Hurricane Matthew has claimed over 1,000 lives, destroyed settlements, and is potentially causing a cholera outbreak in western Haiti. In light of Habitat III and its discussion on a new urban agenda, this commentary argues that reconstruction in Haiti needs a proper understanding of the underlying vulnerabilities and involvement of the local government.
Haiti has had many catastrophic natural disasters. According to the World Risk Report of 2016, Haiti ranks 6th in susceptibility to natural hazards, 3rd in lack of coping capacities, and 13th in lack of adaptive capacities. 59 percent of the Haitian population is urban, most of whom live along the coast and fault lines. On top of natural vulnerabilities, Haiti is a fragile state beset by economic, social, and political problems. With frequent hazards as a given and resources being limited, it is important to ensure that post-disaster reconstruction in Haiti contributes to building resilience against future disasters.
Neither disasters nor reconstruction are neutral regarding existing vulnerabilities. For instance, during natural disasters, women are 14 times more likely to die than men. Moreover, the number of women-headed households often increases after natural disasters. Post-earthquake Haiti had 42 percent of its households headed by women in 2011. Women in post-disaster Haiti also face gendered challenges such as sexual violence. Reconstruction efforts should try to address the root causes of vulnerability as much as possible, in particular inequality and a lack of access to resources and livelihoods.
Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of US$ 846, 59 percent of its population living under the national poverty line, and decelerating economic growth since 2014. Its level of inequality is the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Rapid and uncontrolled urbanization over the past decades are reflected in the poor quality of buildings and weak urban planning. More than half of Haiti’s urban population live in slums, which are susceptible to natural hazards because of a lack of building codes and provision of adequate basic services.
Inequality can limit marginalized groups’ access to reconstruction outputs such as housing and their participation in decision-making around reconstruction priorities. An engineering approach or one led by a small group of elites, insensitive to vulnerability, could decrease resilience. Using the example of flood-sensitive residential development, Habitat III’s Issue Paper on resilience argues that such projects could spark social tensions and contribute to a cycle of poverty and risk generation, if they do not take affordability and livelihood provision into account. An inclusive approach to reconstruction, which builds on an analysis of power and risk, can tailor interventions to the needs and capacities of vulnerable groups as well as prevent or mitigate risks the intervention itself may bring.
Addressing vulnerabilities calls for reconstruction coordinators to conduct risk and asset mapping jointly with stakeholders. The assessment should be followed by the involvement of the same groups in designing, implementing and monitoring interventions to ensure sustainability of the representation of their interests. This approach can mobilize community support and resources in times of low governmental capacity and can open up new communication channels and strengthened links between the government and the communities concerned.
The second and related recommendation is for reconstruction and resilience building to be led by the local Haitian government, the importance of which is recognized by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Humanitarian aid has traditionally played an important role in Haiti. Reconstruction has largely depended on donors, who, instead of channeling funds through the government, mainly work with international NGOs. Critics of this approach cite examples where millions have poured into reconstructing post-earthquake Port-au-Prince with little sustainable results to show. In fact, some schools and hospitals built post-earthquake are already closed due to a lack of funds.
Reasons for bypassing the government is the international community’s lack of trust in it and its lack of capacity to efficiently use the funds for reconstruction. While trust building takes time and is subject to various internal and external influences, capacity building involves immediate tangible activities that the international community can exert more control over.
Like most cities, Haiti’s cities address the interrelated issues of urbanization, disaster risk and climate change through separate departments and processes, which spreads institutional capacities thin and results in clashes and misuse of scarce resources. Local authorities are institutionally weak. Decision-makers are not supported by information or knowledge that can inform urban planning.
The international community needs to make long-term investment in addition to humanitarian funds. The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery mentions three areas to which capacity building efforts could be devoted, namely to create a new institution for managing reconstruction, to strengthen and coordinate existing institutions to lead reconstruction, or to adopt a hybrid approach that involves existing government structures, supported by a specific agency. Furthermore, capacity building should be complemented by a good exit strategy.
Haiti’s cities have survived numerous disasters and will continue to do so. Addressing underlying vulnerabilities through working with local government will bring Haiti closer to achieving the SDG on inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. The new urban agenda is committed to develop integrated policies and plans that involve inclusion and disaster resilience. There is a dual focus on timely and effectively responding to immediate needs and on “Building Back Better”. The recommendations in this commentary correspond to two key propositions in “Building Back Better”, on promoting fairness and equity in recovery and on empowering local government to manage recovery efforts through greater resources devoted by donors.
Read our other commentary on the UN HABITAT III New Urban Agenda: “The New Urban Agenda: tackling food insecurity in urban areas” by Rens de Man and Agnese Macaluso.