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To help Haiti, lessons must be learned from the past, experts say

As in Afghanistan, the international effort to rebuild Haiti after the last earthquake in 2010 was largely imposed from the outside, due to fears of corruption. Experts say it is time to listen more to local communities.
22 Ago 2021 – 08:53 AM EDT
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People displaced from their destroyed houses by an earthquake spend the night outdoors in the hospital garden in Les Cayes, Haiti, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Crédito: Joseph Odelyn/AP

Within hours of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that shook the southern ‘Tiburon’ peninsula of Haiti on Saturday killing 2,189 people, the battered country’s acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, had this stern warning.

All donations from foreign countries and relief organizations must be delivered to the government’s Civil Protection Agency for distribution to hospitals treating the 12,000 injured, as well as the make-shift shelters for the tens of thousands of families who lost their homes in the disaster.

The idea of the government seizing control of foreign aid might be enough to scare off many donors, wary of the Haiti’s horrendous reputation for political corruption. But many Haitians and humanitarian groups working there are haunted by the chaos that followed a devastating 2010 earthquake, when donations channeled through large international organizations, were slow to reach residents after as many as 200,000 were killed.

“If you look at where US government funding went, for example, maybe 95 percent of it goes back to U.S.-based NGOs and for-profit companies,” said Jake Johnston, a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “The majority of that went to a handful of firms that are all closer to my office in Washington than anything in Haiti,” he added.

As the world grasps the enormity of the latest natural disaster to befall Haiti, many donors are asking how best to help the hemisphere’s poorest country. Many point to the lessons of 2010, saying rather than pouring money into big U.S. organizations with good intentions, but little knowledge or understanding of Haiti, that money is better spent by channeling resources to smaller grass roots organizations working directly with local communities on the ground.

“The biggest lessons we learned after 2010 is listening to Haitians and making sure they are ones who are making the decisions right now, and not imposing foreign expertise, trying to think that they have the solutions for Haiti,” said Johnstone. “You can't bypass the government,” he added.

In 2010 a consortium of international governments and private donors pledged $13 billion toward Haiti’s recovery, but many projects were delayed or never completed due to red tape and corruption concerns. For example, just removing the rubble in Port-au-Prince took months. As a result, much of the money was channeled through non-government channels, but with little to show for it.

The American Red Cross spent 25% of the money people donated after the 2010 earthquake — or almost $125 million — on its own internal expenses, according to a congressional report.

Red Cross officials defended the charity's work, saying the organization's spending was "entirely justifiable given the size and complexity of the Haiti program."

But the truth is, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are the largest providers of basic services in Haiti, where foreign aid covers 60 percent of the annual national budget, and remittances account for almost 30 percent of the country’s GDP.

"Structured solidarity"

Saturday's earthquake destroyed 53,000 homes and damaged 63,000 in the quake's impact zone, according to the Catholic Church's relief agency, CRS.

While the one million people living in the earthquake impact zone have massive and urgent needs, Haiti’s prime minister said "structured solidarity" was essential to avoid a repeat of the massive confusion – and waste – in 2010. But the government said it would not get in the way of licensed operators, such as Florida-based Food for the Poor, which has been working in Haiti since 1986 and is one of the country’s largest providers of emergency relief and sustainable development projects.

To be sure, structure is not word usually associated with Haiti which has struggled with political instability since throwing off the dictatorship of the Duvalier family – ‘Papa Doc’ and then ‘Baby Doc’ in 1987.

The earthquake is just the latest challenge for the struggling country, which is still dealing with fallout from the 2010 quake and hurricane Matthew in 2016, which flattened homes and crops and drowned livestock in the southern peninsula. The July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse - apparently by a squad of highly trained Colombian commandos - has added further instability to a country in crisis.

"Haitians are incapable of turning the country's problems into opportunities; the international community is incapable of turning their wishes and projections into reality," a recent editorial by Frantz Duval, editor in chief of Le Nouvelliste, Haiti's largest newspaper, put it succintly.

"It is to be feared that the earthquake of August 14, 2021 will only serve as a pretext for new embezzlements through incompetence, greed or inadvertence," he wrote.

"It has become so easy to divert funds to aid the country's recovery that it is not natural disasters that do the most damage in Haiti, but unfulfilled promises and large-scale looting," added Duval.

Learning lessons

However, Haiti has learned some lessons. Back in 2010, Haiti didn’t have a Civil Protection Agency as it does today. While it’s resources are still weak, its director Jerry Chandler is a respected, U.N.-trained medical disaster specialist.

