Two Years After Quake, Investigation Shows Failure to Help Haitians Stranded in Camps

Jan 172012

Knight International Journalism Fellow Kathie Klarreich has been helping Haitian journalists expose the failures of local and international efforts to deliver aid to the country devastated by an earthquake two years ago. In this report, a journalist who worked with Klarreich captures the plight of many thousands with the story of 400 families forced to relocate to a new camp without necessary services including food, health care and education.

Read the story here.

The English translation is below:

The NGOs – For Better or For Worse?

More than 500,000 people are still living in tents, physically and psychologically vulnerable, two years after Haiti’s earthquake. If that weren’t bad enough, tens of thousands face evictions from private land. The international aid organizations say they are doing what they can to help but the remedies are at times causing more problems. That is the case for some 2000 squatters who were relocated from the property of Aristide Foundation’s University in Tabarre to Rony Colin in Bon Repos last summer.

Two years after Haiti’s devastating 7.0 earthquake that killed some 230,000 people, more than half a million people are still displaced and living in provisional tents. These flimsy shelters provide little if any security from leaks, floods and bodily harm. This, despite billions of dollars of aid, tens of thousands of aid workers, thousands of non-governmental agencies, church members, and well-intended individuals who have invested their money, time and energy over the last 24 months.

How is this possible? There’s no simple answer as the problems are vast, dense, and layered: the question of land titles, a government that has been relatively unresponsive, the attitudes of the non-governmental communities towards the Haitian government, and on and on. One example, however, the forced expulsion of some 2,000 people from a camp on private property, may illustrate the complexity. What happened to them accentuates the challenges and helps to explain how and why, despite all the outside help, they still feel sidelined and helpless.

The story starts in Tabarre, a town in the northern metropolitan area of Haiti’s capital. Before former President Jean Betrand Aristide built a home there during his first term in the 1990s, there was barely a maintained paved road. But because of the growing problem of centralization, by 2001 Tabarre was a new super suburb and the Aristide Foundation for Democracy had laid the groundwork for Haiti’s largest medical school, UniFA. Two years later construction was complete and by 2004 nearly 250 students were studying medicine.

The school shut down in February 2004 when Aristide fled because of social unrest and political upheaval. It wasn’t until 2009 that UniFA reopened with courses in languages and computer science. Dormitories housed both students and faculty.

When the earth trembled for 35 seconds on January 12, 2010, classes at the university, like life for millions of Haitians, changed forever. Besides the dead, more than 300,000 homes were destroyed, according to government figures. The UniFA was lucky to escape with just minor damage, whereas 87 percent of the country’s 32 largest higher education institutions were too damaged to be used.

Almost immediately, victims sought shelter wherever they could. Those with means left the affected areas, whereas others pitched wooden poles with bed sheets on any available space, which included the large grassy fields across from the UniFA’s dormitories, which themselves were immediately invaded by squatters. Eventually the displaced residents replaced their makeshift lean-tos with tarps and tents donated by the merry-go-round of non-governmental organizations (NGO) which swarmed to Haiti in the weeks following the quake. When some of the NGO’s free services dried up, those with alternatives slowly left the camp, but more than 3,000 people were still living on UniFA grounds in mid-July 2011.

Meanwhile Mr. Aristide, who unwillingly spent seven years in exile in South Africa, had returned to Haiti. Although he was determined to reopen UniFA, he still faced the politically-charged issue of reclaiming his property. That meant finding a housing solution for the 600+ families on his property. Relocation was at best a dicey public relations maneuver if not an outright logistical nightmare.

Private land recuperation was already a significant problem. In the fall of 2011, the Organization of Internal Migration (OIM) reported that one fifth of camp tenants were threatened with eviction – a major survey that also indicated very few had a place to go to.

A November 2011 report by the Coordination of Camp Management said that 99,098 people were still being threatened by expulsion, or 19% of the displaced people still living in camps. In April 2011, Oxfam had warned that more than 233,000 people in 247 camps faced the threat of forced eviction or had al¬ready been evicted by landowners. In the following months 67,162 individuals were affected by expulsions. From mid July 2010 to mid July 2011, there was a 400 percent increase, according to Haiti’s UN head of mission. Human rights activists had been issuing warnings against such interventions since November 2010.

