Breaking our promise to Haiti

The Haitian government’s handling of the situation has been spectacularly poor. But the international aid sector's record has also been dismal.
Robert Muggah
4 January 2011

Despite breathless promises to ‘build back better’ the international community has made only incremental progress in Haiti over the past twelve months. Our failures are especially stark when measured against the genuine displays of global solidarity with Haiti in the wake of the January earthquake and financial pledges to reconstruction three months later in March.

Even if some allowance is made for the extraordinary devastation wrought by the disasters, few disagree that the Haitian government’s handling of the situation has been spectacularly poor. Likewise, with few exceptions, the international aid sector's record has been dismal. Haitians themselves are growing disillusioned, impatient and signs of violence are apparent in the streets of wrecked Port-au-Prince.

While 2010 was grim, there are few guarantees that 2011 will be any better.

Veteran disaster relief and development workers acknowledge that the process of recovery and reconstruction takes time. A major challenge is balancing outsider expectations against the extraordinary needs and demands of Haitian citizens on the ground. But in Haiti, donors have been especially slow in identifying priorities, disbursing funds and supporting (rather than substituting for) local capacity. The Haitian government too has displayed weakness, lacking leadership and capacity to make good on its own commitments.

More positively, there is general agreement that the humanitarian response and its so-called "cluster approach" managed to deliver assistance in a hugely challenging context. Yet there have been comparatively few success stories on the wider development front. The difficulties in shifting from relief to development are widely known. Notwithstanding efforts to signal political commitment to supporting Haiti's transition - including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's appointment of Bill Clinton as special envoy - few tangible outcomes have yet to be materialize.

The coordination and commitment deficit is hardly new to Haiti. Even before the earthquake, longstanding and newer donors were hoping to taper down their security and development contributions. Whilst the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti’s (MINUSTAH) mandate was repeatedly extended, major troop and police contributing states (such as Brazil) as well as aid providers such as Canada and the United States were searching for an exit strategy. 

One of the most significant shortcomings of the international community relates to disbursement. Though promised almost USD10 billion in aid earlier this year, very little has actually arrived. What is more, support appears to be dwindling. In 2010, more than 35 countries and multilateral agencies pledged roughly USD3.8 billion to reconstruction. By 2011, pledges diminished to 20 countries amounting to USD1.5 billion. 

In the meantime, the Haitian Interim Recovery Commission – the government mechanism designed to coordinate and prioritize international investment – has failed to lift off. And while the Commission approved some USD1.6 billion in projects in August 2010, it is not clear whether these initiatives can be sustained much beyond 2011. Taken together, less than a tenth of the total amount promised has arrived to Haiti, much less spent.

Also worrying is the way in which development aid agencies are resorting to old practices, including preferential treatment of their own contractors. This runs counter to many calls by the international community – including for example the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and NGOs such as Peace Dividend Trust – to invest in Haitian industry. 

In order to minimize risk and citing corruption, ‘no bid’ contracting is the norm. This can result in serious distortions in aid allocations: out of every USD 100 pledged by USAID, for example, Haitian firms are awarded less than USD 2. Other major donors are following suit. This runs counter to the now widely held view that supporting local capacity and ingenuity is key to local development.

Displacement, disease and instability

The situation in Haiti continues to deteriorate in spite of rhetorical claims to the contrary. As most Haiti watchers know all to well, the situation before the earthquake was dire. Despite meager economic gains in 2009, the country was at the very bottom of virtually every international index. And while this ‘Republic of NGOs’ was visited by massive promises of assistance and an additional 500 relief agencies in 2010, Haiti’s three horsemen of the apocalypse - displacement, disease and instability - have brought the nation to its knees.

Almost twelve months after the earthquake, there are still an estimated 1.3 million people living in tents waiting to be relocated to new houses. Recent household survey data revealed how in the months after the quake these population groups were the most food insecure. Less than a third of them claimed to have had access to international assistance and most managed to survive owing to resilient social networks, including remittances from Montreal to Miami.

In the meantime, a cholera epidemic has killed over 2,500, infected over 100,000 and could kill thousands more if not immediately contained. According to epidemiologists, the pathway of the epidemic since October – running as it has from north to the central and southern regions - suggests that it spread virtually unhindered. Water purification tablets, improved sanitation and small adaptations in personal hygiene could effectively control its movement. Oral rehydration salts and common antibiotics improve treatments. What is needed is a genuine national campaign, mobilization of trained nationals, the establishment by the UN of a rotating system of doctors and nurses. 

Finally, the country continues to be wracked by political instability. The remarkable lack of leadership and poor handling of the elections have been reported on extensively. Most of the 18 presidential candidates – some exhibiting linkages to the Duvalier dictators (father and son)  – were incapable of providing a compelling vision for Haiti’s masses. The persistent allegation(s) of fraud and intimidation during the entire electoral cycle were as predictable as they were depressing. Few were surprised when 12 of the candidates demanded a recount. The poor way in which the elections and vote count were managed by the provisional electoral council and the weak response of outsiders (notably the OAS and MINUSTAH citing lack of sufficient “irregularities”) guarantees continued unrest in 2011.

The international community could not stop the earthquake, but surely it can do better than this to deliver on its promise to help Haitians reconstruct their battered country.

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