The history of corruption and the current political vacuum after the assassination of Moise, makes it even harder to know how to help Haiti. “When you have a government that lacks legitimacy, that lacks credibility, how do you bridge that?” says Johnstone. One way is to identify those institutions like Civil Protection or local authorities and understand that, government is not just the president, it's not just the executive branch, that there are institutions that you can work with and support.”

Haiti today also has a stronger network of private charities with deep roots in Haiti supported by donor with deep pockets, such as Hope for Haiti. Among them St Boniface hospital in the south which is treating some of the earthquake victims, Partners in Health, the largest non-governmental healthcare provider in Haiti, and St Damien’s children’s hospital in Port-au-Prince.

Community-led model

Health Equity International, which runs St Boniface, says its model is based on engaging “local Haiti community leadership in making plans.” Of its more than 500 employees in Haiti, 98% are Haitian, including the majority of the leadership team: the Director General, Deputy Director General, and Medical Director. “This community-led approach ensures that the organization’s initiatives and operations are culturally appropriate, responsive to the priorities of the service recipients, and empower Haitians to help Haitians,” the organization says.

Less well known are the extraordinary number of smaller charities and volunteer groups working all over Haiti to tackle poverty and sustainable development, from caring for street children, to providing clean water, rural education, electricity via solar power, and sails for fishermen.

Haiti continues to depend heavily on U.S. government support for the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) suppling year-round logistical assistance to 300,000 people a month. This week it also helped supply food to deliver hot meals to more than 3,000 people in hospitals in Les Cayes and Jeremie.

The U.S. sent an Urban Search and Rescue Team with 52,000 pounds of specialized tools and equipment, including hydrologic concrete breaking equipment, saws, torches, and drills, to assist with search and rescue operations. The U.S. Navy announced it is also sending the amphibious transport ship, USS Arlington, to provide assistance to Haiti, equipped with a surgical team, landing craft, and a contingent of 200 U.S. Marines.


While some local mayors complain they have yet to see any government assistance flow to their towns, they welcome the idea of being given more of a say in the aid distribution.

The epicenter

“The prime minister is right,” said Luc Edwin Ceide, the mayor of Saint Louis du Sud, a municipality of 80,000 barely seven miles from the epicenter of Saturday’s earthquake.

“The local groups are the only ones who know the problem. As mayor, I know my community and I can make sure aid is delivered with equity. That’s what people need right now,” said Ceide, who is a graduate of the Harvard University ‘Emerging Leaders’ program at the Kennedy School of Government.

For example, the number one priority in Haiti right now, besides medical supplies, according to the mayor, are tarpaulins and water purification tablets due to contaminated underground water sources disturbed by the quake and numerous aftershocks.

The mayor said that 6,000 homes in the municipality, or 85% of buildings, were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake and most residents were sleeping outdoors, on cardboard, under trees, afraid of going back into their homes because of persistent aftershocks. The town's 320-year old cathedral was toppled.


Southern Haiti received an unwelcome downpour on Monday night from Tropical depression Grace. “It’s bad timing, we are in hurricane season and that’s the scary part for people,” said Ceide. “Haitians hate the rain. We run like cats when it rains. It makes people angry and frustrated, so we need a lot of tarps to protect them,” he added, stressing that tarps are a better option than tents which are far more expensive.

The government’s promises of a better coordinated response faces enormous immediate challenges to get medical supplies, doctors, food and shelter to the injured and those who lost their homes. As each day passes concern grows that badly needed supplies and medical care are not reaching cities in the southern peninsula fast enough.

A report issued Monday by the National Human Rights Defense Network criticized the government for failing to organize assistance for victims, saying it was reminiscent of the disorganization during the 2010 disaster.

Desperation

“They are completely on their own,” reads the report.

“Some people are already starting to make personal efforts to find tents to shelter from the weather and provide for their daily needs. Hospitals and health centers are sorely short of human and material resources and the injured are desperately waiting for the care they deserve.” - report by Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network.

U.S. rules can also get in the way of doing the right thing, experts say. For example, U.S. law requires that tax-payers financed foreign aid must got to American companies. “We need to change our own behavior so that we can be more efficient. We know that local procurement is the answer or is a more sustainable solution,” said Johnstone.

He and other experts also warn the U.S. not to pressure Haiti into holding elections scheduled for September this year.

Johnston recalls observing elections in Haiti in 2016, barely a month after hurricane Matthew. Only 21% of voters turned out. “The voting places were almost all empty. Right next door you had people rebuilding their houses that were just torn down in the hurricane. They’re like, ‘I don't care about voting,’” he said.

“And then we wonder why the resulting government doesn't have credibility. Well, the conditions in which you hold these elections matters," he added.


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