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Earthquake recovery five years on: let's put it in Haitian hands

By Prospery Raymond, Christian Aid country manager for Haiti.

12 January 2015 - In 2010, a powerful 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit a small island nation. Some 100,000 homes were damaged, two people were injured and nobody died.

Earlier that same year, an earthquake of the same magnitude hit another small island nation. This time, around 188,000 houses were badly damaged and an additional 100,000 destroyed, while 220,000 people lost their lives and 300,000 were wounded.

 Man builds Haiti house

The contrast between the impact of the earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti was stark. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was ill-equipped to withstand the seismic shock. Endemic poverty, weak infrastructure and a poor adherence to building standards had left us powerless against the earthquake that hit on January 12, 2010.

Two thirds of buildings in the capital Port-au-Prince were destroyed in the quake, including my own place of work. I was inside the Christian Aid office when it collapsed and was trapped in the rubble for two hours: I remember it all too clearly.

Five years on, the work of rebuilding Haiti continues, amid recurring debates over where all the aid money went. There have been many successes and much to be proud of: new roads, new houses, new livelihoods, free education for children. However, at a time when foreign funding for long-term development in Haiti is fading, the international community must be reminded that the task is not yet done – especially in the area of housing.

Prior to the earthquake, Haiti was already facing a housing crisis. This was a country where more than two-thirds of people lived on less than $2 a day, and more than 80% of those in the capital lived in slums conditions, often in over-crowded, poorly built structures.

Some 1.5 million people were displaced by the earthquake. Although the vast majority has now been rehoused, over 85,000 remain in temporary camps. Even so, many Haitians are still in a desperate situation, in poverty and without access to basic services. The country needs around 30,000 new homes a year for the next decade.

The need for adequate housing must be kept on the global development policy agenda. This issue was highlighted by a new report released last week, raising concerns over the lack of access to adequate housing for tens of thousands of people. The report documents the plight of those who are still living without the safety-net of long-term, safe and secure housing solutions.

This research reflects an ongoing concern among Haitian civil society groups. Local organisations supported by Christian Aid have been pushing for land rights for vulnerable groups, while our partner GARR has led efforts to stop violent evictions of camp residents and is campaigning for better housing for at-risk and displaced persons.

There have been notable challenges. Available land on which to build is in very short supply, many people do not have land titles to their property, land registry is not computerised and records are often lost or incorrect. Despite the other obstacles posed by land disputes and forced evictions, Christian Aid and our partners continue to press for housing rights to be pushed up the agenda. 

Elsewhere, the last five years have clearly demonstrated the importance of linking immediate and interim relief and rehabilitation work to longer-term development goals – a process that ought to involve the participation of Haitian citizens.

As part of our response to the housing situation, Christian Aid opted not to build temporary shelters. Rather, we chose to work through our local partners organisations to build durable, earthquake-resistant homes in rural areas, in support of government plans to resettle people outside of the capital. 

This work included training local workers in safe construction methods, prioritising community members when recruiting builders and masons, and resorting to external expertise only when time or a capacity shortage necessitated. Meanwhile, displaced individuals, host communities and local authorities were asked to contribute to decisions on the interventions and the beneficiaries.

Although there were challenges along the way, activities such as these have helped to ensure communities benefitted from the economic benefits of construction work; have contributed to boosting local capacity to build safer homes in accordance with accepted standards; and have ensured ownership of a project at a community level.

Indeed, key among the lessons of the past five years in Haiti has been the importance of locally driven approaches to sustainable development. Sadly, the lack of Haitians’ inclusion in the global relief effort has been one of the main obstacles of the past half-decade.

In the aftermath of the disaster, there was sadly insufficient collaboration between local organisations and international agencies. For instance, the central coordination meetings hosted by the UN were conducted in English – in a French and Creole speaking country. This regrettably meant many Haitians were prevented from participating effectively in the development of their country.

Much of the billions of dollars pledged by foreign donors bypassed the Haitian people and government. Too often, Haitians were not consulted on how the money ought to be spent. A very small percentage of donor funds for reconstruction work was given to Haitian firms and local NGOs: it’s estimated that less than 0.6 per cent of relief was invested in Haitian organisations and businesses.

If such a disaster were to occur again – and I fervently hope and pray it does not – the voice of Haitians will need to be heard at all levels, locally, nationally and internationally. We have high hopes for our country’s future, but in order to achieve them we must be empowered to participate in decisions over our own sustainable development.

Full recovery is a long process and certainly not one that can be achieved in just five years. However with the right investment, time and effort, it can happen – providing the world trusts us to build our own country.

This blog first appeared in Devex. For more on Christian Aid’s work in Haiti, see here.


Notes to editors:

1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.

2. Christian Aid’s core belief is that the world can and must be changed so that poverty is ended:  this is what we stand for. Everything we do is about ending poverty and injustice: swiftly, effectively, sustainably. Our strategy document Partnership for Change explains how we set about this task.

3. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of more than 130 churches and church-related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development.  Further details at http://actalliance.org

4. Follow Christian Aid's newswire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/caid_newswire

5. For more information about the work of Christian Aid visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk

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