Reconstruction in Haiti, what do we know from previous disasters?

January 26, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

The Haiti operation is moving rapidly from rescue to reconstruction . What major challenges can we expect to emerge? What sort of policies have delivered results after previous earthquakes? One of the best sources on this is Responding to Earthquakes 2008: Learning from earthquake relief and recovery operations, by the ALNAP network.  Here are some highlights of that report, plus a few thoughts from me.

Men-build-a-hut-in-the--D-014Urgency: It is never too soon to think about recovery. The initial actions taken by donors, government and others will shape Haiti’s political, social and economic future for generations. But it is difficult. Surveys of affected populations after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake have showed far more dissatisfaction with recovery efforts than with relief efforts.  And slow: donors typically set unrealistic timeframes for reconstruction, and the level of infrastructural and political damage inflicted in Haiti suggests that they must think in terms of years, (if not decades).

There is no apolitical option: A disaster of this magnitude is also a political shock. New actors will emerge, old ones will decline, politics will shift. The spontaneous self-help groups that sprang up after the 1985 Mexican earthquake boosted independent social movements and ultimately led to the decline of Mexico’s one party state. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution traced its rise back to the mishandling of 1972 earthquake aid by the Somoza dictatorship.

Disaster response is not a substitute for politics. Donors won’t solve Haiti’s problems (which of course predate the earthquake), Haitians will. But the way reconstruction is designed could help or hinder efforts to tackle poor governance, mass unemployment, inequality and crime.

The government currently appears largely absent, but power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. New forces will emerge, which may strengthen or radically alter the social contract between citizen and state.

Civil Society must be central to reconstruction: Even before the earthquake, civil society organizations in Haiti (farmers’ associations, women’s groups, churches, human rights Haiti watergroups etc) often compensated for the lack of effective state institutions. In the aftermath of the earthquake, they are already emerging as a key source of collective organization and response on the ground, and yet are largely ignored in higher level discussions, or treated as passive ‘beneficiaries’. This is a huge waste of talent, and a missed opportunity to strengthen the social contract underpinning democracy in the new Haiti. Civil society organizations, not just ‘outside experts’ largely ignorant of the Haitian context, need to be involved from the outset in actively contributing to designing the reconstruction.

Public v Private? Nowhere is the political nature of reconstruction more obvious. Will reconstruction revitalise and strengthen Haiti’s flimsy state institutions, or will urgency and frustration prompt the setting up of parallel services to provide water, sanitation, healthcare and education that actually undermine state services? In Oxfam’s experience, only state capacity, regulation, and a large degree of state provision, can guarantee universal access over the long term, but this lesson can easily be lost in the pressure of short term financial horizons and the ‘just do something’ urgency following a disaster. Working with the government can also save time: a national development plan exists, and channelling aid funding to fast-track/ transform Haiti along pre-agreed lines would save a lot of time on renegotiating a development plan from scratch.

But beyond the issue of private service provision, the role of entrepreneurs is crucial. They are already filling the gaps and stimulating recovery. Plans that acknowledge and involve them make more sense – assuming there’s an economic vacuum is just as foolish as assuming a political one.

Gender matters: Just as disasters and responses are not politically neutral, nor are they gender neutral, yet lack of attention to gender is a recurring failure in disaster response. After the 2004 tsunami, recovery aid was concentrated on the fishery sector and there was little aid for agriculture, business or the informal sector. Within the fishing sector it was the men who fished on their own account who got the assistance, rather than women who traded fish. Responses can advance girls’ schooling and women’s access to land.

Land disputes will rise: Land-ownership emerges as a critical issue in all earthquake disasters. First, there are property disputes even before the disaster. Will opportunists seize land in the chaos? Will squatters be able to return and rebuild their shacks (even if that is a good idea)? The loss of documentation, the destruction of landmarks, the deaths of property owners, and the need to formalise previously informal arrangements all add a new layer of complexity to existing land-ownership issues. But there are positive opportunities too. Some disaster interventions have been effective in changing the pattern of formal house ownership, with new houses registered in the names of both husband and wife. A follow up on the 2001 El Salvador earthquake response, in which the World Bank implemented a joint-ownership policy for new houses, found some communities where 50% of respondents reported that a woman was one of the legal home-owners and that, overall, 37% of the homes were wholly owned by women.

Pay cash and rebuild the economy: how Haitians recover will depend on whether they can find jobs and markets for their products. Economic recovery, based on the livelihoods of poor people (smallscale agriculture, construction, informal economy), will be crucial. So, for example, evaluations of the tsunami response showed that the use of cash and local procurement are generally to be preferred whenever there are working local markets. Rapid cash assistance (eg paying people to clear the rubble) can also prevent people selling off precious assets (at low prices) through desperation. Evaluations also show affected populations prefer cash to goods, as it gives them a sense of dignity and choice as they try to rebuild their lives.

Promote risk reduction: Disaster-risk reduction is a long-term investment. The immediate post-disaster context provides fertile ground for planting the seeds of risk- reduction strategies – people understand all too well the importance of earthquake-proof buildings, community readiness etc, but memories and urgency will fade as reconstruction and other priorities intervene. Donors can help by providing opportunities for community members to discuss future city planning, or working with communities to identify risks and promoting the safe siting of buildings. In Haiti, Oxfam has supported the setting-up, training and equipping of ‘Civil Protection Committees’ in a number of areas of the capital. These local “first responders” were officially recognised and are therefore part of the official disaster management system. The so-called ‘first responders’ are always your neighbours, family and friends – the community. One striking stat on this came a week after the disaster: According to AFP, ‘More than 90 people have been pulled out alive since international search and rescue teams began combing through the debris from last week’s earthquake in Haiti, the United Nations said.’ That’s nine zero. The numbers pulled out by friends and relatives must be hundreds of times that.

Finally, there is more to life than physical survival. What if any thought has gone into psychosocial support to deal with trauma/bereavement/orphaning?

January 26, 2010
Duncan Green