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Downtown Port-au-Prince after the earthquake Downtown Port-au-Prince after the earthquake Photo credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Post-earthquake Haiti: a pentagram

by Rose-May Guignard
14 January 2015

Rose-May Guignard continues our blog series on Haiti, five years after the earthquake. She muses on ideas, or misconceptions, about resilience, issues around urban planning and the tension between immediate response and long term plans to rebuild Haiti and the darker side of the aid system.


As the sun sets this afternoon, on the porch of the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince there is a retrospective photo exhibition to mark the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, and other commemorations. The Oloffson is quieter these days. Gone are the throngs of hipster NGO-ers coming in for the end-of-day rum sour. Local newspapers are filled with ads placed by NGOs trying to sell cars and other equipment; rental prices are slowly coming down and most of the listservs have shut down. Yes, five years later the dust seems to have settled.

I am still here, ever more passionate about the promises of my homeland, haunted by the teachings of this place and of the earthquake.

1. Of the resilience of people
Haitians are resilient! We are still here, drinking dirty water, scraping around for food, imagining a future for our children, wearing clean starched clothes, beating drums and singing hymns to the one above. With our clean clothes, our songs and our smiles, we are showing that life goes on in the face of adversity. We have been so good at keeping on ‘keeping on’ that policymakers forget that they need to create the conditions for people to tap into their resilience, rather than trying to make us more ‘resilient’ with ‘projets psycho-social‘, free water, ready meals, Jesus and whatnot. Unless we spend time improving the conditions for resilience, one day, like the groundwater and the rain, it will stop flowing.

One must think of resilience in terms of enabling markets and exchanges; making sure that jobs are created and kept and prices for public goods, water, sanitation, transport, health and education are kept at a reasonable proportion of families’ incomes and small businesses’ expenses. Infrastructure, networks, the many systems that form our cities must also be resilient for human resilience to occur. The former is easier to understand, measure and strengthen. The latter, however, is elusive.

2. Of the resilience of places
A metropolitan area of 2.5 million people can break apart and continue to ‘function’ amid the rubble – ‘function’ as in continue to operate and provide jobs and shelter, activities that carry on even when the most basic infrastructure, water, sanitation and roads are lacking.

Port-au-Prince has paid dearly for this type of resilience. The change in the urban footprint between 25 January 2010 and today is telling. As informal settlements climb up Morne l’Hôpital, residential villas roll down its hills. With this footprint comes the accompanying population, young, eager and restless to fulfill their potential.

Everyone pays dearly for inadequate, damaged and now overused infrastructure. The next 20 years ought to be the years of rebuilding infrastructure and good old-fashioned spatial planning. One can tag on ‘resilient’, ‘sustainable’ or other adjectives, but the emphasis should be on taking care of the basics at the proper scale.

3. Of the nature of problem
A week ago while out walking I stumbled on a construction site: no real foundations, just a steel rod firmly planted in cement blocks in the guise of a column, poor sand and a few bags of cement. A glaring example of a collective unwillingness to follow the demands of confined masonry[1]!

At this time of year conferences on earthquake-resistant engineering abound, as if presentations and debates can change the reality that the whole construction sector in Haiti needs a major overhaul. This would mean systemic change for the whole chain of construction services: from labourers to engineers; from the way construction materials are graded to how they are sold and priced; from the way teams of labourers are constituted to how information flows within those teams. An end of to daily trade-offs between the pressure to lower costs and respect for construction norms. I dream of a massive nationwide training programme for all actors in the construction chain in each of Haiti’s 139 municipalities.

4. Of the power of narratives
Local lore has it that Haitians were getting together and solving their problems, tant bien que mal in the days following the earthquake, and that an early mission of infrastructure experts from the multilateral banks had offered an action plan whereby infrastructure would be put back online first. Solutions to ‘systemic infrastructure failure’ would shore up and strengthen the country and make it better than before. As such, we would be able to ‘build back better’ and turn the disaster into an engine of economic growth.

Then they came: the throngs of cameras, humanitarian appeals, the focus on poverty and misery, the time-tested methodologies and mode of operations – ‘hello, clusters!’. The focus shifted. Urban planners were unable to turn urban infrastructure collapse into a compelling narrative to generate funds, rally supporters and direct actions. Providing shelter, water and food to individuals took precedence; the humanitarian assistance narrative won.

I am not suggesting not providing for those in immediate need. I am pointing out the single-issue response and piecemeal assistance attuned to the rhythms of donors and aid agencies. No amount of laws and political pressure were able to support local or expatriate urban planners in arguing against a camp supervisor locating a community latrine on the road because the road was the only open and accessible area. In the end, taking care of storm water drainage, urban sprawl and economic recovery was not as compelling as caring for folks in camps. As urban planners we need to figure out how to change this narrative.

5. Of states and angels
The failure of the Haitian state has been a ‘get out of jail free (GOOJF) card’ for most of those involved in the response. You will see it in reports explaining why the money was not spent, overspent or disappeared, goals were not met, construction sites unfinished – any kind of boo-boo, for that matter. It would be a good drinking game and comic relief to explain just about everything by pointing to the failure of the Haitian state.

Full disclosure here: I have spent most of my life studying the state, teaching about the state, working for the state. I am not granting the GOOJF card to anyone.

The hollowing out of the Haitian state started 30 years ago. The earthquake finished off a tottering civil service. Those who are left are overworked, underpaid, under-trained and inexperienced, reliant on resources that are subject to the vagaries of external donors.

That, my friend, is the reality of a failed state. Lest we forget, delivering public goods and services demands an enabled public workforce. Rebuilding the civil service has yet to be a serious item on the agenda; the state will carry on with the help of consultants on six-month renewable contracts, carrying out clear results-oriented tasks. Listen to the woosh of institutional memory disappearing; insert here romantic flights of poetry on institution- building, democracy, the nation-state and sovereignty.

Don’t we all now cringe for Januaries and what they may bring? Five Januaries ago, people from all over the world felt and responded collectively to what was happening here. Awed by the scale, called to respond, lives were changed. And yet, despite this collective global desire to do good, to improve, to lighten others’ loads, to do right by them … today we’re left with tepid, timid, triste results to show for all that effort, let alone shifts, transformations or growth.

The Haiti post-earthquake literature is rife with stories that get juicier each year. Akin to what happens in nature, disasters, as with roadkill, attract vultures of all shapes, statures, affiliations, nationalities and professions, from inside and outside. Five years on they are still hovering ever so seductively, warm-hearted and eager to grab. And no amount of state-building, transparency, financial controls, accountability standards, corruption safeguards, contractual procedures or codes of ethics seem to shoo away these lesser angels. Even though there are now no pickings left we continue to swim this strange sea of empathy with vultures flying right above the water.

Over the Christmas holidays I ran into a familiar face in Port-au-Prince. Unable to place her at first, guessing that somehow we shared a bond, polite smiles were exchanged and she identified herself. ‘Remember me, I used to work for A., and now I’m posted in Z. I’m here on holidays, I miss this place.’

Right on sister! Perhaps a tiny shift!

Rose-May Guignard is a Senior Urban Planner, Inter-Ministerial Committee for Land Use Planning in Haiti. Prior to her return to Haiti she was an Assistant Professor in the MPA and Ph.D programs of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington


[1] Confined masonry is a building technique, widely used in Haiti, that demands a strict respect for proportion of materials, size, etc.

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