Recovery and Renewal in Haiti

Four years ago this week, Haiti was hit by a devastating seven magnitude earthquake. It leveled the capital and killed an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people. When I visited a year ago, many people were still living in tent camps, and the presidential palace was mostly a pile of rubble, a bulldozer standing nearby.

Still, as it always does, life goes on. People were on Sunday strolls through Port-au-Prince's revived central square. Schools were full, clinics had busy waiting rooms, and babies and young children laughed and played. Life and love endure amidst devastation.

Humans are resilient creatures. And never have I observed that more than on that trip to Haiti, as people greeted me and welcomed me inside their homes to be interviewed about their experiences, and as I helped a woman, baby on her back, hang her laundry on the line.

On that same trip, I met with a young leader heading up a youth group. The group worked with local neighborhoods on conservation, community gardens, and small, low-tech environmental projects. The leader's goal was food security for his community, where neighbors could be assured a stable, reliable, sustainable, local harvest to provide adequate nutrition inexpensively to the poor families in the area. When I asked what motivated him to leave his work as an extension agent for an international organization to work locally, he said, "Mitch, Ike ...,"naming the hurricanes and storms that had hit his community over the years. It was an important reminder of how communities respond and adapt.

As we mark the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and evoke consider the more recent December 2013 devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, we gain a clearer picture of what long-term disaster recovery looks like at the community level.

Since 2005, The Global Fund for Children has provided nearly $2 million in direct support to grassroots organizations in the aftermath of emergencies both large and small. From the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, to a devastating fire in a Thai refugee camp in 2013, our support has helped affected children and families rebuild and recover.

Within hours of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, GFC grantees were mobilizing relief efforts. Within weeks, they received emergency grants funded by our donors. Now, years later, we maintain our support as the country continues to recover. Since 2010, GFC has invested nearly half a million dollars in grassroots organizations in Haiti that are rebuilding their communities from the ground up. GFC commonly supports long-term relief efforts for three to five years following large-scale disasters, ensuring a lasting recovery for the community.

We've learned a few things about emergency response along the way. Our learning is not about the immediate response to chaos, or media coverage, or urgent needs, but about supporting in the longer term. Here's what we know about disasters:

Emergency relief is the first phase. It is the foremost necessity in the aftermath of a disaster. This includes rescue efforts to help survivors and immediate relief in the form of food, water, shelter, and medical supplies. Needs are acute, and first responders from emergency services, other government departments, and relief agencies are the most experienced in delivery. Family reunification is another aspect of this response. During this time, media attention is high, and people around the world feel compelled to donate in response to the devastation. This phase may last a few days to a few months.

Rehabilitation is the next phase. Taking stock of the damage and prioritizing infrastructure reconstruction take place a month to a year following the disaster. Rebuilding roads and utilities is the focus here. Systems infrastructure such as health care and education is also part of this phase, though most citizens are already adapting to a new reality. Their focus and strategy are diverted from "business as usual" to a different set of short- and medium-term responses to diminished services.

Recovery and renewal is the final and longest phase toward full recovery, often lasting a number of years. Psychosocial needs and the effects of post-traumatic stress are present for years after a disaster. Children may have to adapt to the loss of one or both parents. Families may have to adapt to a decrease in their income stream, defining a new normal. Normalcy in itself -- the stability of routines--takes a long time to reestablish.

The recovery and renewal phase has an important role for community-based organizations, the type of organizations GFC supports. These are the trusted, local, credible, and lasting responders who will be there long after the media and relief agencies have left the scene. They are the adapters that provide ongoing services and support to community members. They reknit the fabric of communities to establish routines and stability.

The stronger a community is, with a wealth of community-level assets, the more quickly and effectively it can rebound. One reason why the path to recovery for Haiti has been long is the level of vulnerability it had to begin with. Poverty and instability were hallmarks of pre-earthquake Haiti, and with these frailties, it could not weather the devastation of the earthquake.

The earthquake of four years ago gave the country a chance to rebound even stronger. I am ever confident that this will be the turning point for Haiti's future growth. I am also even more convinced that strong communities are the foundation to strong recovery, as well as a critical part of disaster preparedness. Let's invest in community-based organizations and assets in any long-term disaster response. Let's include community strengthening as a core part of disaster preparedness. And let's support community actors and community-based organizations as a sound long-term investment for all countries, and for a strong global future.