by Rhodri C. Williams
Haiti’s summer rains, long described as looming, threatening and impending are apparently now simply falling. And in the meantime, the reconstruction of affected areas – and particularly the efforts to move thousands out of exposed camps and into planned transitional shelter areas – appear to have stalled entirely. According to a recent AP story, a report prepared for the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee painted a grim picture:
Millions displaced from their homes, rubble and collapsed buildings still dominating the landscape. Three weeks into hurricane season, with tropical rains lashing the capital daily, construction is being held up by land disputes and customs delays while plans for moving people out of tent-and-tarp settlements remain in “early draft form[.]”
The report notes that while basic humanitarian assistance is being provided, the reconstruction effort has stalled, and attributes much of the blame to both the government of Haitian President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Along with former US President Bill Clinton, Mr. Bellerive co-chairs the newly constituted reconstruction commission proposed in the UN donor conference for Haiti in March.
In an interview with AP, Mr. Bellerive acknowledged criticism of the failure to provide transitional shelter to quake victims but claimed that “officials are working hard behind the scenes to ensure reconstruction does not simply mean the rebuilding of barely livable slums.” However, international officials appear to be growing impatient with the government’s inability to deliver land for shelter purposes; indeed, the government’s expressed scruples about not recreating slums seem a bit far-fetched given the conditions under which quake survivors are currently living.
A recent IFRC IDRL E-newsletter notes that finding homes for quake survivors is currently “the most urgent challenge facing humanitarian organizations and Haitian officials” and quotes UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes’ past statement that materials and capacity abound, leaving the political will to say “right this is where we’re going to build” as the sole bottleneck.
Although the IFRC recite the well-known objective disaster-related obstacles to reconstruction, such as missing and destroyed records, there are a number of intimations that the problem may indeed be political. Noting the high incidence of disputes and the lack of established market mechanisms for acquiring land, the IFRC goes on to what appears to be the heart of the matter:
While many governments have the power to impound land for public use, doing so has enormous financial implications for landowners and is therefore inevitably highly political.
In much franker, off the record discussions with a number of people who have worked in Haiti, I have been told that the issue is quite simple. A number of powerful families in Port au Prince happen to exercise a great deal of influence in government and hold most of the land that would have to be expropriated in order to provide appropriate transitional shelter sites. Although the use of land as transitional shelter is only meant to last “for about 1 to 10 years” (according to IFRC), these families suspect that such sites will turn into permanent neighborhoods. And with very few exceptions, history bears them out.
So there you have it. If centuries of inequality have not been enough to bring about an equitable redistribution of urban land in Haiti, will the country’s worst-ever natural disaster? And what role will the issue play in the elections scheduled for next November? Its an interesting inquiry seen from my safe and dry keyboard in Stockholm but one which is unlikely to be answered with nearly the speed required to do right by those most affected by its outcome.