Counting small victories in Haiti

Workers at a construction site in Port-au-Prince. Five years after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, how is the Caribbean nation faring? Photo by: Logan Abassi / United Nations

An estimated $9 billion was pledged in relief funds following the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. Since then, conversations about aid to Haiti have leaned heavily toward inefficiencies, real or perceived.

The numbers are readily available to do so. On top of poverty, hunger, gender-based violence, corruption, insecurity and political instability, Haiti has become a country of numbers. There have been more than 700,000 suspected cholera cases since 2010, and two-thirds of the population are under- or unemployed. More than 70,000 Haitians still live in camps. Half of the rural population practices open defecation and more than 31 percent lack access to safe water.

For those aid workers who stayed or entered the country after the initial response, the transition from emergency relief to recovery and reconstruction has been a monumental, often overwhelming task. For them, conversations lean more often toward the small victories they’ve won since.

“Would we cope better in the U.K., U.S. or Ireland? I am not sure how we would fare if our major airports closed, 60 percent of government buildings were destroyed and over 300 hospitals badly damaged,” said Peter McNichol, Concern Worldwide’s Haiti country director.

But the five-year landmark is an important one — just as each year since the earthquake has resulted in a harsher “Where are we now?” than the year before. Barely a month after the earthquake, the Haitian government released its Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti, a 55-page document outlining priorities for the country’s recovery and reconstruction. The main goals included relaunching economic, governmental and social activity, reducing Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters and putting Haiti back on the road to development.

Five years to deliver on the Haiti country plan, to rebuild roads and houses, to relocate internally displaced persons to permanent, well-planned housing. Five years to improve water and sanitation, control a cholera epidemic, set up health clinics, rebuild hospitals, establish child-friendly spaces, rehabilitate and rebuild schools.

The disaster prompted an outpouring of international assistance and an influx of aid workers, social entrepreneurs and foreign investors scrambling toward a goal the Caribbean nation has never quite achieved in its tumultuous history: sustainable development and a stable democracy.

Then many of them left. Those who remain are key to the country’s development, although their efforts remain hard to coordinate. They also remain supremely passionate about the fate of what is said to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

World Vision has been pursuing a multisector response to the emergency but is now focusing on longer-term development in the areas of health, education, water and sanitation. Concern has returned to pre-earthquake levels of staffing, from approximately 400 staff members at the end of 2010 to today’s 178. And Catholic Relief Services, whose national staff ballooned to 673 during the response, is now back to 236.

The widespread return to pre-earthquake staffing levels doesn’t mean the work is done. Many challenges remain; but progress, too, can be seen in numbers.

U.S. assistance to Haiti has resulted in 70,000 farmers enjoying increased crop yields. About 3,300 new Haitian national police officers have been trained and almost half of all Haitians can access basic health services at U.S.-supported facilities, according to reports from the Department of State.

Approximately 70,000 Haitians still reside in camps — progress, McNichol said, compared with the 1.5 million who found shelter in makeshift camps right after the quake. Many of them, McNichol suggested, have since relocated to alternative and longer-term dwellings.

“It hasn't solved the country’s housing problem,” McNichol acknowledged, “but it’s still a huge thing the country has achieved.”

Now, aid workers are counting small victories. In his conversation with Devex, McNichol, for example, highlighted a mango and avocado business in Saut d’Eau, in Haiti’s Central Plateau, that was now able to find a market.

He remembered driving to Port-au-Prince from the airport in 2010 — through utter chaos: “One house up, one house down. You can still find earthquake-damaged houses, but you have to look for them now.”

Success stories like this one are the result of countless loans and credits, charity and foreign investment — and plenty of technical assistance.

Grant competitions like the Leveraging Effective Application of Direct Investment program, implemented by the Pan-American Development Foundation and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have helped prop up the economy. Enterprises have been sprouting up, like Surtab, which employs Haitians to produce tablets. Foreign aid has gone toward everything from recycling businesses to organic cocoa processing companies to garment factories.

Interest from the private sector in Haiti is growing, said Nadia Cherrouk, Haiti country director for PADF.

For Yvette Gonzalez, a business development consultant who has worked in Haiti for four years, the first Haitian construction group she helped secure a direct contract from the U.S. government suggested progress, as did the first Haitian-owned grocery store to open nearby.

New infrastructure, from electricity poles to newly asphalted roads both north and south, are positive signs, she added.

Haiti’s poor security has made headlines over the years. Jessica Dinstl, a program management officer for World Vision, arrived on the island shortly after a series of kidnappings; she said she now feels safer.

Violence still exist and gangs often operate freely, though, posing a threat to aid operations especially in Port-au-Prince. But U.N. peacekeeping forces have been drawn down and Haiti’s police force has gained capacity, McNichol said.

For CRS, part of the success is that Haitians see a Haitian institution — the Catholic church — providing quality services. Their partnership is building on the church’s ability to provide education and is enrolling 2,000 teachers in a certification program, Darren Hercyk, CRS’ country representative for Haiti, explained.

Now the challenge is to help people see that Haiti and Haitians have moved forward but still need support. For aid groups, that means constantly adjusting their work based on changing conditions on the ground.

“If I try to sell someone a 5-year-old telephone, no one wants to buy that technology,” Hercyk said. “Donors don’t want to buy a 5-year-old plan in Haiti, they want things that are innovative, things that look at the current marketplace, things that can reach scale.”

People say, “Oh it can’t be done in Haiti,” he said, adding: But of course it can.

For Haiti to be seen as more than a nation of numbers and small victories, Haitians need to be able to drive change from within — and not look for it to arrive via the capital city’s impressive new airport.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.