Haiti after the earthquake: changes in aid for the better

January 15, 2015
Port-au-Prince in 2010

In the final blog in our series marking the 5th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, François Grünewald reflects on the changes in the response in the years since, including improved disaster preparedness, urban planning, focus on urban issus, coordination with municipal authorities and communication with affected communities.

Haiti is one of those places that makes people question whether aid really has any effect. Did the problems stem from corruption of the elites? Leniency of the aid community? The difficult dialogue between Haitian civil society and international aid actors? Complicated coordination? Despite the fact that most of the aid community was living in the capital (which hosts one-third of the entire Haitian population), there were very few programmes supporting the urban sector, which was in total disarray.

The earthquake hit at 16.53 on 12 January 2010, leaving parts of Port-au-Prince and neighbouring cities in ruins. Have things changed in the years since?

Groupe URD carried out evaluation missions in Haiti three months before the earthquake, and then one month, three months, six months and then every few months afterwards until December 2014. We also opened an Evaluation and Learning Office in Haiti, better known as the Humanitarian and Recovery Aid Observatory. This gave us an incredible opportunity to observe and act upon the quality of aid in Haiti. Reflecting on the crisis five years later, we’ve seen improvements in a few key areas.

Disaster preparedness and response capacity: The shift from the early DIPECHO Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction (CBDRR) programmes launched in 2000 to the current very sophisticated support to the Haitian Civil Protection and First Help system shows that the interaction between development and disaster exposure is now taken seriously. The advocacy work launched by the Political Champions of Resilience (USAID, DFID, EC, OCHA, UNDP and a few governments, including the Haitian Government itself) seems to be slowly paying off. Increasingly, risk-informed programming is being seen as the only viable option for Haiti.

Urban planning and land management: After some delay, the international community and the Haitian authorities are now saying loud and clear that urbanisation and land management have to be harnessed in order to avoid building in high-risk zones and the haphazard construction resulting from the absence of urban planning. While this is often seen as pure rhetoric, there are significant signs that these issues are being taken seriously. Several urban and land management plans have been or are being designed and significant resources are being invested in supporting national institutions and to initiate projects. However, this has taken such a long time to come to fruition that Haitians have already taken action and are rebuilding in high-risk zones, with limited use of para-seismic construction codes.

Urban responses: The difficulties of working in an urban context underlined in our real-time evaluation are now on the table. We’ve seen an outpouring of research, guidelines and publications since the Haiti earthquake, which is really significant. The process of taking into account the urban fabric, services and institutional structure is now in motion.

Coordinating with municipal authorities: The aid system is supposed to work with national authorities. Haiti has seen a process of decentralisation which has given more and more responsibility to Mayors and their municipal teams. However, they were frequently by-passed in Haiti; some of them complained that they had become ‘foreigners in our own Municipal land’. This seems to be changing and the centre of gravity for coordination is slowly moving towards the field. This may radically affect the way clusters function in the future because, while the national level is prone to working in ‘silos’, the field requires interconnected, area-based and multi-sector coordination.

Communication with affected communities: Engaging with affected communities is supposed to be a prerequisite for humanitarian aid. Yet very little had changed since we carried out the Global Study on Participation for ALNAP in the early 2000s. Haiti was a caricature of this lack of communication. Aid agencies arrived with many staff unable to speak local languages, and there was very little effort to listen. New ‘committees’ were set up in areas where social structures were already in place, despite the commendable efforts of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) network. The growing role of social networks and the development of new communication capacities are changing the rules of the game. In the future, the aid system won’t be able to function as an ‘occupying alien’ as it largely did in Port-au- Prince, and instead will have to engage with local people, local authorities and local realities.

The humanitarian system will not be the same in the future. From headquarters to field-level operations, a serious rethink about the way we operate is essential in order to ensure that we constantly adapt and adjust with each new situation. It required the Haiti earthquake for the aid system to understand that rapid urbanisation is changing the face of the planet and modifying significantly the parameters of risk and vulnerability.

François Grünewald is the Executive and Scientific Director of Groupe URD. He carried out several evaluations after the earthquake (one month after the quake, an Inter-agency real time evaluation three months after the earthquake; six months, until 4 years after the drama)

Also in this series:


Comments are available for logged in members only.