Ottawa Citizen

Still wait­ing in Haiti

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Al­most three years af­ter an earth­quake dev­as­tated parts of Haiti, more than a third of a mil­lion Haitians are still liv­ing in tent cities, refugees from a 2010 dis­as­ter.

This shock­ing fail­ure il­lus­trates the lim­i­ta­tions of the in­ter­na­tional aid sys­tem, as it’s cur­rently de­signed.

Hu­man­ity is pretty good at pitch­ing in with dis­as­ter re­lief in emer­gen­cies — in get­ting medicine, food and water to peo­ple who need it. We don’t do enough of that — there’s room for a lot more gen­eros­ity and bet­ter co-or­di­na­tion — but in gen­eral, we know how to do it.

What we clearly don’t know how to do, on a grand scale, is build enough ca­pac­ity in a frag­ile state to re­build af­ter a dis­as­ter and pro­tect against the next one.

The prob­lem isn’t a lack of money. As The New York Times re­cently re­ported, pub­lic donors pledged $9.5 bil­lion U.S. for re­lief and re­cov­ery in Haiti, from 2010 to 2012. More than two-thirds of that has been dis­bursed.

But only $215 mil­lion — two per cent of the to­tal pledged — has been dis­bursed for hous­ing, and much of that still hasn’t been spent.

It’s hard to think of any need greater than hous­ing, af­ter the ini­tial res­cue and re­lief ef­fort. In the United States and Canada, many ju­ris­dic­tions have adopted a “hous­ing first” ap­proach to chronic home­less­ness, rec­og­niz­ing safe shel­ter as a pre­req­ui­site for a healthy, fruit­ful life. Yet in Haiti, ev­ery­thing from high­way con­struc­tion to agri­cul­ture seems to have taken prece­dence over hous­ing.

Part of the prob­lem is the fact that a state’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to its peo­ple are in­ter­con­nected — so, yes, high­ways are nec­es­sary. An­other part of the prob­lem is that donors have their own pri­or­i­ties and their own well-worn ruts, and the Haitian government is as much a bot­tle­neck as a chan­nel. Ev­ery­body had a pet project in the months fol­low­ing the earth­quake and many of those projects are now half-fin­ished or ac­knowl­edged fail­ures.

It might seem that the an­swer is for a highly co-or­di­nated, top-down in­ter­na­tional ap­proach — just go in and build the coun­try up, like a game of SimCity. But the now de­funct In­terim Haiti Re­cov­ery Com­mis­sion, with Bill Clin­ton at the top, never turned into that, and that’s prob­a­bly a bless­ing. The mas­sive for­eign pres­ence in Haiti, well-mean­ing as it is, seems to be po­lit­i­cally toxic and it eats up money that could be en­rich­ing the Haitian econ­omy. Dis­as­ter re­sis­tance isn’t just about con­crete and re­bar — it’s about in­sti­tu­tions and jobs.

Cana­di­ans, as donors, have a keen in­ter­est in see­ing a more ef­fec­tive ap­proach to Haitian aid. No­body wants to see much needed money drib­ble away into meet­ings and re­ports, while the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis per­sists.

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