Aid localisation as a catalyst for resilience during the post-Matthew response in Haiti

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The following article is based on a study on aid localisation during the response to Hurricane Matthew which struck Haiti in October 2016. It draws on a series of interviews carried out in Haiti in May and June 2017. It presents how and why aid localisation is seen as a way of increasing resilience. It also analyses certain limits that were observed.

Given the trauma and the lessons learned from the response to the 2010 earthquake, and particularly the relentless and recurring nature of the hurricanes that Haitian organisations face and will continue to face, most stakeholders quickly saw aid localisation during the response to Hurricane Matthew as legitimate and necessary. In this precise context, the different stakeholders involved in the response almost unanimously explain that they believe in aid localisation as a way of building the country’s resilience in relation to natural disasters and crisis situations. Three underlying factors of resilience are regularly mentioned when discussing the role and position of national and local actors during the response. These are: crisis preparedness, recovery and the long-term impact of the response.

Localisation as a vector of crisis preparedness

Reinforcing risk and disaster management through the Directorate of Civil Protection

Haiti’s national risk and disaster management system is more or less in place despite still not having a legal framework. The Directorate of Civil Protection (DPC), the public institution in charge of the operational management of risks and disaster, is not part of any organic law and therefore does not have its own budget, nor does it have genuine leadership status in relation to other public institutions. Its mission is to respond to disasters and also prevent and prepare for risks. It therefore played a central role in the preparations for Matthew, and considerable progress was made compared to the situation during the hurricanes in 2004 and 2008. This improvement is mainly the result of DPC’s reinforced operational capacity due to massive investment on the part of international donors and UN agencies in recent years.

During the 2016 hurricane season, the DPC carried out two simulation exercises involving the national and departmental emergency operations centres. One of these concerned the response to a hurricane in the regions that were hit by Matthew a few weeks later. These emergency operations centres were activated several days before the hurricane, which brought together numerous aid organisations (UN agencies and international NGOs) to prepare and coordinate their operations in collaboration with the DPC, before, during and after the hurricane.

International NGOs also provided the DPC with support, particularly at the commune and local level, in partnership with Haitian civil society organisations. However, though skills at this level were reinforced through training, operational means in “communes” and “sections communales” remained extremely weak. Yet, this local level proved to be essential, notably during the preparation phase. In addition to the warning and evacuation messages sent to the population by radio and text message, the volunteer staff of the civil protection force (and the Haitian Red Cross) covered the regions concerned to communicate security measures and indicate where provisional shelters were located using megaphones. At the “commune” and “section communale” levels, the civil protection committees and emergency operations centres are less formalised and are made up essentially of volunteers. Those who were mobilized during the passage of hurricane Matthew were therefore mostly inhabitants of the affected regions, and were both victims of the hurricane and among the first to provide assistance to their families and neighbours. This situation shows the permeability between public actors, civil society and the population at the local level, and, above all, illustrates that the localisation of the response to Matthew was also boosted by local actors themselves, first among which were the population and community leaders. It shows how fine the line is at the local level between localisation, participatory approaches and community engagement.

Localisation as a way of preparing for future hurricanes

The importance of preparedness in Haiti in June 2017 was all the more obvious because the country was about to enter a new hurricane season. All the organisations present in Haiti were therefore preoccupied by this preparation and conscious of the need to contribute to it in their operations in response to Matthew. For a certain number of organisations, such as those that had been involved in the 2010 earthquake response, localisation is primarily about recognizing the legitimacy and responsibility of the state as a key actor of the response, despite its limited capacity. Without denying the importance of pre-crisis preparation which aims to give national and local actors control of subsequent responses, localisation goes further because it consists of increasing the role of national and local actors concretely during a response and putting them back at the centre of the response. As such, the localisation of the response to Matthew (though insufficient according to many interviewees) has helped to build the capacity of Haitian actors (including civil society organisations who have been very involved in the response) through practical experience, and has helped to prepare them to cope with future crises. Thus, in this specific context where there are frequent hurricanes, aid localisation cannot be put off on the pretext that local and national actors do not have the necessary capacity or are insufficiently prepared. On the contrary, it is seen as a way of increasing preparation for future crises.