News and analysis
July 08, 2010

6 Months After Earthquake, Haiti Struggles to Rebuild

U.S. relief organizations have received $1.3-billion, but critics say some charities hamper aid efforts


U.S. Fund for Unicef has raised $67.1-million for relief efforts in Haiti.

Six months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, relief organizations have made significant headway in providing basic necessities, such as food and water, but they are drawing criticism for their slow progress in providing temporary shelter and other vital needs.

According to a new Chronicle tally, U.S. relief groups have received $1.3-billion to aid earthquake survivors.

With that money, nonprofit organizations have provided tarps to people in makeshift camps in and around Port-au-Prince. Charity-run health-care programs have prevented widespread outbreaks of disease, and a growing number of nonprofit projects that employ earthquake survivors are helping to put money into the local economy.

But progress on the greatest need as Haiti moves into hurricane season—construction of transitional shelters, simple wood or steel-frame structures that can be anchored to the ground—has been negligible.

“The relief effort is going strong, but the rebuilding effort is struggling,” says Richard Stearns, president of World Vision.

Private Donations

Critics contend that aid groups themselves are hampering relief efforts. They say that organizations’ approaches to solving problems are sometimes inadvertently creating new ones and that international charities should be doing more to strengthen grass-roots Haitian groups, whose local knowledge will be crucial for recovery.

International aid groups counter that they have made important strides under very challenging conditions and that formidable obstacles, such as many tons of rubble that still need to be removed and longstanding problems with Haiti’s system of land titles, are the real stumbling blocks.

They also say that while planning is time-consuming, it’s critical for the Haitian government, donor governments, and relief groups to hammer out a strategy for rebuilding so they can avoid repeating past mistakes.

“Those wheels of decision making don’t always go as fast as we’d like,” says Gregory Beck, director of the office of humanitarian assistance at CHF International. “But organizations need to calibrate their programs along with that so that you’re connecting to the larger plan.”

The magnitude of the catastrophe, which killed an estimated 230,000 people, has prompted an outpouring of charitable gifts. The amount of money charities have raised to aid earthquake survivors already approaches the $1.6-billion contributed after the 2004 South Asian tsunamis.

While very few international disasters have garnered that much money, some experts wonder whether it will be enough given the years—possibly decades—of rebuilding that lie ahead.

“I feel really good about what the donor community did in this first six months,” says Regine A. Webster, senior associate for disaster philanthropy at Arabella Advisors, who notes that many charities are putting together 10-year recovery plans. But given how much still needs to be done, says Ms. Webster, “I would feel even better if I knew that the donor community was poised to stay active over the long haul.”

The amount of money that relief organizations still have available to put toward rebuilding varies, in large part depending on their charitable mission.

Doctors Without Borders, which played an important role providing emergency medical care after the disaster, has already spent $65.2-million of the $112-million, or 58 percent, of what it raised from donors around the world.

By contrast, charities that focus on long-term rebuilding have spent a smaller percentage of the funds they have received.

For example, Catholic Relief Services has used only $30.6-million of the $140.8-million, or 22 percent, of the money it raised.

While private donations are most important during the early phases of a disaster response, government money will fuel rebuilding, says Rick Santos, president of IMA World Health.

“It’s really when the governments start putting a lot of money into the long-term development piece that you will start to see more traction,” he says.

Obstacles to Building

Building safe housing for people who lost their homes in the earthquake is the biggest challenge facing the recovery effort—and some nonprofit officials are frustrated by the sluggish pace of construction.

Relief groups, United Nations agencies, and the Haitian government have been arguing for months over whether to focus on transitional or permanent housing, the building standards for new construction, and other issues, says Anne H. Hastings, chief executive of Fonkoze Financial Services, Haiti’s largest microcredit organization. The meetings, she says, go on and on, and as a result, nothing gets done.

“Everyone is still living in tents, and we’re in the middle of hurricane season,” says Ms. Hastings. “There could be another disaster on top of the one we’ve just had.”

According to a committee of nonprofit groups working on shelter issues, charities have built 3,722 transitional shelters, each designed to house a family of five. The groups hope to build 125,000 transitional shelters by the middle of 2011.

Local Aid Groups

Clearing rubble and establishing land rights are the two biggest obstacles blocking construction, says Timo Luege, a spokesman for the coalition of nonprofit groups working to provide shelter.

He says that the density of housing in Port-au-Prince before the quake, the city’s unplanned neighborhoods, and the scarcity of large roads means that much of the debris has to be removed by hand, rather than with heavy machinery.

With their local connections and knowledge, grass-roots Haitian organizations have a lot to contribute to the recovery effort, but according to some observers, local groups are not getting the aid they need to respond.

Haitian organizations have long been marginalized in development work in their own country, which is dominated by large international groups, says Martha Thompson, a program manager at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

She says it is hard for local groups to tap into the system devised by the United Nations to coordinate recovery work.

Language can be an issue, too. For example, the national meeting of nonprofit groups working to provide shelter, held every two weeks, is in English, and the weekly regional and subregional meetings are in French. None are in Creole.

Ms. Thompson thinks donors and international organizations need to do more to strengthen local groups. “Grass-roots organizations have been fighting to be at the table” for many years, she says. “It’s very sad that in this case they have the same struggle.”

Rural Concerns

Aid experts in Haiti worry that nonprofit groups are not focusing enough of their efforts in rural parts of the country—and that as a result, Haiti could lose a valuable opportunity to encourage more people to live outside the crowded capital city.

Food, water, sanitation, and jobs were in short supply in the countryside even before the disaster, says Karen Ashmore, executive director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which makes grants to peasant-led organizations. The influx of earthquake survivors has stretched resources dangerously thin in areas that saw rapid growth, in some cases even doubling their population overnight.

In addition to bearing the burden of feeding and housing more people, farmers are also struggling with falling prices for their crops. The rice that government agencies and relief groups are distributing free in Haiti, for example, has pushed down the price that farmers can get for the staple.

“Food aid has its place in an emergency,” says Ms. Ashmore. “But it’s not a sustainable solution because it puts the local people out of business.”