Tag Archives: media

Haiti update – emergency response criticized as transitional measures get underway

Refugees International recently issued a new report, Haiti: From the Ground Up, which examines the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Haiti and makes a number of recommendations for improving the international response. Coverage in today’s NY Times emphasized the fact that this report, like an earlier Human Rights Watch report on shelter issues, took the UN to task for lapses in coordination and prioritization.

The analysis in both reports has highlighted housing, land and property (HLP) issues related to shelter needs and durable solutions for the displaced. The Human Rights Watch report focused more narrowly on the need to ensure that sites for camps are lawfully acquired as well as suitable and safe for human habitation. However, the Refugees International report places displacement and HLP issues in a broader context, referencing the implications, described earlier in this blog, of the reverse urbanization that resulted from the quake:

Some 700,000 people in Port-au-Prince are without homes or proper shelter and another 600,000 people have left the capital. This has important implications for the overall development of the country. While the main focus of the humanitarian response has been on the Port-au-Prince area, the protection of displaced and affected families in the provinces requires both immediate assistance and longer term investments. The UN should increase its efforts and support existing activities to identify the needs of displaced people throughout the country.

Tents are in short supply in the settlements for displaced people both in the capital and in the provinces. Most people who have lost their homes sleep under makeshift dwellings of sheets and sticks providing little protection from the rain. The sanitation in the camps does not meet minimal international standards. The need for shelter poses immense logistical challenges and is intrinsically linked to land ownership and property rights, affecting both urban Haitians whose homes were destroyed as well as rural Haitians who depend on land for farming.

However, displaced people are not only in camps. Large numbers have sought refuge with relatives and friends who are quickly running out of resources. Refugees International has learned that families in Papaye, in Haiti’s central valley, now have on average 20-26 people in their homes. In Saint Marc, some 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the mayor has been organizing community support for the internally displaced. More than 25,000 have been registered, living in some 7,000 households. Refugees International also visited a school that remained closed because it housed displaced families. Such situations create a strain on already limited resources and infrastructure.


If support is not channeled quickly into the provinces, the displaced will return to Port-au-Prince. This would only compound the challenges of distribution and coordination across the city, where at least 75 percent of the buildings have been destroyed and the ability to provide humanitarian assistance while protecting IDPs is overstretched. If support is invested in provincial communities, it will create a draw for those living in the Port-au-Prince camps to the provinces, lessening the strain in population-dense Port-au-Prince, while allowing for decentralized coordination and support of the displaced and host communities. ….

“Decentralization” has been the hot topic for the majority of Haitians. The infrastructure outside of Port-au-Prince is weak, and the capacity to absorb and support internally displaced people (IDPs) from the quake-impacted regions is thin. Within a disaster of this magnitude, however, exists the opportunity to support a decentralization movement and country-wide infrastructure investment that will not only provide urgent protection and support for IDPs, but will also address the imbalance in national development that contributed to great loss and vulnerability of Haitians in the Port-au-Prince area.

Meanwhile, the latest OCHA report contained mixed news. While concerns are mounting over the impending rainy season and the continued need to provide agricultural support to respond to the displacement-driven rural crisis, the report also noted that increased food distributions were giving way to food-for-work programs and that the Prime Minister had “approved five plots of land to set up transitional settlements, as well as eight plots to collect and treat debris in the metropolitan area.”

NYT on earthquakes and urbanization

First, on an administrative note, sorry about the recent gap in postings! Its lots of fun blogging but when the wife is on a business trip and the kids come down with a fever, its inevitably one of the first things to go out the window. Temporarily. I have a number of interesting posts in the works, including the long-promised analysis of the new Durable Solutions Framework for IDPs.

In the meantime, it had just occurred to me this morning to wonder when journalists might begin to devote their attention to the many cities (and megacities) beyond Port au Prince that are sitting perilously close to geological fault-lines. Ten minutes later, I opened up the New York Times to discover an article on earthquakes and urbanization that was both terrifying (experts estimate that a quake on Haiti’s scale would kill up to one million people in Tehran) and hopeful, particularly in its detailed description of comprehensive disaster risk reduction measures underway in Istanbul since 2006.

Haiti’s urban disaster becomes rural?

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.

CSM on land disputes in Africa

Thanks to Laura Cunial of NRC in Liberia for cluing me in to an interesting recent article in the Christian Science Monitor on land disputes in Africa. Its a long piece, and frustratingly journalistic in that it refers briefly to virtually every possible issue (post-conflict, development, gender, legal pluralism, the new land-grabbing trend, etc.) and scenario (latent conflict in Uganda, inflamed grievances in Kenya, post-conflict issues in Liberia, historical restitution in South Africa, etc.) without going into a great deal of depth on any. On the other hand, the article does do a nice job right up front of framing the point that land issues may be endemic and complicated but that the opportunity cost of not addressing them is simply profligate:

Africa’s most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn’t sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa’s other ills will be easier to treat.

The article also includes quotes from a pretty impressive array of big names in the land and conflict field. The research was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and I’d be interested to hear from any readers who are aware of whether this is just a blip or whether it might represent something in the way of a more sustained attempt to make these issues accessible.