Haiti two years on: beyond the headlines

12 January 2012
Comment

Much has been said and written today to mark the second anniversary of the earthquake which struck Haiti on 12 January 2010. The human need to mark anniversaries is strong. After tragedies, we find comfort in setting aside a time to think about those who have died or suffered, whether through a moment’s silence, religious services or personal reflection. The media have provided one focus for anniversaries, and today programmes, reports and webpages give both testimonies reliving the past and thoughts on ways forward. This global recognition of the anniversary is heartening evidence of a worldwide feeling of shared humanity.

Anniversaries can be of practical use too. They help ensure that tragedies are not forgotten. They also provide an opportunity for those working in tragedies to reflect and take stock, and this anniversary too will doubtless be marked with reports on how well or badly Haiti, and those helping Haiti, have done in picking up the pieces and rebuilding lives.

There is a need to be cautious, though, about the ready conclusions that can be drawn on such occasions. The most obvious image to use is the camps, where half a million people still live in squalid and unsafe conditions in makeshift tents – after the largest international humanitarian operation since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But what lessons can be learnt from this? Even in the richest countries, after earthquakes in Italy or after Hurricane Katrina in the US, people have remained in temporary accommodation long after the second anniversary of those crises. The call to clear camps is fine – but the solutions are what counts, and these images are not on news reports.

Dealing with humanitarian crises is difficult and complex, and the lessons to be drawn are often hidden. ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) studied some aspects of the humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake in a report which will be out in the coming weeks. We found that many of the ‘obvious’ problems to resettling people (‘land law is just too complicated’) were not really problems at all. After all, individual Haitians had managed to build their capital for themselves and, amid the rubble, continued to do so after the earthquake. Many of the ‘obvious’ solutions weren’t solutions either. The creation of new settlements to rehouse people turned into a disaster, and the distribution and assembly of tens of thousands of semi-permanent shelters has cost far more than the help that could have been given to people to repair the tens of thousands of houses that could have been made habitable.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Port au Prince lacked safe and decent accommodation before the earthquake, and lived in squalor little different from conditions in the camps. Indeed, many of those sleeping in camps lost nothing in the earthquake because they never had anything to begin with. Humanitarian agencies should not have had responsibility for managing ‘IDP camps’ (internally displaced people) until solutions for Haiti’s long-term problems had been found. It is true that the international humanitarian effort got itself into a tangle, but not for want of trying – in fact, the problem was perhaps that agencies tried too hard. They were so worried that, if left to themselves, Haitians would not repair their houses well enough to withstand the next earthquake that they thought they had to take responsibility for each and every repair.

The lessons learnt from the tsunami reconstruction showed that the poor, those who had never owned a house but had lived as tenants, were easily left out of assistance that focused on housing. Aid agencies therefore became so worried that the most vulnerable would be exploited in a free housing market that they tried to take responsibility for the rehousing of each and every homeless family, drafting agreements on who had to be allowed to live where, and on what terms. In the process, it went almost unnoticed that nearly 90% of those who left camps found their own solutions: that people were repairing and rebuilding for themselves several times as many houses as aid agencies could ever provide, and agencies (and donors) could not support people to get on with rebuilding their own lives faster.

People stayed in camps for many reasons – sometimes because a squalid tent in a camp that is free is better than a squalid room you have to pay for. For many, the problem was that in Port au Prince a tenant always pays six or 12 months’ rent in advance, and people had no way of raising this money quickly. Humanitarian agencies don’t have the ready tools to solve this kind of problem. The longer-term reconstruction effort was slow to get going, and will take many, many years to make significant progress.

Taking forward the lessons will involve a lot of soul-searching to understand why humanitarian agencies are not good enough at letting go and supporting people in their own plans; why humanitarian and development actors still can’t sit down together, and with local and national authorities, to devise long-term strategies for reconstruction that determine (and limit) the role of the humanitarian effort, rather than forcing humanitarian action to fill a void and struggle to cope with pressing needs which, in Haiti, are almost unlimited. This will require re-examining how humanitarian agencies organise themselves, how interventions are planned and financed and what humanitarian action is for, its roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.

This kind of analysis has, I think, been on-going for some time. One day is not enough to bring out all the problems, let alone draw the lessons. Let us leave the anniversary, then, for a human experience, letting our hearts go out to those who died in the earthquake and to those who continue to suffer. And let us reflect as individuals on the fact that, in a world rich with resources, avoidable poverty continues to make people unnecessarily vulnerable to such tragedy.

Authors

Senior Research Fellow
Simon spent many years working for NGOs in Mozambique, Cambodia, Tanzania and Burundi, before [...]