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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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Column: Haiti - Three years on from devastation

The recovery from the 2010 earthquake has slowed but there are strong grounds for optimism, says Concern Worldwide Regional Director, Bríd Kennedy.

A group of boys look across Jean Marie Vincent camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Wednesday where they now live.
A group of boys look across Jean Marie Vincent camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Wednesday where they now live.

THIS WEEKEND MARKS three years since Haiti was devastated by the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and caused damage of unimaginable levels. The response from the international community was extraordinary but three years later it is not unreasonable that the results should come under some scrutiny.

Simply put, life has not yet returned to normal for many Haitians.

This does not mean that progress has not been made. Examples are plentiful. Roughly 80 per cent of the estimated 10 million cubic metres of rubble has now been cleared. Some 1.5 million people displaced by the earthquake were forced to live in camps in the months and years that followed.

Now, over three quarters (75 per cent) have been returned to their old homes or relocated to new homes. This is significant progress indeed.

What is frustrating for many – myself included – is the pace of progress.

“The most serious setback”

Many factors have contributed to the slow pace of recovery. Within a four-month period last year Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Isaac wreaked extensive damage on the country. The most serious setback since the earthquake was the outbreak of the world’s largest cholera epidemic in October 2010. At its peak, 25,000 new cases were reported every week. Although this figure has significantly reduced to an average of 2,500 new cases every week, the epidemic still poses a serious threat to the population and considerable funds and resources have been diverted to tackle this crisis.

However, for the 360,000 people left in camps, and for millions more throughout the country, the biggest challenge they face is extreme poverty.

Haiti was a very fragile country even before the earthquake struck. It has a long history of both political and economic instability. It was subjected to crippling economic embargoes as far back as 1804 when France and the US imposed sanctions following its independence. Huge debts to both countries were only paid off in 1947. It was subject to colonial and dictatorial rule for much of the last century, which drained the country of its resources and hampered the development of democratic institutions.

This instability has carried over into the 21st century. Before the earthquake over three quarters of the population survived on less than two dollars a day. It was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Land rights are difficult to ascertain as records were destroyed by the earthquake and many never existed. This has been a major obstacle in building permanent homes for so many people.

“Building houses is just one step”

But building houses for those displaced is just one step. Poverty is widespread throughout the country. Rural populations are even poorer and more vulnerable than those in the capital city. The present outlook is particularly precarious. Drought last summer depleted the summer harvests. Hurricanes and storms further depleted winter/spring harvests by 25-50 per cent. The resultant food shortages are driving up prices.

Worryingly, a nutritional crisis affecting at least 2.1 million people is looming unless preventative action is taken.

In the long-term, food insecurity cannot be combatted without improved access to livelihoods and education. Formal unemployment rates in Haiti before the earthquake were estimated at 40.6 per cent. A temporary spike in employment rates occurred due to aid work in the aftermath of the emergency but these have now reduced to pre-2010 levels. Education was in a similarly poor state, with only half of Haiti’s children in primary school.

Efforts to progress in Haiti are complicated by a breakdown in the rule of law.

Armed gangs have long been a problem and their presence has prevented official support getting through to some communities. A strengthened police force and accountable justice systems can allow stability at both national and community level to create an environment of peace and cooperation.

It is crucial that the now strengthened national government drives recovery to ensure sustainable development in long-term.

“A long and difficult transfer of power”

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake the UN led on coordination of recovery efforts via its cluster mechanism. At that time the Government had been extremely weakened – one quarter of the country’s civil servants were killed and one third of government buildings were destroyed, including the Ministries of Finance, Education, Public Works and the Supreme Courts.

Coupled with a long and difficult transfer of power, they were not in the ideal position to define policies or play a crucial regulatory role.

With a new Prime Minister in place since last May 2012, Haiti is now in a delicate but stronger position to lead its own recovery. It will be a gradual process but some positive developments are already evident.

Last July, seven of the eleven UN clusters transferred their coordination responsibilities to their national counterparts. November saw the launch of the coordination framework of external development aid in Haiti (CAED) which is a mechanism of permanent and regular dialogue between the Haitian Government and its partners. The establishment of a state coordination unit has accelerated the process of return to homes, although it will still take some time until all the camps are cleared. Hugely impressive is the fact that there has been a 28 per cent increase from pre-earthquake levels in the number of children attending primary school and the ongoing ‘Back to School’ campaign aims to push numbers up even more.

Improvements in education can help to boost livelihoods in the medium and long-term. In the short-term, cash transfers and skills training projects, like those funded by the government in response to Hurricane Sandy, can enable the poorest people to improve their lives.

“A population that was already living in poverty”

It is worth bearing in mind that when Kobe, Japan was struck by similar disaster in 1995, it took seven years for its population, income levels and industrial sector to recover to pre-earthquake levels, even with all the resources available in Japan. Damage in Haiti was far more extensive and was inflicted on a population that was already living in poverty. Last July Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe requested help from the NGO community to build up the capacity of the government so that eventually Haiti can be self-sufficient.

Concern Worldwide has been working in Haiti since 1994 and we will remain there for the foreseeable future supporting the government and the people on their road to recovery and the elimination of poverty.

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About the author:

Brid Kennedy

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