Factory working producing shelter in Port-au-Prince Factory working producing shelter in Port-au-Prince Photo credit: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development
Building back a better Haiti
by Theo Schilderman and Michal Lyons August 2010

The relationship between natural disasters, recovery and poverty reduction is becoming a key scientific, economic and political issue. It is now widely accepted that some ‘natural’ disasters actually arise from socio-economic and political structures and processes of development. In turn, disasters bring socioeconomic inequalities into stark relief, creating pressure for change. Yet reconstruction usually reproduces vulnerabilities. Thus, development processes contribute to the number and scale of disasters; disasters set back development, increasing vulnerability and undermining future recovery and development. This article explores the mechanisms by which post-disaster reconstruction following the earthquake in Haiti may succeed in achieving developmental objectives, in particular the empowerment of poor individuals and communities.


Key challenges in Haiti

The ultimate and over-riding goal of reconstruction is not simply to reconstruct damaged buildings but to reduce the poverty and vulnerability which caused low-grade development and poor maintenance in the first place. Despite international involvement in the reconstruction process, neither social nor political change seems likely to offer the key to poverty reduction in Haiti. Haiti has long been an example of abdication of all interest by economic and political élites in the fate of the poor. Meanwhile, the country’s governing élite has come under severe criticism for its refusal to open up the political process to opposition parties and free up political debate. In addition to these political and social problems, the death of up to a quarter of Haiti’s civil servants is another barrier to reconstruction. Computers and files have also been lost, along with the buildings that housed them. Yet the effective administration of a major reconstruction programme requires a functioning civil administration.

In this context, reconstruction approaches which build self-sufficiency at the grass roots are more likely to reduce poverty and vulnerability in the long term. However, with 70% of displaced survivors likely to have been tenants and a land tenure system that is both complex and contested locally, standard ‘owner-driven’ approaches to reconstruction, which depend on pre-existing titles to land, or approaches that depend on awarding titles to land, are unlikely to be practicable on any scale. Approaches which involve rental by end-users, at least in the short term, are far more likely to be implementable.

In this, as in other strategic decisions, development politics matter. Fundamental differences in approach to reconstruction among donors and clusters risk undermining an already weak government’s authority and its power to act, as well as undermining local trust in any given policy. It is important for clusters in the humanitarian sector to share knowledge and experience, in particular between those engaged in post-disaster relief and those engaged in reconstruction, harmonise strategies and maximise development gains.

Participatory approaches to reconstruction, building on local technologies and using local materials, are essential; reconstruction must set out to restore livelihoods as well as building stock. Without this, it is doomed to eventual failure.


What can make a difference to Haiti’s poor?

The earthquake that struck Haiti caused massive damage and in excess of 200,000 casualties. About a month later, another earthquake hit Concepción in Chile; it was nearly 100 times stronger than the one that struck Haiti, and did substantial damage too, yet the number of casualties was a tiny fraction of those in Haiti. What caused that huge difference in impact? Chile had adequate building standards, including seismic-resistant design, and these standards were properly implemented. In Haiti, this was clearly not the case. The truth is that Haitians have been left extremely vulnerable to hazards such as earthquakes and hurricanes by years of poor governance, environmental mismanagement and increasingly unequal income distribution. The majority of Haiti’s people were unable to build according to disaster-resistant standards, with the results we saw in January.

As in many post-disaster situations, both the government and external agencies appear to be mainly focused on building houses, despite earlier comments by President René Preval that the first objective of reconstruction should be the development of livelihoods. Writing in the British newspaper The Independent in June, Jay Merrick draws attention to the need to rebuild affordable, safer houses.[1] There is certainly a case for this, and the availability of external aid offers an opportunity to do so. However, it is a fallacy to think that building safer houses alone is enough. Whilst safer homes will certainly help to reduce risk for a while, they may do little to tackle underlying vulnerabilities, and therefore the same problems may recur when another hazard strikes in the future. What is actually needed is not just to make houses more resilient, but to make Haitians more resilient too. Therefore, building back a better Haiti involves rebuilding livelihoods and local markets as well as social networks, alongside housing.

