Rebuilding Haiti: What has been achieved?

There has been a great deal written in the international press about how little has been achieved in the year since the earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince on the 12th January 2010. Reasons given tend to be either that the Haitian government is corrupt or incompetent, that the Haitian people are disorganised, or that development agencies simply are not responding adequately. Millions of dollars sent by the international community appearing to be falling into a black hole.

These reports are problematic because they fail to address what is actually happening on the ground, and by falling back on well-trodden tropes they spread misinformation and reinforce stereotypes about Haiti. If you poke even a little bit beneath the surface you tend to hear some pretty surprising takes on the situation.

First, let me critique the idea that 'nothing has been done'. This is not the case. Take any person who was here during the earthquake and drive them through the streets of Port-au-Prince: the scene bears little resemblance to the chaos and misery of downtown in the weeks following the earthquake.

The bodies have been buried, people have accommodation, most of the rubble cleared away, and the vast majority of damaged buildings marked for demolition have been knocked down. Communications were restored quickly and most businesses resumed within a month (albeit amid difficulties).

More recently, housing sites are slowly appearing around town. Rather than build in concrete, which proved deadly in the quake, NGOs are building wooden houses on stilts at a cost of US$2500 each. There are plans to rebuild the city centre in the style of traditional Haitian gingerbread architecture, as those buildings are still standing, despite being around a hundred years old. Small projects are doing very useful things.

A local school now has a workshop where students learn to make, and sell, water filters. Other NGOs are installing solar panels in schools in the provinces. There is also help for small, local NGOs who want to do specific projects. These tend to be much more economically efficient than the projects of large-scale NGOs, whose bureaucracy eats up money. They also have the advantage of being run to suit local conditions, the intricacies of which often escapes foreign NGOs.

The international press is right that almost all displaced people are still living in camps, cholera has caused thousands of deaths, and there are still serious infrastructure and political issues. People still live the psychological pain of the catastrophe on a daily basis. Emotions run deep, and violence is rampant. But rather than search for a scapegoat, we should take a critical look at the problems involved in rebuilding and ask how we can build upon the successes that have been achieved so far.

Let me concentrate on the camps. What the international media fail to report on is why the issue of resettlement is so complicated to resolve, and there is a good reason for this: if you map out all the problems associated with relocating people, it seems like a hopeless situation.

First, the government has the problem of identifying who owned which building. Land tenure in Haiti is unclear at the best of times.

Second, landlords are refusing to allow previous tenants to return, because they hope to renovate their houses and rent them at higher prices.

Third, residents of camps may not want to return to their homes because they do not have – and may never have had - electricity or water. In the camps, residents get water, showers, toilet facilities, and some food.

Fourth, rebuilding is very expensive, even considering the scale of international aid that is arriving in Haiti. Just keeping the camps maintained is expensive enough - one local company is delivering US$20,000 of water per day in 260 trucks to 140 camps.

Fifth, international NGOs may have money to build housing, but it is not clear where they should go. You cannot build new houses on the sites of destroyed houses if you are not clear about who owns the land, and the government has been reticent to identify alternative sites.

Furthermore, alternative sites may have no facilities, no social networks, and no transport to carry people to and from work. In this case, one is better off staying in a tent near family and income opportunities.

The opinions of most people I have talked to thus far seem to be that a) The problems are more complicated to achieve than most people realise; b) International NGOs do some good work but are economically very inefficient; c) Local people should be facilitated—and trusted—to take charge of small projects (given that this is what they have done anyway); and d) The Haitian government needs leadership to make some quick and important decisions that can facilitate the work of Haitians and foreigners involved in rebuilding.

My advice to anyone who wants to help Haiti is to give money to the small local organisations. They work cheaply, as they don't require large expat salaries and private cars with drivers, and they know where to buy the materials and services they need at low cost. They have a more realistic view of what needs to be done and what is actually possible.

The experience they gain running their own NGOs is great training for future community and business enterprises. More importantly, they will still be there when everyone else has left.