a Opinions: The Long Way Home, By Rob Robinson

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The Long Way Home

By Rob Robinson

Haiti continues to devolve into isolated fragments of social networks, governance and community. The effects of the earthquake in January, 2010, and the seasonal battering of tropical storms have exposed the vulnerable condition of millions of people living in marginal conditions – physically, economically and politically. The tasks of rebuilding neighborhoods and regenerating local economies are challenged by the absence of local political and community leadership that can help organize and lead local reconstruction efforts.

This is not a result of natural disasters. This is an unfortunate consequence created by reliance on a system where the national government controlled resources and core functions such as tax collection, planning, development, infrastructure financing and construction. All towns and cities in Haiti were dependent on the national government to provide civil services. Once the central organization was lost in the catastrophic collapse of the government buildings in Port-au-Prince, this system became non-existent and the ability to organize and support local leadership in the reconstruction was not an option. To a large extent, the many different volunteer and development groups expanded their operations to assist victims, but without the context and support of national or local officials. It is a kind of chaotic, multi-dimensional reaction to short-term needs and resources without a whole lot of coordination or strategy about long-term sustainability.

Tent camp set up near the port remains as a primary settlement without services a year after the earthquake. All photos: Rob Robinson

Outside aid agencies and donor countries, as well as the remaining central government officials, have dedicated enormous energy and resources to provide emergency care and shelter to citizens. While the Action Plan for Haiti, developed for the international donor community in March of 2010, is remarkable for its clarity and specific goals for the future, the long-term reconstruction and recovery efforts are not as straight forward as the emergency efforts, nor do they attract the resources required to implement local redevelopment.

Short-term efforts focus on emergency medical care, feeding and temporary shelter and to some degree, restarting school programs. Additionally, big infrastructure repair items such as airports, roads and to some degree utilities, garner the lion’s share of the early reconstruction funding. Housing and local enterprise reinvestment, ongoing health and education, job training and social services are all pretty complicated and a little too sticky for many donor agencies in the reconstruction and restoration process. These critical elements do not often have clearly defined outcomes and projects are typically unable to garner large donor support. This is not just Haiti, this is a repeating pattern in many developing countries or large cities where there are large, informal settlements; lack of legal tenure; high unemployment and a large unskilled, under-employed population. Those who are the most vulnerable tend to be the hardest hit.

Over the years, informal settlements have covered the steep hillsides throughout Port-au-Prince. While many people made significant investments in many of the structures within these areas, no formal land tenure or public services support the developments. The destruction in these areas was significant. As public policy remains mute on these settlements, individuals have begun to rebuild in the same vulnerable locations.

Many families without housing after the earthquake may have lived in marginal, un-serviced areas of the city, often squatting on land without legal tenure or ownership. Once destroyed, it is nearly impossible to provide permanent housing for this population because they were “invisible” before the disaster, living hand-to-mouth in the massive informal settlements that have taken over all of the hills and ravines within Port-au-Prince.

As architects and planners, we tend to focus on specific interventions such as creating an ideal master plan, designing new cities and towns or incorporating the latest technologies to transform local building practices to make them disaster resistant. Every construction and building component company shows up to promote rapid prefabrication of houses. Economic development strategists want to get new foreign investments and businesses interested in the local opportunities. The importance of local traditions, small business opportunities and neighborhood services are often overlooked in these efforts.

While there may be a need for all of these elements, the core of the long - term recovery and redevelopment success is the ability to act relatively quickly and boldly to remobilize the local economy. It is critical to secure, prepare and deliver sustainable redevelopment sites, and engage the local population directly in the recovery and long-term reconstruction process. Without consensus and leadership, there can only be limited impact from all of the international efforts to help restore civic functions and move on with a coordinated and focused reconstruction effort.

The heart of the historic city was reduced to rubble. Traditional landmark buildings such as the cathedral and the palace may be reconstructed, but the vast majority of the commercial and residential buildings are gone. No consensus on how these private properties will be assisted if at all.

Our own efforts working with Mayor Jason in Port-au-Prince provided a stark and revealing experience of the complexities of how to move forward. The mayors of the affected cities and towns in Haiti had not been included on the national reconstruction committees. Aid agencies and national government officials saw little or no value from the local political leadership or civil service in the wake of the disaster. Mayor Jason could not reconstitute a local government without support and resources. While “decentralization” of the governments was an expressed goal in The Action Plan, the reality of how to empower local officials and leaders was not defined. Mayor Jason went on an international campaign to solicit help from mayors of cities all over the world, pleading for direct support to his staff and his city.

The mayor assembled a team of experienced construction managers, financial planners, engineers and planners, as well as administration and management advisors. His goal was to form a core team that could perform short-term duties required to reestablish municipal functions and responsibilities while training and recruiting Haitian staff and technical expertise for the long term. His approach was simple and straightforward:

  • Reach out to the neighborhoods with a network of local municipal offices that can begin to provide information, register needs, match up donor or governmental services such as food, shelter and health care with residents.
  • Organize local leadership in the neighborhoods and establish a reconstruction plan for each area.
  • Exercise public consolidation of property in neighborhoods where required and organize local work forces to begin clearing and reconstruction.
  • Establish building standards and require locally approved plans

While international aid officials and national government officials acknowledged the need for such an approach, there was no vehicle for supporting this kind of local effort – no clear conduit for funding or oversight. The mayors and local municipal staffs continue to have little or no impact on reconstruction policy.

So the process continues to center on big picture efforts of the Interim Reconstruction Committee and groups like the United Nations tasked with emergency relief. Priorities are established by national or international interests with little or no involvement of local communities. The national political scene continues to create uncertainty, mistrust and unrest while local neighborhoods and “temporary settlements” wait for some resolution, some sign of assurance and a clear message that directs them to a future with more certainty. Until that happens there are only plans and proposals waiting for a country to come to terms with how to rebuild itself from the ground up.

Indeed, this is a long way home. TB

Rob Robinson is the Managing Principal of Urban Design Associates. Rob has spent much of his career in international disaster response for rebuilding housing and training local trades in appropriate construction techniques. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Caribbean where he developed and implemented housing reconstruction programs for local communities in the aftermath of hurricanes.



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