Still waiting in Haiti
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.