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Why reconstructing Haiti has been so slow - experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 7 Dec 2011 17:12 GMT
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BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Almost two years after a massive earthquake hit the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, reconstruction has barely started, with many aid agencies still focused on basic humanitarian needs and containing a cholera epidemic.

Political uncertainty, poor coordination and land tenure issues have hampered reconstruction efforts. Around half a million Haitians still live in camps in worsening conditions.

Following are AlertNet interviews with experts and aid officials about ongoing challenges and lessons learnt on the ground in Haiti.

“It took four to six years in Aceh (Indonesia) to get things going, in Haiti it will take longer,” said Tom Adams, U.S. special coordinator for Haiti.

* Political uncertainty
A lengthy and disputed presidential election, combined with a five-month delay in forming a new government under President Michel Martelly – a former pop star with no previous political experience – hampered the reconstruction effort during the first year after the earthquake.

 “The willingness of the Haitian government to step in quickly and effectively has been lacking. We didn’t have a government in place before which is why recovery was slow. We are just starting now to get a government and have an interlocutor, said Philippe Verstraeten, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti.

Decades of dictatorships, political infighting and a lack of consensus between the prime minister, president and parliament has dogged Haitian politics, often resulting in weak and ineffectual government. 

The formation of a new government in October that included Prime Minister Garry Conille, a former U.N. development expert, has raised hopes recovery can pick up speed.

“We are sensing movement, things moving forward by the government of Haiti,” said Liliana Ayalde, USAID senior deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

* Long custom delays at Haiti’s ports and airport
Getting cargo, including rubble-clearing equipment, building, shelter and medical supplies through Haitian customs takes anything from six weeks to five months, aid agencies say. This delays the building of new homes, hospitals and schools. 

“Custom delays are not only about corruption but involve slow decision-making and bureaucracy,” said OCHA’s Verstraeten.

* Cholera
The cholera outbreak, which has killed nearly 7,000 Haitians since it began last October, has diverted funding and attention from long-term reconstruction projects.  

* Land tenure problems
Determining who owns what land, negotiating with big landowners and a dysfunctional land-registry system have delayed progress in building schools and hospitals and resettling those living in camps.

“Land tenure is a real barrier. Land records being lost, no clear titles to a piece of land and there are sometimes four or five people who claim ownership over the same piece of land”, said Adams.

The government must urgently address land tenure issues, the United Nations says.

But Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute think tank and Haiti expert, said some aid agencies got too bogged down with overhauling Haiti’s land tenure system.

“We should have been more creative about how to solve land and property issues, like working with local authorities to create temporary land titles,” she said.

“For a year and a half, the American Red Cross refused to build houses unless land titles were clear,” she added.

* Delays clearing rubble
Around half the estimated 10 million cubic metres of rubble left by the earthquake has been cleared, a U.N. October report showed.

But delays in its clearance during the year after the disaster, and the lack of dumping sites in and around the capital, hindered the reconstruction effort, aid agencies say.

* Poor coordination
A myriad of aid agencies and NGOs descended on Haiti following the earthquake, often with competing interests. Coordinating groups and ensuring they don’t duplicate efforts has been a major challenge.

“A lot of agencies stepped in with different mandates. There were a lot of different actors – the military, missionaries and NGOs,” OCHA’s Verstraeten said. “It's extremely difficult to bring these people together to a shared common strategy. It’s very complicated to coordinate.”

Ferris said the U.N. system is “too bureaucratic” and “couldn’t respond to the outpouring of newcomers.”

* Shortage of experience
Some aid agencies struggled to find enough French-speaking aid workers, including urban planners, and water and sanitation experts, to work in Haiti.

“One of the weaknesses, and not just for OCHA, but for other aid agencies was the lack of highly trained and qualified staff at the senior level, trained in emergency relief, and who were French-speaking. People were deployed with little experience – that’s one of the lessons learnt,” said Verstraeten said.

A big turnover in U.N. agencies’ staff hampered decision-making and timely project completions.

“They (the U.N.) were pulling people out of French-speaking Africa to get staff in Haiti. But the Congo is not Haiti,” said Ferris. “There were four different directors in one year with one U.N. agency. People came for a month or two and then left. That why it’s difficult to get continuity.”

“You need strong humanitarian coordinators with experience in humanitarian operations with strong powers of persuasion and cajoling to get things done.”  

* Local communities ignored
Getting lasting projects off the ground means negotiating and working closely with local communities.

“Working with local groups and communities – that has just not happened in Haiti. We haven’t figured out a way to work with the Haitian community,” Ferris said.

* Misunderstanding city relief responses
The international aid community responds better to rural disasters than ones in big cities.

“When dealing with refugees and isolated rural communities aid agencies often make a deal with the government, set up a refugee camp and just get on with running it,” said Ferris.

“But it’s much more complex in an urban setting. It’s more political. It involves knowing the system, how communities work, and the complex issue of who is in charge,” she added.

“We haven’t adjusted our thinking to the urban disaster setting. That’s part of the reason why the international aid community didn’t get it right in Haiti.”

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