The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Six months on, Haiti reconstruction has ground to a halt

Customs officials blocking supplies, international donors blocking funds, and land owners blocking redevelopment: a wrap-up of international reporting on the stalled reconstruction efforts in Haiti.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Port-au-Prince

Topics: Emergencies and reconstruction, Property, rights and evictions, Earthquakes, Development

Six months after the earthquake that flattened large parts of Port-au-Prince, the world's papers are full with the news that the international reconstruction effort in Haiti has ground to a halt. Tragically, we always expected as much.

Between 1 and 1.5 million people remain without permanent housing, and some estimate that 98% of the rubble created by the earthquake remains to clog up the streets of the capital and frustrate redevelopment work.

Reporting on Jacmel, a departmental capital on the country's southeast coast, The Globe and Mail writes that city leaders are preferring to "put off decisions that could have negative political consequence," ahead of elections later this year. Ironically, the US leadership, Clinton and Obama amongst them, were urging for the elections for the "stability and legitimacy of the Haitian government." Clearly they have become breeding ground for horse trading between city leaders and land owners resisting the expropriation of their properties for redevelopment.

The Guardian records that while $5.3 billion has been pledged by the international community, "only a tiny fraction" has been delivered to organisations within Haiti, as donors withhold funds until a coherent plan is formed by the Haitian government.

This strikes me as insincere. International donors have long been aware of the dysfunction of the Haitian state, and its incapacity to plan for the future. To withhold emergency funds until a decades-long governance problem is resolved suggests that those donors have very little commitment to the livelihood of the Haitian people, who must find ways to survive the next ten years no matter what state of fitness their government be in.

This must be true if Nigel Fisher, who heads the UN's humanitarian relief programme, can't even find $120 million to "remove the worst of the rubble" as the Wall Street Journal reports, widely acknowledged as the most immediate blockage to reconstruction. Nor if, as Haiti complains, "the international community is withholding money to build some 125,000 temporary housing units, enough for about half a million people, until the land issue is solved."

Edmundo Mulet, who leads the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, complained to the WSJ that, "I have the sense that the government and the international community have lost the sense of urgency that we had at the beginning." The international community has been quick to form an interim commission to oversee the planning, but painfully slow to implement any real work.

The WSJ piece runs a concise analysis of the land ownership problem, which was under-reported in the early months of the reconstruction effort. 68 per cent of urban land is without clear title, according to Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, preventing businesses from financing to rebuild themselves, and preventing authorities from identifying parcels for redevelopment.

The Associated Press notes that the larger redevelopment projects will come down to backroom deals between land owners, private companies, and foreign investors, as it documents in Corail-Cesselesse, a "blank canvas" to the north of Port-au-Prince.

Finally, the most extensive report comes from the New York Times, which offers some rays of hope. It describes the success of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which, working closely with the mayor of the suburban Carrefour municipality, is quickly moving families into "pine houses whose concrete foundations incorporate recycled debris."

The government is worried that successful transitional housing such as these will stall the drive towards full permanent housing in the future. This also seems insincere. The realist in me believes that full permanent housing is a dream, at least for the next ten years, and that successful transitional housing to get people out of tents is much more critical than allowing a million people to languish under plastic and tarp for another decade.

Even more insincere is how authorities slow down the project for their own financial gain. Anton de Vries who oversees operations for Adventist notes with biting sarcasm that 21 shipping containers, enough for 500 shelters, "have been 'held hostage' by the customs agency for more than three weeks now — at a storage fee of almost $16,000 so far."

The NYT also quotes Nigel Fisher, who reminds us that, hellish as it is now, it still could have gotten much worse. "What hasn't happened is worth noting … we haven't had a major outbreak of disease. We haven't had a major breakdown in security." That indeed is something to be thankful for.


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