On Monday 10 January, Lord Leslie Griffiths hosted a meeting at the House of Lords to remember the victims of the Haitian earthquake in January 2010 that killed 230,000 people and left the country in ruins.
The event, organised by Progressio in collaboration with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Tearfund and Haiti Support Group, brought together Haitian civil society, international development academics, solidarity groups, the Dominican Republic embassy in the UK, members of the House of Lords and members of the UK public, to discuss what hope Haiti has for a long term recovery.
What's getting in the way?
One of the most important obstacles to recovery was seen as the exclusion of ordinary Haitians. Haitian civil society organisations have been excluded in reconstruction efforts and aid delivery structures, including the Interim Commission set up to oversee reconstruction.
Unless Haitians have ownership and are given the space to themselves build back better, any efforts for long term development will prove to be futile.
And politics is at the core. “Humanitarian efforts cannot sort out the situation without political recovery, and this was true even before the earthquake,” said François Grunewald of Groupe URD, who opened the debate. “Haitian local authorities need to be equipped with mechanisms and tools to take part in the recovery.”
Grunewald also questioned the current role of MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping force, which indeed needs to be reviewed. Haiti is not in a state of civil war. It is certainly lacking in stability, but a heavy foreign military presence may not be the best way to address this.
Coordinate and decentralise
Another point of discussion was the coordination of humanitarian aid. Following the earthquake, a flood of international agencies arrived in the country to ‘help’, many without considering the existing network of Haitian grassroots organisations and other national and international agencies already operating in the country.
This lack of coordination and the centralisation of aid around the capital created more havoc and resentment amongst the suffering population. Agencies are now calling for an in-depth review of how emergency responses are carried out.
Decentralisation – the need to shift decision-making, service delivery and employment opportunities away from the capital to a local level - was seen as a huge challenge. Internally displaced people are now returning to the destroyed capital because there are no opportunities elsewhere, putting added pressure on already limited resources.
Georges Werleigh from ITECA referred to “the Republic of Port-au-Prince: the rest of the country is being left to fend for themselves”.
The weakness of the Haitian state, and how to tackle it, was a thorny issue. Exclusionary structures within Haitian society and the hold on power of an elite have in the past resulted in repressive and unresponsive state policies, that have benefited only a few.
Haiti’s political and economic background is also disheartening. When Haiti liberalised rice markets more than a decade ago it had a detrimental impact on Haiti’s own agricultural economy – Haiti currently imports 80% or their rice supplies compared to 19% in 1995.
It was also argued by some panellists that the US has too much control over reconstruction efforts through the current mechanisms. Meanwhile, the EU and its member states were criticised for not taking a stronger role and being too passive.
"What is left is Haiti's people"
The situation for many ordinary people is dire and will continue to be so for some years to come. But the people of Haiti are determined to refocus and build a new and better Haiti.
“What is left in Haiti after the earthquake is its people. Haiti has been depicted as a burden for the international community. And so much negative press about Haitians puts us in a position of inferiority. What we need is to not be so dependent on imported rice,” explained Georges Werleigh; “to work and grow food for ourselves.”
So Haiti should not be seen as doomed to failure. Together with the right support from the international community, there is hope that Haiti will get back on its feet.
Lord Griffiths spoke on the night about setting up an All Party Parliamentary Group on Haiti and Progressio will be working to keep Haiti in the eyes and minds of policy-makers to ensure that the country is not forgotten.
Read Progressio’s report “Haiti after the earthquake” (PDF 753KB) and Progressio’s joint report with CAFOD, Christian Aid and Tearfund “Building Back Better: An Imperative for Haiti” (476KB) released in conjunction with Monday’s event.
Photo: a woman walks by a UN base carrying a bag of rice in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, June 2010 (photo © Natasha Fillion/Progressio)