The twisted tale of Caracol housing

Groundbreaking for a new school by English businessman Richard Branson (third from right), American actor Sean Penn (second from right) and officials from Korea International Cooperation Agency in Caracol, Haiti. The area is also the location of an industrial park and a housing project for people displaced by the massive earthquake the struck the Caribbean country in 2010. Photo by: Marc Steed / IDB

In Haiti’s mountainous north, about 300 kilometers from Port-au-Prince, new pastel-colored, concrete-block structures are popping up near the infamous Caracol Industrial Park.

Construction began in May — the latest effort to build homes for Haitians working at the plant, which opened with much fanfare in October 2012 but has not attracted nearly as much business as investors hoped.

The housing project, too, is facing a major roadblock: In late October, the U.S. Agency for International Development — a major donor — decided to abandon it midstream after a similar project, Caracol EKAM, was criticized for wasteful spending in 2013. The site’s lead — Food for the Poor, a Florida-based ecomenical Christian nonprofit that provides food, medicine and shelter to poor people in Latin America and the Caribbean — was only told about USAID’s pullout this week.

Now the Inter-American Development Bank, which supports the site via the Haitian government’s Fonds d'Assistance Economique et Sociale, is scrambling to redesign the project to cover not only the loss of funding but also the basic infrastructure USAID was supposed to provide through its contractor.

Caracol’s construction woes encapsulate challenges plaguing the broader response to Haiti’s housing crisis after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010 left more than 2 million people homeless. Even some donor officials are quick to admit it.

“The easy way out is to blame institutional capacity,” said José Agustín Aguerre, Haiti country manager at the IDB. “But the truth is donors make lots of mistakes.”

Post-quake housing projects have been wrought with higher-than-expected costs, missing land titles and poor planning. The result: program delays and cuts, millions of dollars in continued maintenance costs and now, USAID’s drawdown in the north.

“Housing has been the most urgent priority, yet the one most ignored or mismanaged by foreign donors,” said Odnell David, a housing division chief with the Haitian government’s Unit for Housing Construction and Public Buildings.

Today, fewer than 80,000 Haitians live in the displacement camps erected in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 quake — a huge reduction from the 1.5 million people who did so five years ago.

But many of those who left found themselves with limited options: Rental subsidies are meager, forced evictions common and remittances unpredictable. So many have moved to new makeshift shelters that are all the more vulnerable to natural disasters.

“They're reproducing the same conditions that existed before the earthquake which made the quake so devastating,” said Chiara Liguori, researcher on the Caribbean for Amnesty International and author of a critical report released earlier this month on Haiti’s ongoing housing crisis.

Questions have grown louder, too, about why the Haitian government continued to pursue construction plans at Caracol even after the quake, and with reconstruction funds, given the great need for housing around the capital of Port-au-Prince, the island nation’s hardest-hit area.

Controversy in the north

Construction around Caracol has been controversial from the start. The industrial park, planned by the U.S. and Haitian governments with the help of IDB and the Clinton Foundation, was projected to create up to 60,000 jobs for Haitians, maybe more. Today, slightly more than 5,300 jobs exist because, activists say, most Haitians don’t want to work there; they want to stay close to support networks in the capital.

What’s more, controversy remains over compensation for farmers displaced by the park. ActionAid, Gender Action and others claim construction of the park displaced 1,500 farmers who were supposed to receive new land but never did.

“Every person asked for land and the IDB and government tried to provide it, but the land they planned to give was land also informally and legally held by other community members, so they didn't take land to avoid conflict,” said Kysseline Cherestal, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA.

Farmers were provided a lump sum of cash as they waited to resettle to plots they were supposed to receive. But when IDB realized that land belonged to another community, the farmers displaced by the industrial park instead were offered compensation in alternative forms: cash, a pension plan, land voucher or pending IDB housing.

The final compensation, Cherestal claimed, was “not adequate” and studies “were not done with true consultation with the communities.”

“The principle of do no harm should have been respected,” the policy analyst suggested, referring to a common maxim among development organizations to safeguard communities and the environment. “But the communities are in worse-off positions than they were before.”

IDB is “seeking to provide [the farmers] with additional agricultural assistance,” IDB’s Caracol Project Team Leader Ana Maria Sáiz wrote in an email from Haiti.

To complement the plant, USAID built 750 houses at Caracol EKAM, completing the project in 2013. Even USAID documents revealed the houses were of embarrassingly subpar condition and will necessitate millions of dollars for repair.

Yet plans to continue building around the plant continued.

“We were given [the] industrial park in north to create jobs and create migration of people from south to north, and we didn't want [a] slum to be created around housing,” Aguerre said.

