In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, reconstruction featured on a dual-mandate: build back, and build better. The “build back better” message reflected the coordinated relief efforts of former President Bill Clinton and the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, which first began using the phrase after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The phrase had since been appropriated by many countries and by countless international organizations and non-profits to signal the capacity that reconstruction had for stabilizing and strengthening internal structures within the disaster-struck area. But what did “build back better” mean for Haiti, and how did this mentality affect relief efforts? While the “build back better” philosophy helped shed light on the important role of government investment and infrastructure during the post-disaster climate, the relief efforts ultimately failed to realize their goals due to a lack of coordination among the many agencies in the region.
In a relief effort, targeted government capacity building occurs when members of an international community contribute to developing local institutional stability. Building government capacity means increasing the government’s ability to govern following the departure of international aid actors, who are often present in disaster settings due to their increased manpower, experience, expertise, and funding. With aid flowing into the island-nation from countries around the globe, Haiti was a clear beneficiary of this approach. The varied backgrounds of the stakeholders demanded coordinated political efforts that would help contribute to strengthening domestic mechanisms for future relief efforts.
But as aid flowed in, only one percent of donor funds went to the Haitian government and only 0.4% went to Haitian NGOs. As aid groups, NGOs, and governmental bodies came to Haiti, staff gathered in the fenced off UN complex and held joint strategic meetings in English, despite the fact that the languages spoken in Haiti are French and Creole. While 60 international NGOs attended these meetings, Haitian NGOs (and any Haitian representatives) were absent. Without government funding or government involvement in the planning process, NGOs developed a parallel state structure where NGOs took control of many functions that traditionally lay within the domain of the official government. With NGOs enacting more governance than the government itself, many have dubbed Haiti the “NGO Republic.”
Without any authoritative government power immediately following the earthquake, displaced persons began to form and organize themselves into camps with local doctors, leaders, and security teams. A group of small Haitian NGOs called the Haitian Response Coalition visited camps to help distribute aid by working closely with the local community to deliver on their specific wants and needs. Unfortunately, large international relief organizations ignored these local community structures and groups similar to the Haitian Response Coalition. Instead, these large international aid groups required the presence of UN troops in order to hand out aid and would travel to camps without an understanding of realities on the ground.
As conflict arose between government and international actors, the stakeholders in the relief effort attempted to bring together international actors with the Haitian government by starting the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The IHRC represented the main effort to bring all parts of the relief effort together under a single framework and leader: former President Bill Clinton. The media dubbed the IHRC as the “Clinton Commission.” Because the power of the IHRC was shared between Haiti and international actors, Haiti never viewed the IHRC as a Haitian institution and consequently the Haitian government ignored and at times, undermined it.
A major aspect of rebuilding government capacity is the ability to respond more effectively to the next disaster. After the earthquake, many institutions conducted research and completed studies on how Haiti could respond better. One such institution, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, funded a study published in Plos Medicine which demonstrated how SIM cards in cell phones could be used to track the movements of large masses of people in live time directly after the Haitian earthquake disaster. With the information on population movement, the Haitian government could more closely match their next disaster response to the locations of people on the ground. Similarly, Statistics Without Borders released countless data and analyses that could prove useful to the Haitian government in case of another earthquake.
The severe earthquake killed 222,570 people and displaced over 1.3 million. However, similar scale earthquakes killed only around 100 people in California and 1,000 in Chile. These differing statistics can be explained by the local infrastructure in each location. The reconstruction efforts clearly signaled an opportunity to “build back better” with the introduction of new policies that aimed to facilitate construction and better urban planning. Prior to the earthquake, people could build homes and shelters in Port-au-Prince with any material they could find. Yet the limited success in implementing these policies suggests a failed realization of the promise of reconstruction, which otherwise had the potential to reduce patterns of socioeconomic inequality and build better structures.
Haiti needed significant reconstruction after the destruction of the earthquake. However, by 2012, only $215 million of the total $6 billion in relief went to housing reconstruction. Much money and focus went toward building shelters and decreasing the amount of people who remained in tent camps for the weeks, months, and years after the earthquake. In the context of building back better, physical reconstructions present two opportunities. First, the reconstruction effort can work to end traditional patterns of socioeconomic inequality. Second, the physical structures can be reconstructed so as to withstand the next natural disaster. Neither of these opportunities came to fruition in Haiti.
In Haiti, the tent cities only started to grow smaller as NGOs left, health clinics closed, and clean water distribution ended. Without places to go, many Haitians took matters into their own hands as people moved back in to 65% of the condemned homes and 50,000 building off-grid communities.
