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Disaster & Conflict

Haiti: Better Architects of their Own Recovery

By Dr. Tessie San Martin

Better Architects in Haiti.

In January of 2010, Haiti experienced a 7.0 magnitude earthquake near its capital, Port-au-Prince. The figures surrounding this disaster are well documented: 3,500,000 people were affected, 220,000 people are estimated to have died, and more than 300,000 were injured. An estimated 188,383 houses were badly damaged and another 105,000 destroyed, leaving more than 1.5 million people homeless.

Poor sanitary conditions post-disaster contributed to a serious cholera outbreak some months later. Education and health services were badly disrupted; some 80% of the schools in Port-au-Prince and 60% of schools in the South and West Departments were destroyed or damaged.

The country received a ton of media coverage the first several weeks. Aided by the media attention, more than $1.4 billion was raised for Haiti from US donors alone. Thousands of international organizations flocked to Haiti to help. Everyone wanted to lend a hand. But as is often the case, media and the world attention moved on to other disasters.

Haiti is moving on as well, endeavoring to transition from crisis mode. I was in Haiti last week and, though much remains to be done, it is important to recognize that much progress has been made. Almost 90% of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been relocated, often with new housing. Though localized peaks of cholera continue, especially during rainy season, Haiti reports less than 1% cholera fatalities. The majority of businesses are back to the situation prior to 2010, and new enterprises have been established since then. As the Government of Haiti says: Haiti is open for business.

That being said, challenges are many. While Haiti’s economic growth rate is picking up, over 80% of its population is living on less than $2 a day. Many buildings, including the presidential palace, have not been rebuilt. International aid continues to support much of the effort to rebuild the education and health systems. And Haiti continues facing a number of critical needs such as food insecurity. Thousands of children continue to suffer from acute malnutrition. 

Plan Haiti itself is endeavoring to transition from crisis and focus on strengthening its development programming. In most of our communities, we were the only entity able to respond to the crisis and devastation. Plan’s attention turned immediately to supporting reconstruction and providing basic necessities. Today, while support for basic needs is on-going, attention is turning to longer term development efforts – moving from rebuilding a community's physical infrastructure to strengthening its local capacity and institutions. The focus of much of our programming is on resilience, so that when another disaster hits Haiti (as every island in the Caribbean has to at least expect the occasional hurricane and periodic flooding) the communities will be the architects of their own reconstruction. 

Plan's strength and focus has been giving a voice to children and youth, particularly the marginalized, and we see this very much in evidence in Haiti. Especially powerful is the work with community youth groups. In Haiti much of the work on building local capacity and resilience has included strengthening these peer-to-peer platforms.

The groups have provided safe havens in which youth are able to share their hopes, frustrations, and fears; they are laboratories to explore, discuss, and design program initiatives to bring improvement and change to their communities. These platforms have helped build local capacity and are at the core of how Plan promotes sustainable development programming in many communities. 

I had an opportunity to see youth initiative at work in the form of a remarkable movie, produced by one of the youth media clubs that Plan Haiti has helped initiate and continues to support. The film, which was scripted and produced by the youth is titled “Mwen kapab” (Haitian Creole for “I can”). The youth actors tell the story of Rebecca, a girl who became handicapped as the result of a traffic accident (an all too common occurrence). Rebecca yearns for an education and fights for her right to go to school (special needs children often are left behind by the education system in Haiti -as in other countries - as schools are unable or unwilling to accommodate them).

The film is used to advocate with the government and educate parents and teachers. It is a powerful tool, both amplifying the local voice on issues that matter to the community and an empowering one, as local youth see the power their efforts can have on local decisions. 

Though Plan has started many of these youth media groups, the groups do not see themselves as Plan’s instruments. Plan is there to help if needed. But with a relatively light touch from Plan, these groups meet, organize events for the community, and foster vigorous discussion with the community and local authorities on child rights, inclusion, gender-based violence, and sexual reproductive health. They often used the arts to help provide an avenue for expression and communicate ideas, like the movie I described.

Much remains to be done in Haiti. But the growth of locally-owned initiatives, like these groups, is yet another sign that the long journey to recovery is on track.

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