The sudden destruction of Port au Prince has had such powerful symbolic value that it has arguably obscured the extent to which the informal urban neighborhoods that now lay in ruins sprang up in reaction to generations of rural misery and natural disasters. As the focus shifts from relief to reconstruction, the fact that nearly 600,000 urban dwellers have fled to the countryside – e.g., that long-term urbanization flows have essentially gone into reverse – has begun to register.
On one hand, some commentators such as Robert Maguire and Robert Muggah in a recent CSM opinion piece, have seen this trend as an opportunity to prevent the reconstitution of urban slums by promoting both sustainable rural livelihoods and decentralized governance:
Close to 1 million Haitians have already fled Port-au-Prince for towns and villages from which they originally migrated since the 1960s. But if conditions in the countryside are not improved, and quickly, these people will drift back to Port-au-Prince and rebuild as before. The Haitian government’s proposal to provide real opportunities in 200 towns and villages equipped with “welcome centers” merits support. These centers will issue short-term relief, and bundle health, education, job-creation, and investment services to help the rural economy take off.
This view is part of a larger debate related to the appropriate role of assertive, well-funded international actors in a near-collapsed state with little capacity or resources of its own. The authors propose decentralization as part of a set of recommendations meant to fall between the more interventionist ‘build back better’ views of development thinkers such as Paul Collier (who recently advocated the creation of a new Haitian aid coordination agency to monitor the work of donors) and schools of thought starkly critical of the utility of development funding in light of fundamental imbalances of power and trade.
However, the presence of one million disaster IDPs in the countryside does not only have long-term implications for Haiti’s governance and development path. FAO and CARE pointed out recently that the strain on host families is not only threatening immediate food supplies but also the next season’s harvest, raising serious food security concerns:
Rapid assessments undertaken by FAO and its partners in the Agriculture Cluster have shown that “host families” caring for displaced people are spending their meagre savings to feed new arrivals and consuming food stocks.
In many cases these poor people are resorting to eating the seeds they have stored for the next planting season and eating or selling their livestock, in particular goats.
Even as the crisis in Haiti recedes from the headlines, it also appears to have receded to some degree from the highly visible scenes of destruction in Port au Prince, creating a potentially dangerous double invisibility for both the displaced survivors themselves and the families who have taken them in.