Haiti: employing the partnership paradigm

Thursday, January 05, 2012 • by Mara Caputo


While the wider humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti garnered criticism, pockets of genuine success have emerged from the rubble. Two years on, one of the most important lessons learned has been the value of engaging local partners on the ground to help facilitate an effective response.

In the wake of the extraordinary devastation wrought by the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the international community descended on the island nation with an unprecedented relief and recovery effort. At one point Haiti had more nongovernmental organisations on its soil than did any other country, save the 100-times more populous India.

The aid and development scene in the western hemisphere’s poorest country has been a difficult one for some time. The earthquake’s aftermath further exposed longstanding structural and systemic problems that made the humanitarian response all the more challenging.

And it did not take long for scathing criticism to emerge about the lack of relevance and effectiveness of the overall humanitarian response.

A briefing paper issued one year after the earthquake by a collection of aid organisations, including ACT Alliance member Christian Aid, criticised the overall humanitarian effort for prioritising the needs of donors, governments and businesses at the expense of Haitian civil society and community-based organisations. In the same vein, an Oxfam report declared that “Too many donors from rich countries have pursued their own aid priorities” at the expense of those in need.

Recovery from the bottom up

In contrast to this top-down approach, ACT Alliance – one of the largest blocs of humanitarian support in the country – has placed a strong emphasis on working with longstanding local partners, with some relationships going all the way back to the 1950s.

These Haitian partner organisations already had the trust of local communities before the quake struck, and so were able to help facilitate the ACT emergency response in its initial phases. In the quake’s chaotic and dangerous aftermath, for example, many aid agencies felt the need to rely on military escorts to distribute supplies in insecure environments.

ACT never resorted to any militarised distribution methods – instead relying on local partners who helped secure the transfer of life-saving necessities to communities who already had their trust and support. For instance, ACT members The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and Christian Aid relied solely on local partner organisations during their distribution of critical supplies to families in the affected communities.

As the emergency phase of the response came to a close, ACT adapted its response toward rebuilding and recovery initiatives. Now, two years on, the value of the partnership approach has been demonstrated time and again in cases where local organisations have been able to guide ACT member organisations toward sustainable solutions valued – and moulded – by the local community.

CRWRC, for example, changed its home construction materials – from a tarp to plywood-based model – on the advice of members of the local Community Advisory Committee in Leogane.

“The provision of houses whose walls are clad in [a more durable, less penetrable] plywood has made families more secure, more confident in their living environment – liberating them to pursue daily activities without undue worries about the safety of their families and belongings,” explained committee member Jean Pierre Paul.

Looking ahead, partners organisations insist that international organisations must continue to reinforce their trust in and respect for local organisations – particularly now, as the international response transitions from one of humanitarian relief to long-term development. Just as grassroots initiatives were central to successful relief and recovery efforts, Haitians must continue to be at the centre of the ongoing work to build a sustainable future for their country.

Mara Caputo is the web editor for ACT Alliance.

CRWRC partner organisations who assisted with food distribution efforts in Leogone mentioned above include the Organisation des Jeunes Progressistes de Masson; Connexion des Idées Evolutives et Progressives de la Pte- Rivière de Leogane; Macombre: Regroupement des Cadres de Développement pour la Petite Rivière de Leogane; Luithor: Union des Jeunes Progressistes pour le Développement de Luithor; and Croix des Peres: Organisation des Jeunes Progressistes de Croix des Peres

Haiti: after the earthquake