Quake aid 'exposed culture gap' — Haiti activist

Haitians employed to clear earthquake debris in a cash-for-work program funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department. A recent report by the European Court of Auditors shone a renewed spotlight on EU aid to Haiti, noting coordination shortcomings in several EU-funded programs in the Caribbean nation. Photo by: Susana Pérez Díaz / ECHO

Five years after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, many Haitians feel international efforts to help the country recover from the disaster failed to meet their goals, particularly local ownership of development gains.

One of these critics is journalist and public relations consultant Gotson Pierre, whose advice to the global development community is precisely to “go local” and involve the population in all aid programs.

Devex caught up with Pierre during his recent visit to Brussels, where the reporter — named one of last year’s 100 “information heroes” by the media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders for his post-disaster work — was invited by Coordination Europe-Haiti, a coalition of 15 European nongovernmental organizations that advocates increased involvement in support of good governance and civil society in Haiti, to discuss the results of Europe’s aid involvement in the country with European Union officials.

A recent report by the European Court of Auditors shone a renewed spotlight on EU aid to Haiti, noting coordination shortcomings in several EU-funded programs in the Caribbean nation.

“Of course, in view of the magnitude of the catastrophe, a quick reaction was needed," said Pierre, who agreed with most of the report's findings. "Choices had to be made, but they were not always well thought through.”

In the aftermath of the temblor, Pierre — as director of information action group Medialternatif and press agency Alterpresse — jumped into action to help his afflicted countrymen in the field he knows best: communication. More than a million and a half Haitians saw their homes devastated and didn't know what had happened to friends and family. Just a day after the disaster, Pierre set up a mobile telecenter to offer displaced persons news and information. The network of Web-connected computers still tours the six camps in the capital Port-au-Prince, offering the latest info and exposing Haitians to new communication technologies.

“Communication is a basic human right,” Pierre explained. “The population is entitled to access to information. This is a way to promote durable development of Haiti.”

Local participation, he added, is key to Haiti’s development and reconstruction after the catastrophe, but this was sorely missing in the international response: The main problem is that the international aid organizations did not sufficiently take into account the peculiarities of the Haitian context.

“There is a Haitian rhythm, a Haitian way of doing things. It’s not something technical, it’s a cultural problem whereby timeframes do not correspond with local reality," he said. "If you try to push through a six-month project without taking into account local constraints, you won’t be ready when your six months have passed.”

And it's not like most organizations had not been in similar situations in other parts of the world.

“Objectives and calendar don’t always correspond with the situation on the ground. This tension is always there in the Haitian context," Pierre said. "But many organizations have overlooked this and applied the aid experience they gained in Africa to Haiti.”

Despite the preconceived notions of many foreign aid implementers, the NGO community had been vibrant in the country ever since the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986. While many of these local organizations have their weaknesses, Pierre pointed out that others were quite well structured and had been representing farmers, women or teachers for more than two decades when the quake struck.

“These Haitian organizations wanted to be heard after the earthquake, but it was difficult for them. Often there was scant attention from the international aid organizations to what they had to say,” he said. “All relief and rehabilitation work was being planned at the level of United Nations clusters. Holding the meetings in English, even if Haitians were present, added a language barrier. In some sectors, less than a quarter of staff involved was Haitian.”

Forgoing the input and experience of local organizations has led to wasteful projects, and this started with the tents provided to homeless persons.

“Waste management was already a problem in Haiti before the earthquake. But this became worse when the first plastic tents were set up: What to do with discarded or torn plastic sheeting?” he asked. “This was all the more galling as in Haiti we have a tradition of making our own type of tents, that are made of biodegradable materials.”

Shelter problems continued once the construction of definitive houses had kicked off.

“The housing that was offered was not in accordance with the wishes of the population: it was too small, people called them pigeon cages, and local facilities were lacking,” Pierre said, giving the example of a city right outside the capital where a whole complex of such houses was built without any schools, health centers or economic activity in the vicinity.

People refused to live there and many houses are uninhabited.

“It’s a waste of money,” he lamented.

According to Pierre, involving local organizations would have yielded much better results. Take for example houses that were built in Leogane, near the epicenter of the quake, by Iteca, an institute that supports farmers’ organizations. Iteca conceived the project and built the houses with foreign funding and the participation of local people, who could suggest and add their own ideas regarding the number of rooms or architectural style.

“People love these houses and immediately develop a sense of ownership,” the journalist said. “This is a model for cooperative construction.”

One pitfall in the international assistance efforts in Haiti over the past five years, Pierre noted, is that little has been done to strengthen institutions and organizations. This is becoming a problem, now that aid organizations are leaving the country and funding is drying up.

“There has been little durable reconstruction that would allow local organizations to build on earlier work. Now these organizations are finding it difficult to find funds to pursue their activities,” he said. “We’ve seen that in our own work: Most of the funds that we received had to be spent almost immediately, even though the reconstruction will take much longer. That means that the organization has few possibilities and funds to prepare itself to face mid- and longer-term needs that may arise after two, three, five years.”

That’s the unfortunate consequence of policies that are being set up hastily in emergency situations, according to Pierre, who however stressed that development aid organizations are more open to local participation and involvement that humanitarian groups.

In conclusion, this award-winning journalist encouraged international aid organizations working in his country to find local partners “who can help you find out what to do and how to do it,” instead of arriving and directly setting up projects for beneficiaries, bypassing local actors.

“Only those who live in the daily reality of the country can help you understand the local culture and context.”

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About the author

  • Diederik Kramers

    Diederik Kramers is a freelance correspondent in Brussels covering EU and NATO affairs. A former spokesperson and communications officer for UNICEF and UNHCR, he previously worked as foreign desk and Eastern Europe editor for the Dutch press agency ANP and as editor-in-chief of the Dutch quarterly Ukraine Magazine.