Five years on, it’s time to go back to Haiti

January 9, 2015
Simon Levine
A girl washes a cooker outside her tent at the refugee camp of Mais Gate in Port au Prince

Continuing our blog series marking the 5th anniversary of the Haiti Earthquake, HPG’s Simon Levine reflects on the lack of long-term evaluations and calls for the need to understand what impact humanitarian aid had on Haiti years later.

There are many reasons for marking the anniversaries of disasters. Survivors and the relatives of those killed often find comfort in creating a public moment for sharing the thoughts and grief that are normally carried around privately, but it is not for the humanitarian community (fleeting, and perhaps even peripheral, visitors) to encroach on that occasion.

For us, the humanitarian community, an anniversary is a reminder to take stock of what we did and did not do to help: the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake is not just a round number but also the right length of time for some of the longer-term impacts of our work to begin to be seen.

There was much soul-searching and lesson-learning in the first year or two after the earthquake – on our difficulties in dealing with urban disasters, on the exclusion of Haitians and state systems from decision-making, on the links between emergency aid and recovery, and perhaps even on the deeper difficulties of combating hubris and finding ways to offer help when we can’t fully understand or control how our assistance will be used.

Now, though, we should reflect on the longer-term consequences of the aid we gave and of how we gave it. What happened after we left? We tried to provide shelter solutions that would last for a few years – how has this worked, and for whom? Which kinds of economic assistance seem to have best helped people to re-establish a livelihood in the medium term? Did the ways in which we did, or did not, relate to various government departments have any longer-term consequences for them, their capacities, their influence? How far have some of the fears that emergency aid could get in the way of reconstruction proved valid?

I went in search of evaluation reports of emergency projects that have taken this longer-term perspective – studies in which aid agencies go back to projects two or three years after they were completed to see what impact they have had. I started with ALNAP’s Haiti earthquake portal, which has 296 publications and seemed the obvious place to find what I needed. I found 64 evaluations – but only one from 2014, and that was about climate change and resilience! I had no more luck with the ‘lessons papers’ (none published in either 2013 or 2014). ‘Programme/project reviews’, perhaps? No, not one from 2014, though one might think that this was the right time to be reviewing the billions of dollars spent on programmes and projects. I finally found one ‘research report’ from 2014, looking back at physical reconstruction and the retrofitting of houses. And that’s it. Not another word about what happened to the Haitians we wanted so much to help. Our attention has since moved on.

The website was no more helpful. A handful of publications from 2014 appeared, but none of them look at the impact, years later, of emergency aid. (If more relevant reports have ever been written, then we are not very good at making sure their analysis is widely shared if it’s this difficult to find them!)

Many of the reports written earlier are extremely valuable, but it is surely obvious and uncontentious to state that it is a major scandal that we have invested so little in another area of learning, discovering the impacts of our emergency work after we went home. So much effort was expended, so much was attempted and so much money was spent in Haiti, and yet we simply don’t know what the results were over the long term. If we knew, we would be in a much better position to do better next time because we would find it easier to know how to use short- term support to achieve the best possible longer-term benefit.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs. Funding ends when projects end, and donors don’t keep budgets open for years to pay for retrospective evaluations. Some humanitarian agencies may argue that the longer-term impacts of life-saving work are not the central issue, or that humanitarian funds should not be used for such lesson-learning. Humanitarian agencies may not be geared up for the type of longitudinal analysis that is often needed, and there are serious methodological difficulties in untangling causal webs – and tangled webs have little attraction for agencies and donors who want to put a flag or placard on ‘their’ causal strand by finding the impact which they can claim unique credit for. And we are always overwhelmed anyway by new emergencies which understandably claim precedence over personnel and funds.

Perhaps, then, since we can’t use the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake to discover what really happened after all our efforts, it can instead be an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can put right a state of affairs where the most important lessons of international aid – its impact on people’s lives – are so rarely learned. Maybe it’s time we went back to Haiti to have a look?

Simon Levine is a Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute and the author of Avoiding reality: Land, institutions and humanitarian action in post-earthquake Haiti

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