in a country with notoriously poor access to markets for its agricultural production. Agricultural production itself increased in 2010, and again in 2011 and new agricultural credit facilities and micro loans are reaching tens of thousands of rural Haitians.

That is not to say that the recovery effort has not faced many challenges. For all of these advances, the aid community has experienced setbacks. The lack of a functioning government for up to five months in 2011, including the lack of a government policy on building new housing during the first year after the earthquake seriously hampered efforts to implement the sort of programs required to restore people’s assets and rebuild communities. Land tenure disputes, with several people often claiming ownership of the same land, coupled with the threat of eviction, further exacerbated the problems of relocating the displaced.

When building could get underway, lengthy customs delays delayed supplies and heavy equipment reaching contractors. In addition, the local market was overwhelmed by the demand for goods needed for the massive reconstruction effort. The challenge of delivering an emergency response in a city of 2.7 million people is no small task, particularly when poverty remains the single biggest issue facing most people.

Returning to Neighbourhoods

We face many challenges, but the formation of a new government last October has meant that agencies like Concern can get back working with the ministries responsible for recovery and development. Already we are seeing the potential of partnerships with the newly elected government. Our “Return to Neighbourhoods” programme, a holistic model of resettlement, was singled out as an example of best practice and has fed into the development of the national strategy to move displaced populations out of camps. The programme offers families a package of rental subsidies, cash grants to establish small businesses, and education vouchers to help get children back to school. Since the earthquake, Concern has reached a total of more than 235,000 people through its emergency and recovery programmes.

There is a lot of work still to be done. Nearly half of Haiti’s population has no access to clean water, and eight in every 10 don’t have basic sanitation facilities. To address these challenges, we are working closely with Haiti’s national water authority to implement a user-fee approach to water. We will continue to work ever more closely with local partners and increasingly with government ministries to implement planned, phased programs that will reduce the reliance of communities on our assistance. But rebuilding infrastructure and services to provide for 10 million Haitians will take time. It must be led by Haiti’s elected government, in consultation with the people and with support from the international community.

There has to be a change in the way that funding is distributed

For this level of coordination to succeed, a structural shift in the way that funding is distributed is required. Current short-term funding does not allow for comprehensive programming to address the root causes of poverty. To launch long-term agricultural or infrastructural programmes, multi-year development funding is required particularly now that emergency spending is being phased out and aid organisations are leaving due to lack of funds and donor fatigue.

Now is not the time to scale back— international governments that have pledged money must honour their promises and stay the course. Public-private partnerships have a huge role to play, as do partnerships with non-profits and community groups. In 2012, Irish-based organisation Haven will support Concern’s “Return to Neighbourhoods” project to repair homes damaged in the earthquake. In the past, we have worked with Digicel to launch emergency cash transfers via mobile phone. Going forward, we will continue to explore new opportunities with the private sector. Partnerships with farmers associations, community groups and other civil society organisations will all play a role in Haiti’s recovery.

The Haitian people have demonstrated extraordinary resilience. Ultimately, it is they who will chart the course for their country’s future. In the meantime, development organisations like Concern must continue to work closely with communities and our government counterparts to transfer the skills, resources and capacity required for Haiti’s phased recovery. We all share a responsibility to the Haitian people, a responsibility to match their vision of a future with programmes that will bring about sustainable change. There is strong evidence that by working in close collaboration with the government, local communities, and partners on the ground we can achieve that, but it requires the continued political and financial commitments of the international community.

Tom Arnold is the CEO of Concern. To read more about Concern’s response in Haiti, click here.


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