Haiti: home-building relies on political processes

from ACT Alliance
Published on 17 Jan 2011 View Original
Jan 17, 2011

By Malene Haakansson, DanChurchAid

When Vena Pierre saw the car of ACT member Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, she ran towards it. Programme coordinator Jacques Philippe Mondésir was hardly out before Pierre embraced him. Her face shone with happiness.

The reason for her joy was right behind her - a small two bedroom house which DKH rebuilt after the earthquake hit the southern town of Jacmel.

"I was thrilled when I found out that my house was going to be rebuilt," said the single mother of two sons. The walls of her previous house collapsed during the earthquake and she just managed to get out of the bedroom with one of her children. Fortunately Pierre's second child was already outside. Like all the victims of the devastating earthquake, Pierre moved into a camp that was set up in one of the town's football fields.

"Living in your own house is much better than the camp. If I had stayed in the camp with my children, I may have died," said Pierre. She believes her many prayers for help resulted her in house being rebuilt.

Maybe God helped Pierre but the reason DKH picked her out of hundreds of other camp residents was because she owned her own house and could prove it. "Haiti was in a sensitive political period with elections and still is. That is why the politicians can not take any decisions like that, so we decided to give priority to people in the camps who own land or a house which was destroyed or partly destroyed," Mondésir explained.

The decision was difficult but the only way for DKH to move forward. "We can not support all the people in the camp. We have to take one group at the time. Step by step."

A wearisome process

Even though DKH is helping the easiest group of people, the process of acquiring the right papers to actually build or rebuild a house is wearisome.

A complex chain of proof of land ownership, authorisation to demolish what remains of the house, and finally permission to rebuild exists. When the house is finished, the owner receives a certificate signed by DKH, the owner and the mayor's office.

DKH follows each case closely, helping the owner obtain the papers. DKH has so far built 300 houses in Jacmel - concrete houses just 25m2 at a cost of US $2600 each. Where space allows, a latrine is built outside. Otherwise neighbours share.

Difficult to choose who to help

The most difficult part of rebuilding is not the paper work but validating residents' claims of ownership. "Many give us false information. There are so many people in need of a house, and within this group we have to pick the ones who have the greatest need. It creates a lot of conflict," Mondésir said.

DKH has set criteria to assure the most vulnerable land owners receive a new house. Priority is given to households led by women, families with a large number of children under five, disabled families, big families and those in areas of high unemployment.

Neighbours naturally get upset when one family gets a new house and others don't. Stones have been thrown and fighting has taken place in disputes over selection.

A complaints mechanism has helped ease tension between camp residents and DKH is more open about selection criteria. People can complain directly to the DKH office in Jacmel or to any of the project staff. And they do - from the house being too small to people who have cheated on the selection criteria.

One man was selected to have a new house because his old house was totally destroyed. But another person disclosed that he had a wealthy family in the United States who could help him. And that he had a good job.

"Construction stopped immediately and I explained to him that he should give the possibility of getting a new house to someone that was in a worse situation than him. He was not happy," Mondésir said.

Uncertain future for the people left in the camps

As in Port-au-Prince, most football fields and open spaces in Jacmel are still occupied by camps. Until recently, Joseph Nesta was a camp resident who lost his home. However, he managed to find the papers for his house amongst the rubble and got a new house from DKH in October 2010.

"My family would have been very discouraged if we were still in the camp. I would probably have lost hope," Nesta said. His 69-year-old mother and youngest daughter stand in the doorway of the small house overlooking the cemetery on the other side of the slum. Nine people live in the house.

Today, Nesta gets by as a daily labourer but dreams of repairing his boat to return to his old job as a fisherman. "Working on the sea is my business. If I can repair my boat, I will have a better life," he says wishfully.

Many ACT members are struggling with local authorities to obtain a piece of land to built new houses for all the families that do not own land or which did own houses. What is the future for these families?

Mondésir leans back in his office chair and sighs. "We discuss this in every coordination meeting with the other NGOs," he said. He feels that NGOs are still in the emergency phase, and that the situation depends on the electoral crisis. The likely scenario to emerge from the crisis will be a continuation of the same government.

"And if that happens we do not have any solutions for the camps. All NGOs have to spend the money they have and will in the end choose an area where it is possible for them to implement their activities," Mondésir said.

"We expect the government to give us land for these people. We are ready to build 300 more houses for the people in the camps but the politicians have put us on stand-by. But after 1-2 years we will have to spend the money in the rural areas, where there is also a great need."

DKH is also building houses in rural Jacmel where it is easier to acquire land. After the earthquake, many people left the cities and stayed with their relatives in the countryside. But many have returned to the cities because there is no rural development. "People need more than just a house. They need schools for their children, hospitals and jobs," Mondésir said.

Several ACT members in Haiti are supporting livelihood programs to improve the lives of rural people and to stop migration to cities where many end up in overcrowded slums - or maybe camps if the camps become permanent.