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Build Back Better Mantra Unfulfilled in Haiti

January 2013

In the third anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, the “build back better” mantra has vanished from the news, along with promises of funding and support for a new Haiti.

  In fact, reports show an appalling waste of resources, as relief agencies and governments spent precious dollars on overhead costs and short term solutions. After three years and donations worth billions of dollars, more than 300,000 people still live in tents in Port-au-Prince. Issues of public safety and health continue to plague those who were displaced. And unfortunately, the government and aid agencies have no clear sense when the building of new houses will be concluded.   Recently, the Haitian government and international donors shifted their focus from allegedly rebuilding to giving displaced families direct cash grants to rent a place to live. However, it is not at all clear that sufficient housing is available even with the money. Rather, the cash grant solution is an attempt to “clean” the eye sore of tent cities from the nation’s capital. Further, it might be a signal that the “rebuilding process” in Haiti is close to an end.   This is a stark contrast to public statements and an outpouring of promised aid in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Troves of foreign aid professionals and charity organizations flooded Port-au-Prince, vowing to help Haitians not only to get back on their feet but to rebuild better. But months now have turned into three years.   Much of the impetus behind the massive influx of foreign aid into Haiti stems from the image of a failed nation, incapable taking care of its own people. That analysis needs to change so the “build back better” philosophy can be implemented. Make no mistake, Haiti needs the resources. But above all, Haiti needs to be respected as a sovereign nation.  Rebuilding efforts achieve success only when designed and implemented by Haitians.   Where did the “build back better” mantra go?   Back in 2010, the “build back better” mantra dominated the conversation. Eager to seize upon the opportunity to implement massive changes, politicians and UN personnel pushed to rebuild far beyond the capital Port-au-Prince and the city of Jacqmel and to transform Haiti. And while transformation in a country with significant poverty and corruption seems like a noble goal, it was fundamentally unsuccessful because Haitians had no control over their own future.   Rather, an inter-agency commission led by Haiti’s international donors (United States and France) was created to oversee the rebuilding process, despite of the opposition of the outgoing president Rene Preval. And the military occupation of the country by UN troops, funded mostly by United States and France, continues without a timetable to end.   Haiti is not alone in its failure to “build back better.” In fact, that slogan originated during the reconstruction process in the areas affected by the 2005 Tsunami in South Asia. Like the political formulae in Haiti captained by President Clinton as the UN special envoy, South Asia’s plan consisted in creating an inter-agency commission to coordinate the different humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts.   In Sri-Lanka and Indonesia, several articles provide account showing a lack of coordination between agencies and poor quality of new homes built by international agencies. The Environmental News Network posted an article from the Associated Press explaining how international agencies were stretched beyond their capacities, resulting in the poor quality of their work. A later news report from the New York Times raised similar issues of international agencies flush with cash from donations rebuilding homes and schools without meaningful community involvement and leadership.   Worldwatch Institute posted a short piece highlighting lessons learned from the reconstruction process in South Asia, including: “Governments, donor and aid agencies must recognize that families and communities drive their own recovery.” Their report adds, “Good recovery must reduce risks and build resilience in communities… [and] local governments must be empowered to manage recovery efforts, and donors must devote greater resources to strengthening government recovery institutions.”   Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands still displaced in Haiti, those lessons were not learned or heeded.   A recent article in the New York Times explains the ongoing suffering in the country, despite the money spent there. More than half of the $7.5 billion disbursed thus far has been spent on relief aid rather than rebuilding, and much of that went toward overhead costs. “Instead, much of the so-called recovery aid was devoted to costly current programs, like highway building and H.I.V. prevention, and to new projects far outside the disaster zone, like an industrial park in the north and a teaching hospital in the central plateau,” the article says.   Certainly many international foundations and donors have targeted their funds to support Haitian-led reconstruction efforts, including Grassroots International. Yet the big donors – especially governments and their NGOs – remain disconnected from the people on the ground whose solutions carry the most hope for success.


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