A new Haiti – built by Haitians?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

By Chris Herlinger and Nils Carstensen

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – The Haitian disaster can become a new start for Haiti, a chance to rebuild the country as if from scratch. In the immediate weeks, following the devastating January 12. earthquake, a number of Haitians expressed such hopes. But they also acknowledged their own trauma. "I close my eyes and see buildings collapsing within me," said one veteran Haitian humanitarian worker.

Some worried that, expressed on a wider scale, delayed trauma "could create a lot of anger later on, maybe even violence, because there will be a lot of frustration," this worker said. To understand a bit of this frustration it helps to understand the context. When people’s homes came crashing down, survivors lost not only family members, friends and most material possessions but also a sense of security.

Never safe?
In its place, came terrifying questions: When will I ever have a home again? How and where? When do I dare send my child back into a still-standing school building? When - if ever - can I return to work? Will there be work? What do I do for a living - to feed the family right now - and in ten months time? How will we find a proper shelter during the rainy season? Will I ever again be able to close a door behind me and say I’m home?

One of those asking such questions is teacher Marie Therese Mayard, 65, a resident of the city of Petit Goave, west of Port-au-Prince. One day recently Mayard said she was anxious as she and others at a displacement site had not yet eaten.

Though she later received a cash grant for food provided by the National Human Rights Defense Network, a partner of ACT/Christian Aid, worries have become part of Mayard's daily life. As she showed visitors around the primary school where she once taught, Mayard mentioned that "robbers are here sometimes." "We're just asking for security," she said.

Crime on the rise
Another sense of frustration was palpable during a visit to the heavily hit area of downtown Port-au-Prince. Understandable irritation and suspicion hung in the air in what seemed like a post-apocalyptic scene of rubble and exhaustion, decay and gloom. Weary residents waved away a group of journalists, suggesting they were tired of answering questions and having their photos taken; they had not seen any assistance themselves and were tired of being treated as objects of pity.

Now, weeks later, and having passed the two-month mark since the quake, is that frustration being mirrored throughout the country? In some ways it seems so. Reports of crime are on the rise, as are the continuing and disturbing reports of rape and sexual assault against women and girls in the numerous displacement camps in and around Port-au-Prince. Moreover, while billions of dollars have poured into Haiti, "millions of Haitians are still desperate for food, water, shelter and protection from abuse and exploitation," according to a recent report by the humanitarian group Refugees International. Such concerns hit at the very foundation of humanitarian response: that the innate humanity and dignity of those who survive a disaster must be upheld and respected.

Indeed, one of the most striking things to outsiders visiting Haiti – aside from the obvious overwhelming devastation and considerable logistical problems in responding to the disaster – is the continued and repeated use of the word "dignity."

ACT Alliance General Secretary John Nduna recognized the importance of that word when he recently visited a displacement camp in Port-au-Prince and met with residents there. "I was very moved by the reality of their lives and the dignity they manage to maintain despite the conditions,” he said.

Dignity was also at the center of the three day-long commemoration in Port-au-Prince's central Champs de Marcs a month after the earthquake – an event that represented not only a collective mourning service involving Catholics, Protestants and practitioners of indigenous religions. It became a dignified and orderly manifestation of grief beyond comprehension.

Haitians have stressed that "dignity" is no mere watchword. It must now under-gird how immediate and long-term assistance, rehabilitation and recovery are fashioned in Haiti.

Restored by themselves
Specifically, say Haitians, ultimately the recovery and reconstruction of Haiti will need to be done by Haitians themselves. These are not just nice words. In a normal year Haitians living abroad send an estimated $1.5 billion back home every year, according to the UN. Judging by the lines in front of banks and Western Union offices in Port-au-Prince, this amount is only likely to increase. Seen in that context, international contributions such as the ACT Alliance appeal for some $31 million are relatively modest. Still, such aid is needed – though with a caveat.

"If Haitians themselves are not involved in reconstruction efforts, it could be a waste of time and money," said Prospery Raymond, ACT/Christian Aid country manager, himself Haitian. "It would not be wise." It would not be wise for a host of reasons – not least because of the extreme weight of history and the fraught legacy of Haiti's relations with outside powers like France and the United States.

No miracle approaches
But the most obvious reason is that Haitians know their local circumstances and conditions better than outsiders. At times, this simple truism has been overlooked by outsiders during the past two months, as have numerous informal and local Haitian relief and self-help efforts. Most noticeable of these efforts is how an estimated 600,000 people from Port-au-Prince fled to the countryside after the earthquake and have since been surviving on the solidarity of family and friends in small, impoverished rural towns and villages. The ACT Alliance's response has upheld the need for close ties between local organizations and ACT members, which have a long history in Haiti.

"There's always been a 'fixer mentality' about Haiti: that single issue approaches – microfinance, food security, literacy -- will solve 'the problem' of Haiti," says Martin Coria, coordinator for ACT member Church World Service.

In fact, Haiti's problems have to be seen as closely linked and will not be solved quickly or easily, Coria says. Supporters of work by ACT Alliance members must be prepared to support long-term work with local groups – work that will require time, patience and an understanding and appreciation about the need for partnership.

For the humanitarian community working in Haiti, Coria says, "there are no miracle approaches."

Haiti: after the earthquake