Haiti: Entrenched Dependence?

In the months following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 which killed over 300,000 people, a team of Article 25 architects and Buro Happold engineers went to Haiti to undertake an assessment of surviving school buildings and identify which structures and materials could be reused. At the same time millions of World Food Programme packets were deployed, tens of thousands of tents were distributed and the aid community pledged billions to help the small island nation.

Two years on, reports on the situation still highlight the shortcomings in response, growing resentment amongst the people of Haiti, and the persisting challenges on the ground. It seems that the phrase “One year on” in reports from January 2011 could just as easily be replaced with “Two years on” today. Reconstruction has been slow, or as some agencies say, stagnant.

Problems identified in the response to the earthquake have been numerous: inadequate coordination of humanitarian response; overabundance of information; lack of required funds; weak governance; insecure land tenure; lack of readily available reconstruction material; additional disaster events; cholera epidemics. The saddest part in this whole story is that Haiti was the first and only state to be born out of slave revolution, inspired by the French Revolution. However the period that followed this promising start was one of foreign occupation and violence – characteristics that continue to mark Haiti to this day – creating a state of underdevelopment which damaged the prospect for adequate disaster resilience.

Haiti is now facing an era of occupation by dependency on the aid community. Before the earthquake there were nearly 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti, a UN Peacekeeping presence, and a national budget that was propped up to the tune of 40% by foreign aid. None of this made the country resilient to a known earthquake risk. In the months after the earthquake around 400,000 foreign aid workers descended on Port-au-Prince. Two years later that presence remains. It is unsurprising then that activity on the ground now has prompted one citizen to proclaim Haiti “La republique des ONGs” – the Republic of NGOS.

Whilst a lot of the work being done in Haiti is essential for basic recovery and survival of the affected population, some say the international community has done more harm than good with efforts driven by the needs of NGOs and donors rather the needs of Haitians. These circumstances have not encouraged the re-establishment of the social and political institutions necessary for long-term resilience but have heralded an era of entrenched dependency in a country already marred by underdevelopment. If we were to look at what is missing for the approach to recovery in Haiti, it is long-term strategic and development planning and the institutional and financial framework behind it that makes such planning possible.

Consistently the main difference between disaster response in developing countries against that of developed countries has been lack of management and capacity to organise. This year’s earthquake in Japan illustrates the speed at which clean up and reconstruction can take place with the appropriate strategic planning and financial and physical infrastructure. Japan is a unique case with the economic and financial means to produce a rapid clean up, but even with large-scale investment from the US and international community, Haiti was unable to do so. In addition, the stronger earthquake that took place in New Zealand the same year showed the life-saving difference good construction standards make in earthquake zones. Long-term reconstruction must address underlying vulnerability and focus on long-term resilience of communities – building skills and empowering communities rather than entrenching dependency on the aid community.

Article 25 is working in collaboration with partner Outreach International and local communities in Haiti to ensure that the best design and construction practice is applied to build culturally-appropriate, earthquake and hurricane resistant buildings that rely on locally available skills.  We have been on site since February 2011, and to date we have completed 4 projects and are currently in the process of searching out new sites for water & sanitation projects and funding for long-term school reconstruction.