Some early thoughts on Haiti
Posted on January 12, 2011 at 11:12 am
Over the past three weeks I’ve interviewed around a dozen people regarding the recovery efforts in Haiti. Half have been from the Haitian diaspora that have returned to Haiti to help after the disaster and half have been expats from the international aid community currently working in Haiti. I’ve been seeking a good mix of voices and perspectives for a radio program I’m recording with Utah Public Radio – the first of two hour-long programs will be aired tomorrow.
I’ve been impressed with the thoughtful analysis and viewpoints shared by the people I’ve interviewed. Throughout the conversations, several themes emerged. I’m using this post as a way to think through what I heard and synthesize my conversations. It is by no means definitive.
Rule of Law
The government is weak now and was weak before the disaster. The weakness before the disaster contributed to the enormity of the disaster through lack of zoning, building codes, and rural livelihoods. The weakness after the disaster has slowed the recovery efforts due to lack of decision making and guidance. This may lead to rebuilding the same vulnerabilities – such as the same types of structures in the same questionable locations.
The future of the government’s ability to lead the recovery efforts is up in the air due to the disputed election. No one knows what’s going to happen next.
Several people also commented on the impact that foreign governments, including the US, have had on Haiti’s ability to govern itself.
There is a real concern from members of the diaspora that Haiti will be no better off once all the nonprofits leave. Without building local human and institutional capacity, in future disasters Haiti will once again be dependent on international help.
An often heard complaint was either that there are too few trained local staff or that the nonprofits are doing too little to build local capacity. Currently, many of the people that receive post-secondary training leave Haiti.
A few interviewees stressed the need to think about the end goal. Is it to rebuild Haiti or to help Haitians. If the goal is to help Haitians then there needs to be more focus on hiring local contractors rather than US ones, and in training local workers. Suggestions were made for both formalized trainings and mentorships where local staff are paired with international staff to learn on the job.
The other local capacity issue was institutional capacity. Again the concern with the diaspora was that the local nonprofit and government were not receiving adequate funding and support from the international community. Many interviewees discussed organizations working around the local government and local organizations rather than with/through them.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Many people talked about the fact that not enough local jobs had been created. Again the question of whether the goal is to rebuild Haiti or help Haitians. One person observed – yes machines can build roads faster and cheaper than manual labor, but a lot of good could be done by putting paychecks into people’s pockets. Using labor to build the road provides far greater benefits to Haitians than just having a road.
The discussion here was not so much how much was donated but how it’s been distributed and how flexible and accessible the funding is. The cholera outbreak was commonly cited as an example. Because it came after the relief efforts and was not technically part of reconstruction, many organizations had difficulty freeing up funding. There were comments as well about how official sources of funding were inadequate and slow. In addition, individuals weren’t donating as much to the cholera outbreak which was attributed that to the CNN Effect.
There was also several complaints that very little money was going to support local institutions such as health clinics, which faced closure as a result. People talked about how local organizations don’t have the capacity to fundraise internationally or to jump through all the hoops required to get funding from foundations or other organizations.
Getting goods through customs is extraordinarily slow, with many complaints of vehicles taking 6 months to get cleared. No one would state a clear reason for this. Is it corruption, the need to collect tariffs to cover the cost of running the government, the fact that so many staff and buildings were lost in the earthquake, or some other reason?
The general consensus from the people I spoke with was that coordination was not great, but not awful. It was better in the capital than out in the more rural areas. Many people felt that it was perhaps as good as can be expected with 1,000, 4,000, 12,000, many more than 12,000 – nonprofits (all numbers given in answer to the question “How many nonprofits are working in Haiti”).
The emergency phase, the first three months, went pretty well
Most people felt that the emergency phase went fairly well. But there are questions about how things have progressed since then. As far as the cholera outbreak, after a slow start, most feel that the cholera epidemic has been brought under control as well.
The Next 5 Years
When asked what Haiti will look like in five years from now, no one really knew. The general mood was fairly bleak. Many thought it likely wouldn’t look all that much different than it does today.