Why isn’t Haiti Fixed Yet?

Written by Plant With Purpose on January 12, 2011 in General

January 12, 2011
By Scott Sabin

To hear more from Scott Sabin about our work in Haiti click here

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. Recently, the one question I hear repeated over and over is “Why isn’t Haiti fixed yet?”  Usually the answer supplied to this question identifies a single factor such as corruption, or the inefficiency of the effort.

Tents in Haiti

However this has been an extremely complex emergency, and the reasons for slow return to normalcy are complex as well.  Corruption is definitely a factor —Transparency International consistently ranks Haiti as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  However, I am not sure it is even a major factor in this case.  Inefficiency is probably a larger factor.  But I have yet to see mentioned what I would consider to be the two biggest factors.

The biggest, in my opinion, is the sheer scale of the disaster.  A typical article in the US media will ask, “With all the aid, resources, and assistance flowing into the country, why isn’t it helping?”  It is implied that all of the aid, resources, etc. are somehow on the same scale as the damage.  Not even close.  Over the first six months I watched the aid community focus on three primary goals: get clean water, sufficient food and two plastic tarps to every family before the hurricane season.  That was where all the resources went.  They largely succeeded and probably saved tens of thousands of lives. It meant that by the summer there were a lot of tent cities, and a tremendous amount of effort being spent on sustaining those, but almost no reconstruction or even rubble clearance.  That is just getting started, but it is a monumental task.

The Port au Prince metropolitan area can be very roughly compared to San Diego County in terms of population, although it covers a much smaller area.  Nonetheless, it may be useful to imagine for a moment that San Diego County was affected like Port au Prince. Two hundred and thirty thousand, or more, dead (nearly one in every ten people) and 60 percent of the structures in San Diego County are destroyed; many completely reduced to rubble.  1.5 million people are suddenly homeless.  Even those whose homes are not destroyed are so traumatized that they sleep in tents in front of their homes for months.  Now imagine that any government assistance or coordination would have to come from city hall, which was also completely destroyed, along with most of the city and county records.

Ruins in Haiti

As Port au Prince deals with rubble removal, one of the immediate issues is where do you put it?  Where do you put an entire city worth of rubble? The Shelter Cluster (part of the humanitarian response focusing on shelter and rebuilding issues) estimates that if you put all the debris in shipping containers and put them end on end, they would reach from New York to Las Vegas.  

Next you have to resettle 1.3 million people (those who are still living in camps.)  Where do you put them? Somebody lays claim to almost any piece of land you might choose.  Furthermore, most of the property records have been destroyed.  There is pressure on the government to find land, but they are a lame duck government with no real power, unable to confront the landowners and operating out of a tent. Finally, many of the homeless are afraid to leave the camps because that is where the aid is; they are getting food and water in the tent camps, and they no longer have jobs, so they worry about finding food if they are resettled.

If we were faced with those problems, what would San Diego look like one year on?  Of course, Haiti has few of the resources that San Diego has and is faced with a much higher population density.

In summary, Haiti is not getting fixed because it is an enormous task, far bigger than most people are aware, and will take much longer than people think. There are certainly many things that could have been done better, but in general the public has been unrealistic in their expectations of a quick fix.  There is a tendency to overestimate the capacity of the relief agencies who are doing the best they can.

In a way, this is the same question that launched Plant With Purpose over 25 years ago.  Then the question was posed in the Dominican Republic and it was following Hurricane David.  Plant With Purpose’s founders were involved in hurricane relief, but asked the same question “why are people’s situations not improving?”

It was that which led us to the upstream solutions that we now pursue in each of the countries where we work.  Much of the work in Haiti is still focused on disaster relief, and as we learned all those years ago in the Dominican Republic, disaster relief can keep a situation from getting worse, but does nothing to bring progress to a country or lasting opportunities to individuals. That comes with long-term development and the creation of a genuine and sustainable economy.

Plant With Purpose is going a long way toward fixing a very small part of Haiti.  This is because we have committed to focus on upstream solutions and be in Haiti for the long haul.

Leave a Reply