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Lessons from Haiti: How to build safer cities

Published 12/02/2020 by Global Communities

By Flavie Halais
This article was originally published on the Devex website.

The multifaceted dimension of risk in Haiti has made it difficult for humanitarian and development organizations to operate in a traditional framework that sees organizations in sectors such as health, water and sanitation, or disaster relief working in isolation from each other. Institutions including the World Bank have been promoting urban resilience as a cross-sector framework that could help mitigate risks, while building the capacity of cities to withstand crises.

Yet resilience-building usually relies on strong governance mechanisms, as well as human, technical, and financial resources to implement system-wide policies, all of which are currently lacking in the country. In this challenging context, do aid organizations have any room for maneuver?

“We’re still seeing institutions that, pre- and post-disaster, continue to compound the situation …  with no end in sight and no possibility for people to envision some kind of rebuilding with resiliency.”
— Louis Herns Marcelin, professor of social sciences at the University of Miami

Neighborhood-scale development
Cities around the world are developing integrated strategies that take into account how various urban systems intersect, and allow governments to make contingency plans for future crises. That’s not a realistic option in Haiti, according to Anne-Marie Petter, an architect and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montreal who is conducting research on community-directed reconstruction in Haiti. Over the past decades, international donors have funded dozens of planning exercises at the municipal, regional, and national levels, most of which were never implemented, she pointed out.

“It’s illusory to think that we’re going to have a strategy for Port-au-Prince as a whole,” Petter said. “What works is to have ad hoc projects at the scale of the neighborhood, where it’s possible to mobilize local populations, especially with NGOs that have been on the ground for a long time and have a knowledge of practices.”

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, international NGOs had to grapple with the urban reality of natural disasters. While their course of action in rural areas had focused on assisting individual households, in Port-au-Prince one priority was to rebuild public infrastructure, and restore access to services.

“The thought process started revolving around doing a longer term response,” recalled Ann Lee, CEO at CORE — formerly J/P Haitian Relief Organization. “How do you look at housing as not just a program to build houses, but more as improving the quality of life at the unit level of a household?

Making the case for integrated projects
J/P HRO was one of several organizations that set out to implement neighborhood reconstruction projects across the city throughout the 2010s. The thinking was that if it worked at a small scale, it could achieve high impact with limited funding, and in the absence of a city-wide reconstruction plan.

Although restricted in size, the projects have been credited for achieving some significant results, some of them highly symbolic. They brought attention to marginalized communities, demonstrated the real possibility to upgrade informal neighborhoods, and provided stakeholders with best practices and data that could be reused for decades to come.

They also positioned communities as legitimate actors in the city-building process. While informal urban growth is often characterized as “unplanned” or “anarchic,” residents have in fact had to make up for the absence of the state by building homes and makeshift infrastructure through local forms of community governance, such as neighborhood committees. Some of the most successful and durable urban projects in Port-au-Prince were highly participative, leading implementing organizations to shift to an enabling role.

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“We can bring technical support around how things should be done, but for projects to be successful, they have to be desired and accepted by the community,” said Karl-André Charles, deputy chief of party at Global Communities, which worked on several community planning projects in Port-au-Prince.

Those intangible results, however, aren’t typically valued by donors — nor by the press, which slammed the American Red Cross for failing to build individual homes.

“It is way more difficult to get people to understand the comprehensiveness of the impact,” Lee said. “A lot of donors are more fixated on very clear cut cases of, okay, you provided three million meals, right?” Lee said that CORE is impacted by these considerations to a lesser degree than other organizations, since most of the organization’s funding comes from private sources.

Funding requirements severely limited the ability of NGOs to have the most impact in the years after the earthquake, said Maggie Stephenson, an architect who worked as senior technical advisor for Haiti at UN-Habitat after the earthquake, and co-authored a review of the 28 community planning projects. A lot of pressure was put on development organizations to deliver results within timeframes that were unrealistic considering the task at hand, and ran counter to the long-term lens that’s required to build resilience, she said.

“The pressure about timeframes, and that everything is late, really leads to some unfortunate policy and program decisions, and uses up all the money in a rush into things that don’t best serve the longer term and the wider results,” she explained.

“We can bring technical support around how things should be done, but for projects to be successful, they have to be desired and accepted by the community.”
— Karl-André Charles, deputy chief of party, Global Communities

Urban planning as risk reduction
The lessons from community planning projects have nonetheless permeated into subsequent projects. Canaan is a new settlement of over 300,000 located 15 kilometers to the north of Port-au-Prince. It was first set up as a camp — a “promised land” — for residents who were displaced by the earthquake and then boomed into a makeshift city. As part of urban planning activities funded by the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity conducted risk assessments — including risks of natural disasters, as well as hazards associated with inadequate access to public infrastructure like sanitation — in collaboration with the community.

Many residents were not aware that their houses were vulnerable, or didn’t factor in risks when building their homes, said Jean Frenel Tham, country director at Habitat for Humanity. Habitat used its intervention in Canaan to create informed discussions with residents about the nature of risk, and the solutions that were available.

“Urban planning is a crucial tool that I think we should consider as the entry point for disaster preparedness,” Tham explained.

What future for aid in Haiti?
That approach, however, has yet to be embraced by the entire sector, especially in the immediate aftermath of disasters. The humanitarian response to Hurricane Matthew, which struck southwest Haiti in 2016, failed to engage local populations, thus hindering its ability to bounce back, said Louis Herns Marcelin, professor of social sciences at the University of Miami. Food aid was distributed through local powerbrokers in a way that disrupted local political systems and created conflicts, and aid programs ignored the needs of the population, whose priority was to salvage crops and restart food production, he added.

“We’re still seeing institutions that, pre- and post-disaster, continue to compound the situation of fragility of the country and the population, with no end in sight and no possibility for people to envision some kind of rebuilding with resiliency,” Marcelin said.

Marcelin and researcher Toni Cela, coordinator for the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development and researcher at the University of Miami, identified a range of local political actors and community systems that could have been engaged in the aid response, including community leaders, women’s cooperatives, and farmers’ associations. They also pointed at ways to build the ability of local populations to prepare for future disasters, such as supporting cooperatives that store grains for emergencies.

Those solutions, they say, would allow local populations to activate their own relief systems in the crucial first days after a catastrophe, before international assistance is even able to reach them. And it would help them bounce back better after disasters while decreasing their reliance on aid.

“Disasters will become monnaie courante, it will be a common situation in people’s life,” Marcelin said. “What we have to insist on is less about how we can send help to some place, than to first think about how we can help people generate the first response themselves.”