Haiti: Now is Not the Time to Scale Back

On the two year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, I feel it is important to reflect on the very significant progress that has been achieved in helping people recover from one of the world's worst natural disasters on record, and to address some of the criticism about the efforts of international aid agencies.

To understand the scale of the catastrophe, it is important to remember the unique nature of the Haitian context. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake was a massive blow to a deeply impoverished country: 75 percent of Haitians earned less than $2 a day, only half of the country's children were in primary school and the majority of the population had no access to electricity.

Unprecedented scale of destruction in urban context
Coping with the effects of the earthquake on top of Haiti's long-standing poverty issues and lack of basic social services and infrastructure was a colossal challenge, not only for the families and communities directly affected, but also for the government and the international and local aid community. It was the unprecedented level of destruction in a densely populated urban context that set the Haiti crisis apart from other natural disasters. We all know the massive death toll, an unthinkable 230,000 people. The other facts regarding the scale of destruction have also been reported over and over around the world: 250,000 homes destroyed and 1.5 million people displaced.

It has been somewhat puzzling, then, that several news reports in the past few weeks have focused solely on what they perceive to be the slow pace of Haiti's recovery. It is vital to put the Haiti disaster in context in order to estimate a timeline for recovery. The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan in 1995 has been described by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "costliest natural disaster to befall any one country." It claimed more than 6,000 lives, left an estimated 300,000 homeless, destroyed highways and more than 100,000 buildings and caused approximately $132 billion in damage and a major decline in the Japanese Stock Markets. It took more than seven years for the region's income levels and industrial sector to recover to pre-earthquake levels, and this in one of the world's most highly developed countries, per the United Nation's Human Development Index.

What is disheartening to me, as the CEO of an aid organization that prides itself on the close partnerships it has forged with local communities to bring about great changes in Haiti, is that there has been so little recognition of the tangible improvements on the ground in Haiti since the earthquake.

Progress in Haiti since the earthquake
Let's look at some facts: the number of displaced people living in camps in Port-au-Prince has decreased from 1.5 million to about 550,000; half of the 10 million cubic meters of rubble has been removed; 75 percent of children living in camps are going to school; and almost 100,000 transitional shelters have been built. There is evidence of progress in the areas of job creation and infrastructure development -- including 267 miles of new roads in a country with notoriously poor access to markets for its agricultural production. In fact, agricultural production itself increased in 2010, and again in 2011, and new agricultural credit facilities and microloans are reaching tens of thousands of rural Haitians.

Challenges that have slowed the pace of recovery
We must also be frank about the fact that the recovery effort has involved serious challenges. For all of these advances, the aid community has experienced setbacks and obstacles. The damage to government infrastructure in 2010, and the lack of a functioning government for five months of 2011, including the absence of a government policy on building new housing during the first year after the earthquake, seriously hampered efforts to take action to restore people's assets and rebuild communities. Land tenure issues, including disputes among parties claiming ownership of the same land, coupled with threats of eviction, further exacerbated the problems of relocating displaced populations from camps to long-term housing. When building could get underway, lengthy customs delays postponed supplies and heavy equipment reaching contractors. In addition, the local market was overwhelmed by the demand for goods needed for the massive reconstruction effort. The challenge of delivering an emergency response in a densely populated city of 2.7 million people is no small task, particularly when poverty remains the single biggest issue facing the population.

"Returning to Neighborhoods"
We acknowledge that the challenges we face are massive, but the formation of a new government in Oct. 2011 has meant that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Concern Worldwide can resume working with the ministries responsible for Haiti's long-term recovery and development. Already, we are seeing the potential of partnerships with the newly elected government. Our "Return to Neighborhoods" program, a holistic model of resettlement for displaced families, was singled out by the government of Haiti as an example of best practice in recovery initiatives, and our intervention model was considered in the development of the national strategy to move displaced populations out of camps. Concern's initiative offers the poorest displaced families financial support, small business training, and education vouchers to help parents pay school fees for their children and set up sustainable sources of income. Since the earthquake, Concern has reached more than 237,000 people through its emergency and recovery programs.

A huge amount of hard work still lies ahead. Nearly half of Haiti's population has no access to clean water, and 80 percent of the population lack access to basic sanitation. To address these challenges, we are working closely with Haiti's national water authority. We will continue to work ever more closely with local partners and increasingly with government ministries to implement planned, phased programs that will reduce the reliance of communities on our assistance. But rebuilding infrastructure and services to benefit 10 million Haitians will take time. The process must be led by Haiti's elected government, in consultation with the people and with support from the international community and the private sector.

The role of partnerships in Haiti's recovery
For this level of coordination to succeed, a structural shift in the way that funding is distributed is required. Current short-term funding does not allow for comprehensive programming that addresses the root causes of poverty. Launching long-term development programs that will improve agriculture and significantly rebuild infrastructure requires multi-year development funding, particularly now that emergency spending is being phased out and aid organizations are leaving due to lack of funds and donor fatigue.

Now is not the time to scale back -- international governments that have pledged money to Haiti must honor their promises and stay the course. Public-private partnerships have a huge role to play, as do partnerships with non-profits and community groups. In 2012, the Irish non-governmental organization Haven will support Concern's "Return to Neighborhoods" project to repair homes damaged in the earthquake. Concern has also worked with Digicel to distribute emergency cash transfers to earthquake survivors via mobile phone technology and in a campaign called Your Dollar Our Future, which aims to rebuild schools, train teachers, and get earthquake-affected children back to school. Going forward, we will continue to explore new opportunities with the private sector. Partnerships with farmers associations, community groups and other civil society organizations will all play a role in Haiti's recovery.

The Haitian people have demonstrated extraordinary resilience. Ultimately, it is they who will chart the course for their country's future. In the meantime, humanitarian and development organizations like Concern Worldwide must continue to work closely with communities, local and national NGOs, the United Nations and government partners to restore and build the skills, resources and capacity required for Haiti's phased recovery. We all share a responsibility to the Haitian people, a responsibility to match their vision of a future with solutions that will bring about sustainable change. There is strong evidence that by working in close collaboration with the government, local communities and partners on the ground we can achieve that, but we cannot succeed without the continued political and financial commitments of the international community.