Friday, January 14, 2011

Stepping Up a Gear in Haiti

One long year after the earthquake that has crippled Haiti humanitarian needs are still urgent and the road to recovery is strewn with rubble. Even the most seasoned aid workers I know have never witnessed a disaster as daunting as the Haiti earthquake. 

The Red Cross boss on the ground, Marcel Fortier, said in an interview with the BBC that in more than thirty years working in disaster zones all over the world he had never witnessed anything of similar complexity or magnitude - and this from a man who played a key role during five years operation for Tsunami relief and recovery. 

The most immediate challenges start with the sheer scale of urgent needs where basically the entire country is in need of some form of assistance and the central authority has been seriously weakened. The earthquake brought the Haitian government to its knees in an instant, and it has understandably struggled after 20 per cent of its workforce was 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 - an opinion voiced forcefully by our colleagues from MSF. 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 or national governments.

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. 

As if predatory 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. 

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.

Together, we must commit to ‘build back better’ and enforce standards in reconstruction.

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. 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.


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