In Haiti today, one year after a deadly quake struck, as many as 1 million people are still without a proper roof over their heads. Journalists, politicians and donors are arriving en masse to make assessments and publish opinions. They will see hundreds of thousands of people still under tarpaulins and ramshackle shelters, and wonder why all the money raised has not been able to achieve more. It is a valid question that is important to answer.
In more than 20 years working in humanitarian emergencies, I have never witnessed such a confluence of complexities and constraints in a disaster zone. Starting with the sheer scale of urgent needs where basically the entire country is in need of some form of assistance, central authority has been seriously weakened. The Haitian government was brought to its knees in an instant, and has understandably struggled with 20 per cent of its workforce wiped out and almost all its buildings reduced to rubble.
Early on, we in the Red Cross Red Crescent identified sanitation as the number one threat to life in Haiti and set about tackling this as our overriding priority. In the absence of fully functioning national agencies, we continue to lead a metropolitan-wide response that is vast in magnitude and provides access to sanitation services and clean water to more than half a million people every single day.
And yet, the spectre of cholera still hangs over the people of Haiti. The outbreak was born largely as a result of the country’s almost entirely collapsed infrastructure. By all accounts, it is clear that our collective efforts are not enough. By the standards of other major disasters and crises, it is a flashing indicator about the limitations of the humanitarian system.
Not for the first time, we call attention to the fact that this is a situation which is neither acceptable nor sustainable. Aid agencies are stretched beyond capacity and are not designed to be a substitute for municipalities.
The Haitian authorities must receive the funding that has been pledged to them and all the support required to rebuild their capacity to provide, as a priority, the basic sanitation services that the Haitian population so desperately needs and deserves. Donor’s need to deliver – the Haitian government can do little without funding.
At the same time, donors need to jointly develop systems with government, ensuring trust and transparency, that help to guarantee that aid dollars are used properly. They must not evade their duty of exerting sustained pressure on those in charge of creating a new and enabling environment that converts relief and recovery into real results. The opportunity to build a new Haiti has not passed, but it will depend on the continued support of donors.
As if rapacious cholera was not enough, more than a million people in Haiti, especially the residents of Port-au-Prince, have had to endure an extremely difficult year living in makeshift shelters in dangerous camps. The challenges of finding real shelter solutions have been numerous and are mostly linked to the fact that shelter is not just about structures. Shelter encompasses important legal, economic and social aspects that must be fully taken into consideration in close collaboration with the local community.
The rather tricky and often grey area of land tenure has been particularly testing in Haiti where an informal system of property rights is mostly based on verbal contract. Even when tenure issues are resolved, the availability of adequate parcels of land is rare. Sourcing sites to rebuild that are acceptable to the community – especially finding sites with access to economic opportunities, schools and healthcare – is also a major challenge, which means many people opt to stay in or around the rubble-strewn streets of the capital city.
Rubble removal itself is a colossal and all-too-visible physical obstacle – one which humanitarians are ill-equipped to deal with effectively. Essentially, we’re trying to rebuild on a mess – to repair a tyre on a moving vehicle.
Everyone needs to step up a gear. The next Haitian government must appoint a single minister responsible for rehousing and designate a single agency to lead the process. It should decide what to do about the legal uncertainty over land tenure. And, if land is needed for temporary homes and available in or near neighbourhoods being reconstructed, it must be willing to step in and buy it at a fair market price, perhaps with assistance from donors. Wealthy landowners must play a more collaborative role to resolve the stalemate and not wait for windfalls as their compatriots suffer.
Together, we must commit to ‘build back better’ and enforce standards in reconstruction. The humanitarian community itself must do more to collectively influence the pace and effectiveness of the response. We have not done enough to tackle and resolve the most significant obstacles such as land and shelter.
Despite all the significant challenges, we cannot lose sight of the huge amount that has been achieved. The generous billions donated by ordinary people and communities the world over have been, and continue to be, critical in providing life-saving care and support, restoring livelihoods and delivering numerous other humanitarian services to the people of Haiti.
We understand only too well what needs to be done – the need to overcome seriously complicating factors such as political turmoil, cholera, floods and hurricanes. The recovery process will take years, perhaps even a generation, but it is our best chance to turn Haiti’s fortunes around.
One year on, we mourn in solidarity with the people of Haiti and vow to remain working alongside them for as long as it takes. It is only by working closely with the Haitian people and genuinely engaging them as real partners in their own recovery that we can be sure to pave the road to a better future.