Merrick suggests that a design competition and exhibition, involving foreign companies and consultants, alongside some from Haiti, will help define the types of housing that Haiti should rebuild. It is certainly useful to expose people to additional options and have a frank debate about them, as clearly many local housing solutions failed in the earthquake. There is clearly a need to rethink approaches to construction in Haiti before any large-scale reconstruction proceeds, given that disaster preparedness in the past has focused on resistance to hurricanes, rather than earthquakes. There has been success with exhibitions in the past, for example in Colombia following the earthquake there in 1991. However, the approach raises a number of questions:


  1. How are lessons going to be learned from the disaster, with respect to the particular failures in construction that contributed to it, and which local solutions perhaps did better. Do external agencies have adequate information of this type?
  2. We have known since the 1970s that the process of producing housing, including taking design decisions, is more important than its end product, as it builds people’s capacities and empowers them; empowerment is key to building resilience. The competition and exhibition does not involve Haiti’s people at all, until the prototypes are built, so how empowering can it be?
  3. There is a risk that, as a result of this process, we will end up with a number of standard housing types. Will they be able to accommodate the large variety of needs of Haitian families of different sizes and occupations? Will they allow for income-generating activities in the house? Can they be made flexible enough to adjust to individual needs?
  4. Reconstruction and the influx of foreign capital do offer opportunities to boost livelihoods and local markets. That housing will be low-tech and use mainly local building materials and builders is a positive sign. But how does prefabricated mass housing fit into that picture?
  5. In terms of livelihoods, the location of any future housing is also crucial. The Haitian government seems to want to relocate many of the original slum dwellers to new settlements in less earthquake-prone locations, away from the capital. Has anyone thought of the livelihoods consequences? If not, people may be forced to quickly return to the city, or decide not to relocate at all, as experience elsewhere shows.
  6. People’s social networks are an important asset, providing support to households in times of need. Following a disaster, such networks are often weakened because members have died or have scattered. What is being done to rebuild those networks?


Finally, while housing reconstruction can contribute to the development of livelihoods, there is no question that the development of livelihoods is also crucial in its own right. It follows from this that what is needed is not just foreign architects, but multi-sector teams, including Haitian professionals, working with the people of Haiti, to develop much more integrated rebuilding programmes.

Theo Schilderman is Head of the Infrastructure Programme at Practical Action. Michal Lyons   is Professor of Urban Development and Policy at London South Bank University.


References and further reading

P. Blaikie, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters (London: Routledge, 2002).

S. Bradshaw, ‘Exploring the Gender Dimensions of Reconstruction Processes Post-Hurricane Mitch’, Journal of International Development, 14 (6), 2002.

DNS (Duryog Nivaran Secretariat) and PASA (Practical Action South Asia), Tackling the Tides and Tremors: South Asia Disaster Report 2005 (London: ITDG Publications, 2006).

E. Ennarson and B. H. Morrow (eds), The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: Through Women’s Eyes (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998).

P. K. Freeman, ‘Allocation of Post-disaster Reconstruction Financing to Housing’, Building Research & Information, 32 (5),  2004.

Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations, National Post-Tsunami Lessons Learned and Best Practices Workshop Report, Colombo, 8–9 June 2005.

J. Levi, Six Months Later: Roadblocks to Haiti’s Reconstruction, http://www.as-coa.org/articles/2508/Six_Months_Later:_Roadblocks_to_Haitis_Reconstruction, 2010.

M. Lyons and T. Schilderman, Building Back Better: Delivering People-Centred Reconstruction to Scale (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2010).

E. Reis and M. Moore (eds), Elite Perceptions of Poverty and Inequality (London: Zed Books, 2005).

E. L. Quarantelli, The Disaster Recovery Process: What We Know and Do Not Know from Research, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, http://www.udel.edu/DRC/preliminary/pp286.pdf, 2005.

T. Schilderman, ‘Adapting Traditional Shelter for Disaster Mitigation and Reconstruction: Experiences with Community-based Approaches’, Building Research & Information, 32 (5), 2004.

J. Turner, Housing by People (London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1976).

A. Wijkman and L. Timberlake, Natural Disasters: Acts of God or Acts of Man? (London: Earthscan, 1984).


[1] Jay Merrick, ‘British Architect To Rebuild Haiti’s Social Housing’, The Independent, 21 June 2010.