Haiti suffers after 'year of indecision': Oxfam

A critical report says Haitian government indecision and donors' single-minded pursuit of their own goals have crippled progress in the earthquake-devastated country.
A woman walks through the rubble of quake-damaged buildings in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Wednesday. Only an estimated five per cent of rubble has been cleared since the earthquake hit nearly a year ago. ((Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press))

Indecision by Haiti's government and international donors' single-minded pursuit of their own goals have crippled progress in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a highly critical Oxfam report says.

"This has been a year of indecision and it has put Haiti's recovery on hold," said Roland Van Hauwermeiren, country director for the aid agency in Haiti.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake, Haiti's most powerful in 200 years, struck the impoverished Caribbean country nearly a year ago, on Jan. 12, killing over 220,000 people and leaving more than a million homeless.

Oxfam's report, released Wednesday, criticized donor countries and aid agencies for failing to co-ordinate between themselves and with the government, and called for the Haitian government to take on responsibility for reconstruction.

It also accused a major agency set up after the quake — the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission co-led by former U.S. president Bill Clinton — for failing in its mandate to co-ordinate efforts.

The shelter dilemma

Since the quake, relief agencies have built about 19,000 shelters, able to house 94,000 people. That's enough for about six per cent of those left homeless.

A major reason for the delay in housing construction is aid agencies struggling to sort out and prove who owns the land.

Another problem is that many of those living in camps — about 60 per cent — rented houses or land before the earthquake. Since then, rent prices have risen due to a lack of available properties and tenants can return only after they earn enough to afford rent again.

The remaining 40 per cent of those living in the camps owned homes or land before the earthquake. But many lack the ability or resources to rebuild. And even if they did, most of the rubble left over from the quake remains in the way.

(Source: Oxfam report and United Nations statistics)

"Too many donors from rich countries have pursued their own aid priorities and have not effectively co-ordinated amongst themselves or worked with the Haitian government," said Van Hauwermeiren.

"This seriously weakens the government's ability to plan and deliver on its sovereign responsibility — to lead reconstruction."

While many lives were saved following the quake, the report says long-term recovery has "barely begun." Relief efforts were also slowed as the country dealt with a string of calamities in 2010, including a cholera outbreak in October that has killed 3,481 to date, plus political strife sparked by a disputed general election.

The quake left an estimated 20 million cubic metres of rubble, enough to fill dump trucks parked bumper to bumper halfway around the globe. Only about five per cent of the rubble has been cleared, stifling the ability to build new homes.

Instead of clearing rubble, international agencies have focused too much of their efforts and money on housing, the report says. Even so, only 15 per cent of the needed temporary houses — about 19,000 shelters able to house 94,000 people — have been built.

Determining who owns land and property has also been a major issue in Haiti. With many documents lost in the earthquake and few official records available to confirm ownership, aid agencies have struggled to secure rights to rebuild.

But poor co-ordination among the large number of aid agencies present in the tiny country, which shares Hispaniola island with the Dominican Republic, and the government received the most flak in the report.

'Deeply disappointing'

Pre-quake estimates suggest about 10,000 non-governmental organizations were operating in Haiti, earning it the title "Republic of NGOs." Oxfam's report offered a more modest estimate at several thousand, with 450 formally registered.

Aid reports

A number of international aid agencies published reports ahead of the one-year anniversary of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, providing updates on how their donations were spent.      Read more about their findings

The report says that since the 1980s, donors have circumvented corrupt and inefficient state institutions by directing aid through the United Nations and NGOs. But Oxfam says aid agencies have as a result done little to help the government function better, instead often excluding government and the Haitian people from the process.

"The international community has too often acted in ways that have undermined good governance and effective leadership in Haiti," the report says.

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, led by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, was set up last April to help co-ordinate reconstruction and help Haitian ministries implement it. But Oxfam says the group's efforts have been "lacklustre" and it has "failed to live up to its mandate."

No major projects

Few Haitian officials are able to lead projects and almost no major reconstruction projects have started, the report says.

Getting pledged money to Haiti has also been an issue. At a March 2010 international donor conference in New York, $2.1 billion was pledged for 2010 by 30 countries, including Canada, but the UN Office to the Special Envoy to Haiti says only 42 per cent of it has been disbursed.

The report does, however, note that even in developed countries, disaster recovery can take years. It cites Kobe city in Japan, where it took seven years to recover from the 1995 earthquake, and Pakistan, where 17 per cent had rebuilt homes a year after the 1995 quake.

Yet, Oxfam called the lack of progress in Haiti "deeply disappointing" — if not surprising — especially for Haitians who had hoped for a fresh start for the country.

The report urges Haiti's government and the international community to focus on creating jobs, involving Haitians in the process, improving access to basic services, figuring out land tenure issues and clearing away rubble.

"Above all else, Haitians want to get back to work and provide for their families," said Van Hauwermeiren. "They aren't asking for charity, but for a chance to be part of the process to rebuild their own country."