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Haiti two years on

23 February 2012

Moustafa Osman

Moustafa Osman is an expert in humanitarian relief, head of the Humanitarian Department of Islamic Relief Worldwide, and a lecturer in IDD where he teaches Introduction to Disaster Management.

12th January 2012 marked the second anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. Over 200,000 people died and 1.5 million people were made homeless as a result of this disaster, caused by an earthquake which lasted just 30 seconds.

I led Islamic Relief’s Emergency Response Team into the affected area within 72 hours of the earthquake.  It was not easy at the beginning.  Initially our focus was on saving lives and protecting vulnerable affected people, particularly women, children and the elderly, by providing shelter, food and water. The next stage was mainly focused on alleviating the suffering faced by the survivors of the earthquake by improving living conditions in the camps and collective centres. This involved accommodating people with suitable shelter, distributing hygiene kits, and constructing latrines, shower and washing facilities. Later the same year, the capital, Port-au-Prince, was hit by a cholera outbreak forcing us to refocus a large part of our energy to combat the disease and prevent it from spreading to the whole country. Then by the time we managed to get this situation under control, in October 2011, the country was struck by a hurricane, disrupting our transitional shelter programme and revealing design and structural shortcomings.

Girl Carries Water to New Tent in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti

Girl Carries Water to New Tent in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti. UN Photo / Sophia Paris, Photo #433735

We learned a lot from the experience – lessons which will be very valuable in the future.  It soon became clear that without stable and clear governance and infrastructure it is difficult to achieve a lasting impact, no matter how good the intentions and efforts. So along with a humanitarian response, it is crucial to work on advocacy to tackle some of the root problems at the same time. As an organisation we entered this area of work, which was new to us, with the intention to work for only six months and leave, but we soon realised that to ensure our work would have a sustained legacy we should stay longer. We decided to stay and move to rehabilitation work with a focus on education: rehabilitation of school buildings and providing vocational training opportunities. Next time, even if just coming to respond to the initial emergency, the mindset has to include a longer term strategy. Humanitarian work is a dynamic, fast moving and evolving environment needing flexibility and innovation, but without forgetting the long-term.

Our humanitarian work in Haiti moved on to recovery and rehabilitation activities which involved empowering local communities to help themselves.  These included for example income-generating activities for local Haitians in rubble clearance projects, constructing 453 transitional shelters, and constructing 16 temporary school structures through ‘cash for work’ programmes. Lastly, the time came to look for more durable solutions and more sustainable ways to overcome communities’ vulnerability and enhance the capacity of local people to withstand future environmental shocks.  In aid jargon we call this the development stage. The response programme in this stage is now helping to tackle the root causes of vulnerability with a special focus on capacity building and empowerment by providing vocational training and capacity building for unemployed residents living in the camps.

Figures released recently by the UN special envoy for Haiti revealed that only 53% of all the money pledged by international donors to support Haiti actually arrived.  This is not uncommon; in the wake of major disasters there is always huge pressure on countries and institutions to pledge funds, but in most cases a significant proportion of the pledges never materialise. This can be due to pledges being made in haste, without full consultation or due process to see if funds are actually available; made for political reasons and never intended to be expended; or allocated for elements which turn out to not needed or which have a lower cost than anticipated, such as in-kind donations or items whose value might be lower in the recipient country markets.  Gaps may also arise due to differences in accounting for pledges compared with accounting for actual expenditure, and because many ‘non-traditional’ donors are not (yet) fully tracked through the UN.  This is unfortunate, but a reality of life. It is good to be aware of this ‘promise gap’ and to manage the expectations of the affected country and people. Advocacy can be helpful to ensure the promise gap is as small as possible, especially when focused on cash commitments or untied aid (i.e. aid not tied to a requirement to import relief goods from the donor country, which can distort markets in the recipient country or force ineffective and/ or inefficient spending).

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