10 months Haiti quake relief: A conversation with UN coordinator Nigel Fisher

A boy flies a kite at a former golf course, which is now used as a campground of Haitians displaced by the January 12 earthquake. Photo by: Pasqual Gorriz

It’s been 10 months since a massive earthquake struck Haiti, devastating an already extremely fragile island nation. And while emergency relief efforts have given way to long-term reconstruction, Haiti is not out of the dark, says Nigel Fisher, the United Nations coordinator of humanitarian affairs in Haiti.

Take, for instance, the recent onset of cholera that has killed at least 337 people and hospitalized 4,764, or jitters about the ongoing hurricane season – especially earlier this month, as Hurricane Tomas approached the Caribbean country.

National elections scheduled for the end of November may offer a clearer indication of Haiti’s path to stability, but no small signs of progress will dismantle the need for the international aid community’s long-term presence in Haiti, says Fisher, who spoke with Devex in an exclusive interview about the changing role of aid in Haiti and what relief workers in other regions may learn from Haiti’s example.

Catherine Bragg, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, recently said that post-earthquake humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti should continue through 2011, and then an “exit strategy” can be envisaged. Do you believe that this is an accurate time frame to accomplish the work that is needed?

Getting Haiti back on track is a very long-term project – one that is going to take decades, and the international community is going to be here in the long term. As far as immediate humanitarian assistance goes, we need it through 2011. The earthquake was a natural disaster coming off of a structural disaster. With the systems before the earthquake, you had 85 percent of Haitians living in poverty, only half of the kids of school age were going to school. … On all counts, Haiti was really not doing well. And then, when the earthquake came, the challenge is not to rebuild, because frankly what existed before is hardly worth rebuilding.

For the first few months, the priority of the international community and the humanitarian community was to ensure people being displaced had shelter and basic protections – water, sanitation, food et cetera. In April, May and June, the focus started to shift, [with stakeholders] saying, “OK, now we really have to focus on recovery, we really have to focus on investment, rural infrastructure, the economy, more systematic health care, and this is not just a humanitarian response.” So that is when the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission was created with Bill Clinton and Jean Max-Bellerive as co-chairs.

The IHRC seemed to get off to a slow start. How did that impact development efforts from continuing and accelerating?

In May, June and July, things did slow down because there was a lot of discussion about control and powers of the commission. A lot of the U.N. organizations raised funds for the response and were using those funds, not only for immediate relief but to reinvest, so there was work going on. But there were some initial uncertainties of how programs and projects would be approved. You have a situation today where the situation has been improved.

How have you seen the role of the aid community shift in the past few months and recent weeks, given the direction you see recovery efforts heading?

People are starting to see the future in the communities rather than in the camps. Over the next year, the international community and the U.N. authorities will construct 125,000 to 130,000 transitional shelters, or small housing, which can resist hurricanes and will withstand earthquakes.

The average family size per shelter is four-and-a-half [people], so you get around 600,000 people to be in those transitional shelters. So the plan over the next year is that you have a lot of people combining opportunities for work and then services will start to go back to these communities. There is also investment going into environmental protection and agricultural development, for example, so there are also alternatives in rural areas.

But the focus is very much on recovery, return – and the humanitarian community is obviously needed to support working for that.

For us we are looking at, “What are the services and support that we need to provide in camps? What are the services and support that we need to provide outside camps, which will enable people to see options for leaving those camps?” It’s very much focused on not pushing people out of camps but enabling them to see alternatives outside of camps and thereby whittling down the numbers.

Will the U.N. run the transitional shelters, or how will they be orchestrated?

They will be small dwellings intended to last for a few years and some are being built in camps where it has been decided that these can become longer-term communities. Most camps, and especially those that are in public spaces, downtown along roads, they eventually have to go. Most are being built by the aid communities in return or in rural areas to attract people to go elsewhere.

Oxfam released a report in early October that said international food aid to Haiti is undercutting the efforts of Haitian farmers and local agriculture. Do you think food aid has had this sort of noticeable effect?

You find in almost every situation like this there is always a debate about if food aid is good or if it will serve to raise local food prices. The World Food Program stopped its generalized rations – that is rations going to every man, woman and child – back in late April and it now focuses very much on pregnant and lactating women, on children, so the food aid is much more focused. The World Food Program since the early summer has been very consciously trying to purchase food from the local markets, so as not to stop prices or reduce the local production. So my impression is that the World Food Program is making efforts not to distort local prices. But it’s like a theological debate on both sides.

Prime Minister Bellerive recently said that he needs more, better, different aid. What would that look like?

At a macro level, for years now the aid community, especially the donor communities, largely bypassed the government. It has seen [the Haitian government] as weak, it has seen it as corrupt, and therefore invested more in U.N. agencies, but more than that, in NGOs. So this is really a country that has a lot of NGOs working outside any kind of system. Many of them are doing good work, but it is very difficult to know what they are doing and where they are doing it, and what standards they are applying.

So I think one of the things that the prime minister was saying is that development in Haiti has to be according to some minimum standards and it is the role of the government to set those standards. I don’t think he was expecting the government to take over the provisions for all these projects because it can’t. But at least he wants support for the government.

The other thing we are trying to do is set up a tracking mechanism to know what assistance is coming in and in what is it being invested, as a means of trying to see some kind of equity in development around the country. And related to that, transparency is working in line with national priorities, not everybody doing their own thing, which is often the case in Haiti.

The international “round-table” approach that Haiti adopted for post-earthquake talks was somewhat unique in how inclusive it was. How do you think this could be successfully replicated in other post-disaster relief efforts?

One of the things is that there has to be some system of mutual accountability between the government and the international community. Given that the government was so weak and also didn’t have a great deal of credibility, there had to be a mechanism where it could assure the international community of its ability.

Two, there had to be a system which there wasn’t before, which really brought all the donors together to enable donors to see where money was going. And that system of mutual accountability, that was the reason for the commission. It struggled to get going the way it should and I think one of the big issues we see was that the plan developed was fairly broad-lined visionary.

For the next situation you have to develop very clear strategies and priorities so when projects and programs are brought to the commission, they can be judged against strategic priorities.

One of the weaknesses of the commission the prime minister is frustrated about is in a sense the international plan still hasn’t been translated into a strategic priority. We have donors who come in and say, “We want to invest $50 million in education.” Good, that’s great, but how will there be enough resources left for agriculture or whatever? We need mutual accountability, transparency, working together, and a framework for doing so.

Read more about Haiti relief efforts.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.