Haiti In The Mirror
So, I read a recent New York Times article about Haiti’s ongoing recovery from the 2010 earthquake the other day, and remembered again that I have a huge stash of pictures from Haiti that I never did anything with. I had intended to create a lot more posts from Haiti while I was actually there (~ 10 months in 2010 and 2011), but in the end, I was too busy and tired most of the time. I had initially signed on to be a sustainable farming trainer of trainers in a rural area. Instead I ended up working in the earthquake epicenter in the field of shelter/housing/neighborhood reconstruction, and more peripherally, in environment. Talk about a change of plans, but at least I got to use the ecological planning part of my Masters degree!
I went to Haiti as a Peace Corps Response volunteer, and worked initially for USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, seconded to the Office of the Response Coordinator (ORC) out of the US Embassy complex in Port-au-Prince. I was then seconded (thirded!?) by the ORC to staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). I worked directly for an expert in the field of post-disaster reconstruction planning and management, Priscilla Phelps [she literally wrote the book on the subject]. After the initial 3 months, Chemonics hired me as part of USAID contract to continue staffing the IHRC, but as a well-paid contractor instead of a volunteer. It was a wonderful, terrible, fascinating, interesting, frustrating experience. I learned an incredible amount about large scale disaster response and humanitarian assistance, about urban planning in a post-disaster reconstruction context, and about housing in particular. Without naming names or institutions, I can also say that I got a very unique and high level insiders view of the whole reconstruction effort and the politics/money/egos/best-intentions/good-ideas/terrible-ideas behind it.
I look back on my time in Haiti with very mixed feelings, and hope to spend time there again under different circumstances. Everybody I worked with, and all the people I met with, worked really hard for Haiti and for Haitians, but I’m not at all sure in the end how effective our work was. An incredible amount of money (in many forms) was directed towards Haiti after the earthquake. While it would be incorrect to say that the money was wasted, it would certainly be safe to say that the rate of return on investment has been decidedly less than was desired, with the “return” in this case being measured in terms of the number of Haitians helped in substantial and sustainable long-term ways.
Looking at the situation with a bit of distance now, I am convinced more than ever of the importance of good governance. I know one should not cast stones, but I feel reasonably safe in suggesting that Haiti’s governmental response to the 2010 earthquake disaster was disastrous in and of itself, and largely remains so to this day. As a national government, one must get one’s own house in order if one ever expects to help one’s citizens get their literal and figurative houses in order too. This is especially true in a disaster situation.
Haiti’s governmental house hasn’t really been in order since 1804 or prior, so perhaps I should not be surprised. As a happy non-diplomat a couple years removed from my employment in Haiti, I can now say openly that there was a distinct lack of leadership from the Haitian government in the wake of the disaster, and thus the international community didn’t have a useful partner to work with or critical governmental decision making from which to take unified direction.
Post 2010 earthquake Port-au-Prince (and surrounding suburbs) is not a place that breeds optimism for the future of Haiti. Stable good governance would go a long way to helping Haiti help itself.
The IHRC, viewed by many on the outside as a complete boondoggle, actually performed a good number of the tasks assigned to it – helping to organize, facilitate, and put in motion a number of the positive developments mentioned in the article I read recently. Everybody on the outside wanted the IHRC to move faster, but in reality the IHRC moved through its accomplishments at an almost identical pace to the very successfully viewed post-Asian-tsunami disaster recovery entity on which it was modeled. So was the IHRC a complete boondoggle? No. Was the IHRC secretly an awesome, amazing, highly effective organization? No. The IHRC did some good work. It could have done a lot better. I’m happy to have had the experience. I loved the spirit and determination and friendliness of the people I worked with. Despite a lucrative offer to stay on, I left the IHRC to return to the US and get married and be poor (in American terms), and that, thankfully, has been way more satisfying than working at the IHRC ever was.
I also learned (again) in Haiti, that real disasters take a long time to recover from. We tend to throw around the word “disaster” too liberally (using it humorously, or perhaps conflating it with “accident” or “misfortune”), thus diminishing its true meaning. But the reality is that disasters overwhelm our human systems and abilities to cope. How long does it realistically take to rebuild a city’s buildings, infrastructure, municipal systems/services that were built over hundreds of years, or for a family to replace a house that took years of saving to buy or belongings that took a lifetime of experiences to accumulate? Realistically, it takes many years. The IHRC’s work, like the rest of the reconstruction, was also judged with unrealistic expectations of how long real reconstruction and “building-back-better” actually takes. Could things have happened faster? Yes. Should things have happened faster? Yes. Would everything be better by now even if things had moved more quickly? Absolutely not.
