What will it take? New hope for Haiti’s earthquake reconstruction

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Haiti Reconstruction, Haitian Children

Is there hope for Haiti’s earthquake reconstruction? Without a proper drainage system, the water/sewage on this children’s playground is a breeding ground for mosquitos and bacteria. Despite billions of dollars pledged by international agencies, 4 years later efforts to rebuild lag behind. (Photo by International Disaster Volunteers/Flickr)

By Johanna Mendelson Forman and Clare Lockhart

With billions of dollars spent, and billions more pledged, this fourth anniversary of Haiti’s tragic earthquake on January 10, 2010, remains a source of disappointment and frustration.   For the millions of Haitians who survived this 8.0 on the Richter scale event, the recovery has changed lives forever.

With 300,000 fatalities, and with a similar number injured, the overall damage was estimated at $7.9 billion, or 120 percent of Haiti’s 2009 GDP.  Yet despite the commitment of global leaders who demonstrated an unprecedented scale of support, the promise of rebuilding Haiti with the help of international partners has still fallen short of expectations.

The question that comes to mind immediately is what can be done to help the poorest country in the Caribbean move “from misery to poverty” over the next few years.  It would wrong to say there has been no progress in four years.

What has Worked in Rebuilding Haiti

Eighty percent of the rubble has been cleared from the thousands of damaged and fallen buildings.  The more than one million people left homeless and living in tent cities in the capital, Port au Prince, have been reduced to just a little fewer than 300,000.  The cholera epidemic, which came 10 months after the earthquake, killed thousands more, and spread across the border to Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is finally under control.  And the United Nations Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) which experienced the largest loss of life of UN personnel in the institution’s history (over 100 dead) remains in place to fulfill its original mission of security and development that it started in 2004, even though its presence remains a source of tension for the government of Haiti.

With tragedy has come opportunity.  For a country that has never really thrived from the large sums of foreign aid that it has received, the post-earthquake environment also helped shift the mindset of donors to look beyond the immediate humanitarian needs to a longer-term vision of development.  A  March 2010 Action Plan for National Recovery and Development included identified territorial, economic and social rebuilding as the central focus of reconstruction:

(1)   Territorial rebuilding along three territorial poles – Cap Haitian to the north, Saint-Marc in the central plain, and Les Cayes in the south, including the development of two deep water ports,

(2)   Economic rebuilding in four priority sectors including construction, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism,

(3)   Social rebuilding, which means a focus on vocational education and institution building.  This “new path,” as donors called the plan, would also put Haitians in leadership roles, something that had often been omitted when foreign aid was imposed rather than proposed by external actors.

Haiti, Android Manufacturing, Industrial Park

In this Dec. 19, 2013 photo, technicians assemble Android Surtab tablets at the Industrial Park in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Two tech companies in Haiti have launched competing businesses to sell Android tablets. Startups Surtab SA and Handxom SA began production last month and plan to sell the 7-inch touchscreen devices to phone stores nationwide and markets overseas. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

Some decentralization of economic activity has taken place, moving manufacturing out of the capital, Port au Prince.  In late 2013 Haiti opened its first major industrial park, Caracoal, near Cap Haitian.  Its launch provided the first tangible evidence of large scale investment and progress.  Former President Bill Clinton, who became the United Nation’s point person on reconstruction as Special Envoy, and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, both attended the inauguration, commenting that “building back better,” the mantra of the reconstruction effort, was actually happening.

Similarly, security has improved.  Kidnappings have been reduced, and a new police force of close to 14,000 men and women is being trained under the auspices of the UN.  Even some of the private sector doubters have noted the improvement on the streets of Port au Prince as newly minted policemen direct traffic and patrol some of the worst areas of the city.

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