Haiti: 2 Years Later
By Alyce Gilligan
January 12, 2012
It's been two years since a catastrophic earthquake shook the already unstable nation of Haiti. The world rushed to the country's aid in a flurry of telethons and text donations. Relief organizations swarmed the rubble and tent cities to deliver food, water and medicine to the millions affected by the quake. But it soon became clear that immediate solutions could not eliminate the deep-seated structural problems in Haiti. As time passed, Haiti faded from the headlines and from the minds of most of the public. But for those who remained, the fight to rebuild Haiti was only just beginning.
Edouard Lassègue is Compassion International's Regional Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean and a native of Haiti. We recently caught up with him to learn more about the progress made since 2010, the ongoing struggles of the people of this island nation and why the Church plays a key role in their future:
Two years after the earthquake, how has Haiti healed? In what ways is Haiti still suffering?
Two years after the earthquake, Haiti is slowly healing from the devastating events of 2010. The healing started with the enormous movement of solidarity that resulted from the destruction. The response of the international community was extremely generous and it affirmed that Haiti was not alone. But, also important was the bringing together of Haitians as one, in order to face the enormous pain and suffering. Haitians were united more than ever during this time.
This healing process continued as Haitians discovered some internal assets and potential that they overlooked in the past, but that will be instrumental in the efforts of rebuilding the country—characteristics like resilience, courage, generosity. This served as a reminder that the Haitian people have the internal capacity to rebuild their nation.
Part of the healing also came in the form of the realization of the mistakes and failures of the past. The earthquake brought much destruction mainly because of decades (if not centuries) of poor leadership and lack of responsibility at all levels of Haitian society. This came as a painful wake-up call to the country as a whole. Today, institutions from all sectors of the country (government, church, business, school, etc.) have a stronger resolve to rebuild better.
On the other hand, the country is still suffering. The many tents throughout the city of Port-au-Prince are constant reminders of the pain that so many families still experience today. The systemic problems of the country, which explained the magnitude of the disaster, have not changed in two years: inefficient central government, poor infrastructure, fragile political environment, weak health system, high unemployment, lack of private investment, etc.
How would you describe the spirit and the attitude of the people of Haiti today?
The year 2010 was a very difficult year for the country. It started with a devastating earthquake that left over 200,000 dead and 1 million people displaced; throughout the year, people struggled to survive under awful circumstances, as they fought hurricanes, cholera and fear of aftershocks; finally, the year ended with huge political tensions around presidential and parliamentary elections that tore apart our society.
The heavy toll of that year was evident when my 20-year-old daughter returned to Haiti after the earthquake. She grew up in Haiti and had taken several trips to her homeland since we moved to Florida seven years ago. She has many fond memories of the country and its people. Both times, she mentioned with a sad tone in her voice, how Haitians had lost their “joie de vivre” (joy of living). People no longer smiled or laughed with the carefree spirit that characterized Haitians.
2011 was a much better year. It started with the vote of a new president and the installation of a new government. These changes renewed hope and brought a sense of direction for the country. While people realize that the recovery will take a long time, they are more hopeful for the future. This general feeling was evident during my last family trip in December 2011. My daughter (who is now a senior college student majoring in psychology) testified to it, as well. She could note a difference in the overall attitude of the people—they were freer to laugh and to joke—small signs that the Haitian spirit is coming back!
Looking back, what aspect of relief and restoration has been most helpful?
The immediate response to the need for food, water and shelter. Health care in Haiti has always been a big challenge even before the earthquake, as most Haitians had no access to primary health care.
The medical assistance provided to hundreds of thousands of injured people was crucial. Several medical international teams and volunteers were on the ground a few days after the earthquake. Free medicine and medical supplies were delivered. Rehabilitation sessions were provided to disabled people. Some international medical agencies have even provided help in rebuilding clinics and medical facilities at various locations throughout the country.
In addition to that, thousands of homeless were relocated in a safe place with the assistance of both government and some international agencies. Many of the affected people are on the way to recovery through microenterprise projects and small loans.
What did other countries get wrong in trying to help Haiti after the quake? Were there any ways in which aid ended up being harmful?
[There was] not enough involvement and consultation of key Haitian leaders on the reconstruction process and the future of Haiti. Plans [were] being drawn by international institutions and “experts” who did not know much about Haiti, or even about disaster response—no local ownership of the reconstruction plans drawn by the international institution on behalf of Haiti. The aid was harmful in that it did not promote the reinforcement of local structures—health, business, etc. It sought to replace these structures, and in the process killed local initiative and responsibility. It did not promote local production [and caused] too much duplication of efforts.
Instead of working together with the country’s existing institution, most of the international aid agencies preferred to operate according to their priorities; this resulted in poor long-term results. Directing a portion of the international development and humanitarian funding to building capacity of public health, education would have been more beneficial in the long-term, as those sectors are essential to poverty alleviation and economic growth.
How well have NGOs and other relief organizations cooperated over the past two years?
The earthquake caused NGOs to work closer, and exchange information. This effort was not sustained, as NGOs tended to go back to their own agendas. At the very beginning of the crisis there were some efforts to cooperate, but it didn’t last long; organizations seemed too preoccupied to implement their own plan, get credit and to project a good image.
How would you describe the relationship between relief organizations and the government?
Good relationship of cooperation, though sometimes there is some tension, as some NGOs are sometimes working at cross purposes with Haitian officials and sometimes in competition with each other.
The government is overall passive and often absent. [It] needs to provide more leadership by identifying priorities and holding NGOs more accountable. I am not advocating control by the government, but the government needs to be more present.
It has been a laissez-faire relationship, since the government was not able to properly fulfill its mission from the beginning, NGOs tend to run the show. The humanitarian response (such as medical aid, shelters, food and clean water) was so strongly led and funded by NGOs, that the country was called “The Republic of NGOs.”
Moving forward, what do you think is the most important project in the restoration and rebuilding of Haiti? How can other nations best assist?
The most important project in the restoration of Haiti is the project that addresses the underlying causes of the deteriorating situation in Haiti—changing the mindset and worldview through local organizations that are already present in the country: the Church. The current project is called “Mobilization for the Prophetic Role of the Church in Haiti” and recognizes the responsibility and opportunity of the Church to help change the basic worldview of the Haitian people. It is clear that no real change will take place until there is deep change of mentality in the Haitian people.
This project identified three basic values that should be foundational to the reconstruction of the country: integrity, justice, responsible leadership. Each one of these values has a clear biblical foundation. The Church has unfortunately neglected the teaching of these themes; therefore, the project challenges church leaders and seeks to equip them on how to include these themes as part of their teaching and practice. The project is probably the most strategic intervention with the potential of long-lasting impact.
The devastation that accompanied the January 2010 earthquake is the result of a society built on poor leadership and wrong values. A change of mindset and values is critical for any lasting change of Haiti. The protestant church is present everywhere in Haiti; 40-52 percent of the population (depending on which data one trusts) claims to be Protestant. By definition, the Church produces and reinforces values; it makes sense that it should be used in this process of transformation. A group of Haiti church leaders are very aware of their responsibility in this process, and have launched this project that seeks to leverage their presence in Haiti to bring about these changes in society.
Other nations can best assist by facilitating dialogue among Haitians, and not by coming with their ready-made solutions for the country. Equipping local leaders to fully play their role in rebuilding their nation is crucial for the new Haiti.