Some parts of the United States gulf coast, and many parts of New Orleans have not yet recovered from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and that’s in a country where resources are relatively plentiful, government is relatively functional/effective, and systems for disaster response and recovery are relatively mature. Haiti has none of those things going for it. My thankfully limited exposure to large scale, acute disasters (Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake) has taught me that however much people may expect/want/hope for disaster recovery to be immediate/perfect/complete, it never will be. That’s why it’s a disaster. Things get better over many 10’s of years. The waiting and everything that goes with it is frustrating for those affected. People get angry, and understandably so, but not always reasonably so. Almost nobody has the full picture.
Ideally, we (as individuals, communities, societies) learn from mistakes, but history suggests that oftentimes we don’t. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes but don’t act on what we have learned because it seems inconvenient in the short term. Needs and desires and political/financial expediencies compete with each other even when hard data clearly suggests what should be done. It’s complicated.
That was another take home message from my post-earthquake experiences in Haiti, and a large reason why I have not written many details before, and am not doing so now. It’s complicated. I see and understand many sides to all of the issues involved, but I don’t have all the answers. Neither do many of the “experts,” and I’m not even one of those.
Two final takeaways from being in Haiti, and from looking back at that experience now:
First, there have been several more powerful earthquakes in populated parts of the developing world since the January 2010 Haiti quake, but none of them have even remotely caused as much death, destruction and long term disruption as the Haiti event because these places were better prepared for disaster. Their national and/or municipal disaster risk reduction plans were better implemented. That’s everything from evacuation and emergency response plans, to having and enforcing a building code which factors in the types of disasters likely to befall that region, to regulating and monitoring the quality of available construction materials, to updating and enforcing environmental regulations which allow nature and natural systems to mitigate many potential disaster effects. Though some work has been done (on creating a building code and on a very limited building inspection regime for example), much of it with outside help from the US/EU/World Bank, the Haitian government has largely failed to tackle most of the underlying reasons for the 2010 earthquake being so disastrous. That means Haiti will inevitably suffer from major disaster again, and it will be worse than it needs to be or has to be. It’s a lack of good decision making and political will more than it is a lack of resources. That makes me mad/sad. More resources inevitably flow to those governments that prove by their actions that they are responsible stewards who can move their country forward as a whole [I realize this is a subjective qualification, but one can also look objectively at a lot of data and come to the same conclusion]. Haiti’s government didn’t, in my opinion, rise to that bar while I was there, and I can’t find much evidence to suggest that they have risen to that bar subsequently.
Second, I note that Haiti is in an area particularly prone to natural calamities of various types. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and tropical storms all spring immediately to mind. Landslides and floods are frequent and directly related to the above events. Climate change is and will continue to make the weather related calamities occur more frequently, with less predictable patterns of timing, and with greater intensity. This will likely get worse before it gets better… for a long time. Haiti is perhaps the nation least equipped to deal with climate change impacts of any in North or South America. Haiti suffers from nearly complete environmental degradation of its mountains, hills, coasts, suburban regions, and urban areas. Haiti is not responsible for a great deal of climate change, but the government could do a lot to mitigate climate change’s effects on Haitian citizens by taking serious, sweeping action to clarify and simplify centuries of complex land tenure decrees and statutes, by actively abiding by international environmental treaties it has signed, and by enforcing even its existing environmental laws [our team at the IHRC cataloged them, there are actually a lot more than people think] — especially those related to mangrove protection, surface mining, tree cutting, urban planning/zoning, and protected area management. A serious push for urban sanitation and solid waste management solutions would also make the majority of the Haitian population less susceptible to climate change induced flooding and associated outbreaks of diseases.
None of these actions would be easy, but they would be incredibly worthwhile and would contribute immensely to making Haitians healthier, lowering disaster risk, increasing tourist and investment potential, and helping to break the cycle of disasters that helps keep Haiti perpetually impoverished and always fighting to recover from losses rather than starting from a stable footing and being able to move forward with the rest of the Western hemisphere. Get it together Haitian Government. I know (and agree with) some of the arguments about the negative effects of international aid and other “meddling” in Haitian affairs, but this is largely on you. Seriously. I have seen how you work from up close and personal experience, and while I met a couple of very nice and seemingly good-hearted individual politicians in addition to all the smarmy ones in my time there, I can say without reservation that on the whole, and as governments of the world go in general, you suck.