“Forced expul¬sions of the inter¬nally dis¬placed vio¬late Hait¬ian and inter¬na¬tional law,” said lawyer Mario Joseph with Bureau des Avo¬cats Inter¬na¬tionaux (BIA). “This is just the begin¬ning of a prob¬lem we’ll be fac¬ing for years to come unless the Hait¬ian gov¬ern¬ment imme¬di¬ately puts a mora¬to¬rium on forced expul¬sions, ver¬i¬fies land own¬er¬ship titles and nation¬al¬izes by decree all empty and idle lands in the hands of pur¬ported landowners.”

Unlike other land owners who at times brutally turned people out onto the streets, the Foundation searched for a more humane alternative. It entered into a deal with the neighboring communal town of Bon Repos to rent a 31,000- square meter piece of property called Rony Colin. It then appealed to the OIM, which has been overseeing camp management since the beginning of the crisis, to look for a NGO within the Shelter Cluster to supply housing and other essential services.

The Shelter Cluster is one of nine thematic clusters introduced by the United Nations as a way to coordinate humanitarian response to disasters. The idea behind the cluster system is to bring together principal actors who can collectively come up with a unified and comprehensive solution to the needs of those who have been affected by disaster.

In Haiti, at least, the Cluster system has hardly been a panacea. A report by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) released in December 2011 said that while the Shelter Cluster reported shelter coverage over 100 percent, it did not take into account gaps in coverage at certain locations, resulting in an estimated 232,130 people being without housing of any sort five months after the earthquake. The evaluation also found that “a more participatory strategy would have been desirable to better address the affected population’s needs and plans and to seek collaboration with them, to allow a more self-driven response and to reduce the burden on the humanitarian actors.”

“Affected people were not consulted nor their capacities considered, the response was what those with the [foreign] money decided,” one interviewee told the evaluation team.

The evaluation also found that international agencies focused on transitional shelters (T-shelters) to the detriment of other more cost-effective and efficient solutions. Despite the early indication that the goals for T-shelter cov¬er¬age were unrealistic, agencies were too rigid in their plans and were either unable or unwilling to change tack. The NGOs preferred to focus on T-shelters as they were more visible than rental support or repairing homes.

The T-shelters themselves varied according to the agency providing them, though most respected the international norms of material that could withstand earthquakes and hurricanes for a minimum of three years. IOM had pledged to build 9,000 temporary shelters, according to Igor Chantefort, administrator of the temporary shelter program. Six thousand had been built by April 2011 and another 1,100 by September.

According to the IFRC report, the provision of T-shelters was based more on supply than demand. For instance, the estimated number to be built - 125,000 - was based not on a needs assessment but rather on what shelter agencies had pledged to provide. The evaluation noted that decisions were made by agencies “based on their previous know-how, su¬posed ease of implementation, outcome control, liability concerns and/or visibility,” but not the actual needs of those affected.

And this is exactly what happened when the French Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, ACTED, got involved in the transfer of beneficiaries from UniFA’s property to Rony Colin. As one of the largest French NGOs, and a major actor in the earthquake emergency response, ACTED volunteered to build temporary shelters and latrines in the new Rony Colin camp because the Foundation’s needs conformed to the demands of their donors and the budget matched their needs as outlined by OIM. Never mind that there were no shower facilities included in the design of the new camp. The priority was to move the displaced off UniFA’s land.

“This was decided at a cluster meeting,” said IOM’s communications director Leonard Doyle. “IOM put out the word of what was needed and ACTED responded. In this case the project is run by ACTED, it’s up to them to find showers. It’s their baby. We’re just facilitating the relocation.

ACTED, however, did not see it that way.

“It’s not a priority,” said ACTED’s Shelter Cluster representative Amalle Gualleze. “It was never our responsibility. We promised only housing and latrines.”

Since residents weren’t consulted about the relocation, they had no say about their new home or the fact that it was in another township miles from their current residence for which there was no public transportation. Nor was there an infrastructure (including electricity), nearby school, clinic or market. Photos on ACTED’s website show smiling, grateful T-shelter residents milling carefree on the grounds of Rony Colin. “I can say that I am very satisfied,” said ACTED’s young interim director Marianna Franco. As are the beneficiaries, she claims. In a written statement Franco wrote: “Our monitoring and evaluation reports, conducted on at least 15% of the population (to ensure fairness of the results) show, for instance, that 72% of the beneficiaries are satisfied with the shelter’s structure; that 66% consider their living conditions have improved; or that 98% of them consider having a better access to water on Rony Colin site compared to their previous location.”

