ACT in Haiti

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sandra Cox and Maria Halava assess ACT’s work in Haiti over the past twelve months

The call for help from the people of Haiti came just 12 days after ACT Alliance was formed from the union of its predecessors, ACT International and ACT Development. Yet, in the 12 months that have passed since the earthquake killed at least 230,000 people, the fledging organisation has reached out to 600,000 survivors in Haiti’s devastated capital, major cities and countryside.

ACT’s work in Haiti represents one of the largest blocs of humanitarian support in the country. ACT in Haiti is made up of 12 member organisations, working in close collaboration with each other and through more than 30 partner organisations, with funding of US $100 million.

The initial emergency response covered as many sectors as humanitarian agencies typically cover after a destructive earthquake, be it health, shelter, housing, rubble removal, emergency schooling, school reconstruction, water or sanitation. Once people’s immediate needs had been met and the situation started to stabilise enough that Haiti was deemed to be out of the ‘emergency phase’, so ACT adapted its response, looking to find long-term solutions to rebuild and regenerate the country.

Equally staggering was the number of people ACT members supported. A total of 600,000 survivors have received support as wide-ranging as food, water, medicines, cash grants, home-building, shelter, schooling and counselling. The ACT response has endeavoured to be as inclusive and complete as possible: from providing tent classrooms and school kits that enable children to return to their education to supplying medicines, medical equipment, wheelchairs and crutches to the elderly, wounded and disabled; from distributing thousands of seeds and seedlings to rural dwellers to providing water supplies for people in 22 urban camps.

The spirit of cooperation among ACT members has meant a response that was cohesive, with little duplication. While some media reports claim rebuilding efforts in Haiti have been crippled by a lack of coordination between aid agencies and donors, the ACT example seems to prove the opposite. For example, Norwegian Church Aid focused on water and sanitation, Servicio Social de Iglesia Dominicana on logistics, the Lutheran World Federation on camp management, Christian Aid on livelihood projects and Finn Church Aid on education and schooling, while Church World Service worked with people with disabilities,

ACT’s emergency appeal coordinator in Haiti, Geneviève Cyvoct, says there are many inspiring, good examples of work by ACT members. Through each specialist area, a lot of collaboration has taken place. In emergency schooling and school rebuilding, the Lutheran World Federation and Finn Church Aid jointly identified sites to rebuild schools. They then collaborated with Norwegian Church Aid, which intervened to provide water and sanitation for the schools.

Regular coordination and information-sharing meetings have guaranteed good working relations between members and enabled ACT to respond quickly to needs as they arose. The presence of ACT’s Dominican Republic member, Servicio Social de Iglesia Dominicana, was crucial in setting up an efficient logistics base to transport relief items and aid workers in the aftermath of the emergency, when the Port-au-Prince air and sea ports were still closed.

The deep local knowledge of ACT members’ local partners has proved invaluable throughout. It emerged repeatedly that grassroots organisations were best placed to understand the local context and the needs of their communities.  ACT has also co-operated with the Government of Haiti and local authorities and worked closely with the clusters of organisations working with UN OCHA system, the NGO Coordination Committee, the Humanitarian Country Team and other coordination bodies.

Tremors after the earthquake

The earthquake was not Haiti’s only devastating event of 2010. It was followed by a hurricane, cholera outbreak and protests at the presidential election processes. The cholera epidemic started in the Artibonite district at the end of October 2010. By the end of the year, it had spread throughout the country with infections and deaths in all areas. By January, the Haitian health ministry reported that it had killed 3650 people. While the challenge remains to prevent it spreading even further, ACT members have significantly helped to contain it.  ACT responded to the epidemic by distributing eight million water purification tablets, 15,000 jerry cans, and a quarter of a million oral rehydration salts.  It also provided tarpaulins, soap, chlorine and hygiene kits to approximately 35,000 families, as well as distributing health messages in Creole to large sections of the population. ACT’s work to prevent the spread of the disease through camps continues.

The category 1 hurricane, Tomas, hit Haiti in the first days of November, causing flooding, destruction of farm land and losses in the agricultural and fishery sectors. ACT members kept camp committee members and emergency brigades up to date on the progress of the hurricane by sending updates on SMS text messages, and evacuated 1500 people from camps. After the storm passed, ACT repaired damaged latrines, hand-washing systems and showers, cleaned up camps, pumped flooded areas, and carried out psychosocial support.

Moving Haiti to a brighter future

ACT Alliance members have worked in Haiti for more than three decades. The commitment will continue for many years to come as Haiti gets back on their feet. A year after the earthquake, ACT continues to respond to the effects of Haiti’s three emergencies of 2010 - the earthquake, hurricane and cholera epidemic – while looking forward to the new challenges of 2011. A key issue this year will be to link the reconstruction to already-existing long term development projects.  The goal is not simply to rebuild, but to address the underlying causes of people’s vulnerability to disasters, such as their lack of money, jobs and connections.

In 2011, ACT Alliance will focus especially on climate change and disaster risk reduction and will continue to advocate, with its local partners, local communities and religious leaders as well as other international non-governmental organisations, for a reconstruction of the country that is genuinely sustainable.

Cyvoct says the aspect of the response she has found most impressive has been the work of the many local staff employed by ACT members, and the dedication they have put into their work, knowing that most of them have been personally affected by the earthquake as well: that they themselves sometimes live in the camps, live in tents, have suffered loss and bereavement and disabilities themselves, yet work indefatigably for their fellow citizens. Of all the progress in Haiti, their enthusiasm and involvement has been the most moving.

Sandra Cox is a Communications Officer at the ACT Secretariat

Maria Halava is a Communication Officer at Finn Church Aid

Haiti: after the earthquake