The 16/6 neighborhood return policy attempted to create a fast pathway for people to move out of the tent cities by providing rental subsidies and encouraged people to leave the camps and return to their original neighborhood. With many Haitians moving into their old neighborhoods, condemned homes, and off-grid communities, traditional patterns of socioeconomic inequalities both continued and worsened due to the relief effort. The 16/6 neighborhood return policy and the failure to provide basic services in tent camps perpetuated many of the original housing challenges which led to the large scale disaster by placing people in the exact location they came from before the earthquake.
More than where people moved, it is important to look at what was physically built. Rehabilitation of housing did not occur fast enough, in the right place, or in the right way. The relief effort spent $500 million to build 100,000 T-Shelters. T-Shelters are temporary or transitional structures, built with the intent of remaining for a few years before permanent settlements were built. Unfortunately, the T-Shelters blocked permanent reconstruction in their locations and are not easily demolished or recycled to make room for or provide materials for permanent residences.
The building of T-Shelters wasted much needed time and money. On average, a T-Shelter cost $138.8 per square meter, and a permanent dwelling cost $166 per square meter. Without significantly increasing costs, the international community could have built permanent residences in Haiti. Instead, the T-Shelters will most likely remain inhabited for decades, while only built to last for a few years. The reconstruction effort left Haiti with a plethora of quickly built structurally unsound T-Shelters without any clear policy or guidelines of how to phase them out, how to transform them into permanent housing, or how to provide housing solutions which would withstand the next earthquake. After the NGOs left, the budget, responsibility, and any clear plan to transition displaced persons into real homes left with them.
Another important aspect involved in rebuilding a country after a natural disaster is the resurgence of the economy. Among other initiatives, revitalizing the economy requires new growth-oriented policies (such as those that incentivize entrepreneurship) and a commitment to bringing in foreign businesses.
Since the earthquake, the Haitian government has enacted a variety of economic policies—it made it easier for foreigners to own property, provided 15 year tax holidays to foreign investors, and highlighted the draw of duty free import of inputs and export of final products. Even with these incentives, however, businesses have not rushed to provide jobs in Haiti. The major private investment of the relief effort coalesced around the Caracol industrial park, which brought in textile manufacturer Sae-A and with it, nearly 1,050 jobs.
In addition to policies enacted by the Haitian government, international assistance played an important role in the post-disaster economic rebuilding. The IMF’s choice to forgive nearly $270 million of Haiti’s debt, along with other instances of international assistance, allowed GDP growth in Haiti to move from -5% immediately following the earthquake to 5-6% in the reconstruction period.
Another factor important for economic growth is the free-flowing movement of capital in the market, which helps increase consumption and investment. To facilitate this growth, Haiti offered many micro-lending institutions that continue to provide a bank for Haitians with lower incomes and stimulate entrepreneurship. Fonkoze, an NGO developed by Haitians for Haitians, provides loans, banking services, and a way to transmit remittances. Directly after the earthquake, Fonkoze quickly reopened 31 of its 41 branches and facilitated the transfer of US$2 million into Haiti.
While government and international policies have followed the guidelines for economic recovery, the reality did not match up to the ideology of building back better. The people affected by the earthquake did not rise to higher standards of living post earthquake. Much of the economic recovery occurred outside of the area affected by the earthquake, including the Caracol industrial plant. The statistics also ignore the 500,000 people who remained in tents by 2012 or the many who moved back to condemned buildings. For these people, the economy remained in a worse condition.
The Relief Effort
When looking at where exactly the relief effort started to go wrong, the clearest place to start is the lack of coordination and the beginning of fragmentation.
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) set up clusters to develop a common and consistent approach for shelter construction. OCHA quickly built clusters to coordinate the information gathering and response, but the response largely failed due to a lack of coordination with the government and communities, an absence of global leadership, and a high turnover rate of inexperienced and unregulated humanitarian actors and staff.
The clusters led to different groups working independently without communication. Without the coordination, no clear strategy was followed or effectively implemented. Instead, the cluster system further fragmented the already broken relief system.
Without a single system of data collection, standards and definitions varied across each set of information. This created an environment where aid organizations would only trust data they collected themselves, leading to inefficiency and duplication of efforts. The lack of a single system, the lack of coordination, and the lack of reliance on local actors underscored the failure of the Haitian relief effort to live up to its potential. Without empowering local government employees or community groups, the Haitian government did not improve its capacity to gather and disseminate information in the wake of the disaster. Professor Gary Desir, MD of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies agrees. “It’s not the government’s fault that the reconstruction didn’t occur correctly. It is the donor’s fault. I tend to view foreign aid as a jobs program for the donor country with the majority of money and jobs returning to the donor country.”
A Haitian proverb shows both the bleak hope and necessity for communication and cooperation to ensure the progress of the country:
“When all the fireflies shine the way for one another, we will succeed at developing the country”