Monday, July 12, 2010

Guest Voices: Haitians must take matters into their own hands

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, a story about needs to happen in Haiti now that it is six months after the earthquake. This post was written by Elke Leidel who Concern's Country Director for Haiti.

It was a hot afternoon on Jan. 12, the day that marked the beginning of the toughest, most agonizing stretch of my professional career.

Fast forward to today, the six-month point after the quake. The UN and an army of aid agencies have provided emergency shelter—in the form of tents and tarpaulins—to 354,573 households, which actually accounts for more than 1.7 million people. Survivors are scattered across 1,100 camps, their shelter being precarious at best now that the hurricane season has begun. The work for the longer haul is now underway.

Along with other NGOs, Concern is entering the medium to long-term phase of the earthquake response: to provide displaced families with durable housing for the coming couple of years, pending the construction of permanent residences. This will absorb a significant portion of the billions of dollars raised and pledged worldwide. The real hard work has now begun—there are plans to construct a total of 125,308 transitional shelters, at least 1200 of which will be built by Concern. And yes, there are lots of obstacles. The government is still in the process of reorganizing itself and not much will change until after the fall elections.

Yes, there is still much suffering. It is a good thing media around the world haven’t lost interest completely, even as significant coverage of the situation in Haiti has slowed to a trickle. This sad six-month marker will hopefully spark renewed interest. However, I want to call attention to some good news—good news that is unlikely to be reported but that deserves to be in the spotlight.

Some of our worst fears have never materialized. There has not been an outbreak of cholera or any other deadly disease. There have been no significant food riots. There is no shortage of water. In fact, the supply of water in the Haitian capital is better than it was before the quake. Supported by donor nations, the UN and the many INGOs have improved dramatically on some very sad pre-quake statistics: half the population of Port-au-Prince did not have access to latrines and only a third of the urban population had access to safe water.

But this situation cannot be sustained indefinitely. The current system of provision is simply too expensive to keep it going for very long. Donors will not continue, for example, to finance trucking in fresh water at all those distribution points or the many other services that are saving people’s lives today and making their existence livable, more so than before the quake, up to a level that is simply decent and respectful of human dignity.

This is the great challenge before us: we have created a functioning system and now all of us—the Haitian government, world governments, the UN, all the agencies, as well as private individuals—must find a way to make this system permanent.

The people are coming to expect that. Rarely in the country’s recent history (at least) has the relative quality of life been predictable. In the past, the national government has not been able to meet the needs of the country’s population on its own. I worry that, when the aid agencies leave (and many of them, inevitably, will leave at some stage in the not-too-distant future), the nation will face utter hardship again. We have an opportunity now to make lasting changes for the better.

The phrase has perhaps been over-used, but Haitians are enormously resilient. Time and again, they have bounced back after enormous man-made and natural disasters. Their sense of dignity is moving and inspiring. The present crisis is an opportunity to marshal the people’s resources in a most practical and lasting way. As agencies working on the frontlines, we have the golden opportunity to help build the capacity of the Haitian people and its government to look at themselves as their nation’s most powerful resource.

Of course, we have to work alongside them and empower the Haitian people with the tools and knowledge to help them. On a practical level that means, for example, working with local partners on the ground to improve access to basic services and opportunities. For example, training community health workers and educating mothers and communities about nutrition and how to prevent illnesses; strengthening health and education systems and removing barriers between existing services and those in need; improving access to income and food by expanding cash-for-work programs and outright emergency cash distributions so that people can start up small-scale businesses again and breathe life into the local economy; training communities in conflict negotiation and dialogue to build peace and defuse civil violence. We can offer our experience in finding local solutions as well as in community mobilization, capacity building, and sustainable development.

In the long term, the people themselves hold the answers. If the international community works in partnership with the Haitian government and makes a commitment and investment to rebuild over the long term, with a focus on building local capacity, Haiti will indeed come out of this stronger. Time will tell.

German-born, Elke Leidel is Country Director for international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide’s programs in Haiti. She previously headed Concern operations in Liberia. A former professor of biology and chemistry, Leidel has served on behalf of a number of aid agencies in Algeria, Iran and Sierra Leone.

No comments: