The slow road to reconstruction: Two years after the earthquake

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The earthquake that hit Haiti on 12 January 2010 resulted in one of the largest and most complex humanitarian emergencies in history. In response, humanitarian agencies undertook one of the biggest and most challenging operations ever, mainly in a densely urbanized area.

Prior to the earthquake, Haiti suffered from a long-term structural crisis – a ‘crisis of poverty’, as a senior Haitian presidential advisor told Oxfam (see Box 1). Nearly 80 per cent of Haitians lived below the poverty line and the country had the worst income inequality in the western hemisphere. Most economically active people worked either as smallholder farmers or in the informal economy. Gender-based violence was rampant, and women had less access to education and economic opportunities than men. Since independence in 1804, the Haitian state has maintained the privileges of a small elite at the expense of the majority, leaving what Haitian political scientist Robert Fatton has called a ‘chasm between rulers and ruled, wealthy and poor’.

Two years after the earthquake, over 519,000 Haitians still live in tents and under tarpaulins in 758 camps, mainly in metropolitan Port-au-Prince; half of the rubble remains uncleared; cholera has claimed thousands of lives and poses a major public health threat; few Haitians can access basic services; much of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed; 45 per cent of the population face food insecurity; and elections, followed by a political stand-off between the new president and parliament, have impeded reconstruction progress.

Emergency relief efforts saved lives and provided basic services to more than a million people, but inadequate progress has since been made in meeting Haitians’ long-term needs. The international community has only slowly delivered the billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction in March 2010, and likewise has fallen short in meeting UN humanitarian appeals. Many NGOs are transitioning from humanitarian to development work, sometimes leaving a service provision gap. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) – composed of representatives of the government, civil society, and donors – sought to ensure a coherent reconstruction process, but did little to build government capacity, and during its original 18-month mandate did not help establish its successor, the Authority for the Development of Haiti (ADH).

This briefing note updates Oxfam’s 2011 paper, ‘From Relief to Recovery’, produced one year after the earthquake. It explores the changes needed to put Haiti on course to sustainable reconstruction and development, social justice, and a better future. It focuses specifically on governance issues and the role of Haitian civil society, the government and related bodies (such as the IHRC), donors, and NGOs (national and international) in reconstruction, particularly in ensuring adequate basic service provision (water, sanitation, housing) and sustainable livelihoods (employment opportunities and social protection).