But the evaluation was done by ACTED, which puts into question, for obvious reasons, the impartiality of those who responded to the questionnaire. Alain Khangan, OIM’s camp manager, defended the choice of Rony Colin: “I am very satisfied because we have improved the lives of these people.”

But a walk around the site exposes a different reality. The signs of wear and tear on the houses are evident after six months. The gap between the roof and the sides allows rain to come in. The heat within the 12-square meter structure makes it feel like a sauna. The plywood, beaten dry from the sun, has already warped, and rain has the hardboard’s edges peeling and crumbling. A simple coat of paint might have helped, not just with protection but also aesthetics, to break up the bleak, bare landscape but ACTED claims it had no money available for anything else.

To be fair, in addition to the homes and latrines, the new home dwellers received water filters and mosquito nets. But they say it doesn’t make up for their laundry list of complaints: no showers, a pervasive odor from the latrines which are just feet from their front doors, no way to lock their houses from the inside, and nowhere to cook.

Currently 404 of the 682 families that were on UniFA have relocated to Bon Repos. “I feel as though I lost my life when I moved,” said one of the displaced. “Where we are there is no transportation or a hospital. If someone gets cholera in the middle of the night, there is nothing we can do. We aren’t living like human beings, it’s like we are prisoners, relocated to a place with nothing.”

IOM’s Khangan says people would complain no matter what. “There is a school and a hospital in Bon Repos, which gives services that aren’t far for them,” he said. “We don’t need this camp to last too long because ….the people need to integrate themselves into the community that already exists.”

Jusselme Damien, ACTED’s monitoring and evaluation coordinator, admitted that perhaps things could have been done better. He referred to the camp as a ‘sad place.’ Although IOM did some ‘anti-flooding stuff,” to prepare the land, given that it was ‘built on a lake” made it less than a desirable site for relocation. “It was chosen because of its size, where it could build a lot of shelters at the same time,” he said. “You are creating a site out of nowhere, disrupting the community that was already there, and burdening local services such as clinics and schools.”

But without income generating activities, this will be hard to do. “An integrated program would have been better, but things like livelihood projects were considered not important,” Damien said. “All the donors wanted were hurricane proof shelters and access to water. All the rest of what is needed is the duty of the Mayor of Tabarre. We don't have the means. We are trying to find finance to let people paint their shelters. That would give them an income for one month and it would have an aesthetic impact. But we have no funds." ACTED, he said, had recently downsized from 300 staff to 150.

Budgets of the NGO community remain a mystery. Look at any of the glossy publications and promotion and you will find global sums of how donor dollars have been used, but it is impossible to know exactly how much was spent on what, when and where, and when asked, most local NGO representatives are at best vague in their response.

“Since the NGOs haven’t registered with the state, we get nothing when we ask for financial statements,” said Wilkens Noel, public relations director for the city of Tabarre. “We know nothing about how much they spend on individual activities or even what their global budget is.”

Although Franco refused to share the finances of the project, Shelter Cluster members told Haiti Reporters that each T-shelter cost $2000 and was built to international standards. The orig¬i¬nal total cost for building all T-shelters for the first year after the quake was $187 mil¬lion but was then revised to $530 million over a two-year period. That would mean the Haitian landscape would be marked by 265,000 plywood homes. Quite a boost for the international plywood market, if nothing else.

“Sure, they’ve come to help,” said Wilkens Noel, “but they have to show respect for our authority. They just can’t do what they want when they want. f their priority is to really help the vulnerable, how do you account for the fact that of the 72 camps in Tabarre, 100% needs new emergency shelters? If you are in the process of closing camps, how can you also be distributing new tents at the same time, like IOM is doing?”

At the beginning of the crisis, Cluster meetings were at least once a week. Eventually they were reduced to once every two weeks, and last fall the Shelter Cluster was eliminated, their work folded into other clusters which are also fazing out. If nothing else this has sent a signal to the international community that things are improving.

A lenient 2011 hurricane season offered some consolation to the half million in the tents, to be sure. But the absence of a coordinated response from the international community at large, the elimination of the Shelter Cluster as an entity, however flawed, and the marked decrease of aid means that they are still vulnerable come June, when hurricane season starts up again.

Ruvens Ely Boyer of Haiti Reporters and editor André Lachance collaborated on this piece as part of the International Center for Journalist’ work with Haitian journalists to produce investigative reports.