So IDB decided to invest.

The goal was to build 1,000 houses this year. Due to insufficient funding, IDB partnered with USAID, which was already engaged in building EKAM nearby. The two donors agreed to construct on three sites around the plant: Terrier Rouge, Ouanaminthe and Cahesse-Caracol. USAID would fund site preparation and basic infrastructure like roads and sanitation through Maryland-based Ceepco Contracting; IDB would support the construction of homes by Food for the Poor.

Currently, at Terrier Rouge, basic infrastructure is completed and 45 percent of the 184 planned houses have been built, Aguerre said. At Ouanaminthe, basic infrastructure work has begun and housing construction will begin in March on the projected 242 houses. Because procurement on these two sites had already started when USAID decided to pull out of the project, the agency will continue its work there, albeit with delays, according to France Francois, social safeguards and communications specialist at IDB.

USAID’s departure will most affect the third — and largest — site, Cahesse-Caracol.

Construction on the projected 574 houses will hopefully begin in April, May or June, Aguerre said; hopefully, 850 total houses will be completed by next year — less than the 1,000 originally planned since money will need to be redirected toward basic infrastructure.

“So that’s what we’re doing now: redesigning the sites, budgeting what it might cost to build infrastructure and looking for someone to do the infrastructure,” he said.

USAID pulls the plug

USAID representatives in Haiti confirmed the initial strategy to “construct permanent homes on new settlement sites [has] shifted to focus on other means of support,” such as housing finance and providing roads, water and power to informal settlements that sprang up after Haitians left displacement camps.

Impediments surfaced during the 2013 housing construction, USAID Press Officer Lisa Hibbert-Simpson told Devex this week.

“These included construction delays and cost increases due to factors including land tenure issues and requests for design changes from the government of Haiti,” she said, echoing a Government Accountability Office report released in October 2013 that questioned the sustainability of USAID infrastructure projects across Haiti and slammed the agency for building 2,600 houses instead of 15,000 at a cost of $90 million instead of $53 million.

“The need for new housing construction far exceeds what all of the donor efforts could meet,” Hibbert-Simpson added.

The U.S. government “absolutely … was very ambitious in terms of what we expected to accomplish as far as the shelter sector is concerned,” said Elizabeth Hogan, USAID’s acting assistant administrator for the Latin America and Caribbean Bureau, in a special briefing last week. Not enough donors came through to partner on building new homes and settlements, Hogan suggested, so the U.S. government decided to change course.

In the same briefing, U.S. State Department Coordinator for Haiti Thomas Adams said the Caracol plant “has been a success” since “it’s growing geometrically each year.”

IDB may have been out of its element from the start.

“The bank is not the best responder to emergencies, not an entity capable from today to tomorrow,” Aguerre said. “We did it because of the urgent request of the government despite no history of housing projects in Haiti, because the demand for housing was so great in 2010.”

The bank focuses on six priority sectors in Haiti: transport, energy, water and sanitation, agriculture, education and private sector development. It will renegotiate with the Haitian government in the coming months as its five-year strategy draws to a close, but Aguerre doesn’t expect housing to become a priority.

“In my mind, housing will not be one of the sectors in which we’ll work,” he said.

Whatever happened to aid “going local”?

Many civil society advocates see the failure of donors to view housing as a long-term development issue as the key problem.

Haitian contractors should be used to design houses according to local taste, using local materials and labor, said Let Haiti Live Founder Melinda Miles, who called the IDB and USAID’s housing projects “a total mess, a total failure with very poor planning.”

Culturally inappropriate houses with no plumbing, garden or yard — called a lakou in Creole —  have resulted in plenty of USAID-built homes that remain either empty or subletted by the original beneficiaries, activists claim, despite USAID saying it strives to consider local preferences and does include plumbing at the sites.

“Donors are not doing their homework to understand preferences and lifestyle of Haiti’s population,” said Gesly Leveque, director general of Banque Populaire Haitienne. “The houses being built look nice but are not adaptive.”

Haiti needs a national strategy under a single housing ministry instead of the two housing units which currently oversee the government’s work in that area, said Jean Baptiste Azolin, a Haitian journalist. A government program that promised families $500 for leaving an emergency camp only transferred the problem, he suggested, since the cash wasn’t enough to sustain the hundreds of thousands of people who began to crowd informal settlements.

“This newest Caracol housing fallout is just a continuation of the same problems that have been happening,” said Robert Maguire, a professor at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs. “It’s putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

What’s the role of the Haitian government — and the foreign aid community — in the country’s housing crisis? Chime in by leaving a comment below!

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About the author

  • 1460021 10201066442847401 1828960307 n

    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.

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