Remembering Haiti at the Six-month Mark

The International Community's Response to Overwhelming and Long-term Need

Q1: Have humanitarian conditions improved on the ground in Haiti since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck on January 12 of this year?

A1: The destruction wrought by the earthquake, which left 250,000 dead, 300,000 injured, and 1.5 million homeless, is an overwhelming humanitarian disaster. It is comparable only to the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed 230,000 people in 14 countries. A global outpouring of humanitarian assistance and pledges—both from governments and private sources—to pay for the reconstruction of Haiti underscores the globalization of humanitarian action, as nations as diverse as China, the United Arab Emirates, and Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, came to the aid of a desperately poor country. While international aid pledges have been extraordinarily generous ($5.3 billion in near-term aid), the on-the-ground impact has been somewhat muted as just 9 percent of pledges by governments (approximately $50 million) has actually been delivered. The estimated $1.6 billion in privately donated humanitarian assistance appears to have had more immediate impact, although even the most efficient nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have only disbursed between 20 and 40 percent of the funds they have received. In spite of this outpouring of generosity, the challenge of aid delivery remains a central issue.

Q2: Do the international community and the Haitian authorities have the necessary funds, the capacity, and the ability to coordinate effectively to “build better back” in Haiti?

A2: Clearly, the international community has expressed its strong political desire to overcome Haiti’s long-standing political and economic difficulties in order to rebuild Haiti. However, the very same obstacles that the international and NGO communities faced prior to the earthquake—lack of transparency, lack of a strong governmental partner, and lack of aid coordination—have not gone away. If anything, they have been exacerbated. This is why the international community—particularly the United Nations, European governments, the United States, Canada, and other major donors—are demanding a long-term strategy for Haiti’s recovery and development and are working on enhancing international coordination efforts. This is also why instruments such as the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), which began operation in mid-June, have become Haiti’s de facto governing body and is responsible for the management of the nation. The 26-member IHRC includes Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive; President René Préval; the UN special envoy for Haiti, former U.S. president Bill Clinton; and representatives from Norway, Spain, France, and the European Commission (donors that pledged more than $100 million to support the reconstruction effort). The World Bank, working closely with the IHRC, has established and administers a Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Haiti. There is also an effort underway to coordinate the activities of U.S. and European NGOs to address the chronic challenges of assistance coordination. It will take some time to see if these new mechanisms can meet the daunting task of rebuilding Haiti.

Q3: What should Haitians, as well as international donors, expect in the months ahead as the humanitarian and recovery efforts continue?

A3: Strong Haitian leadership and signs of progress that inspire hope are essential to Haiti’s long-term success. But strong leadership may not be forthcoming in the near term. National elections, postponed because of the earthquake, have been rescheduled for November 28, 2010. President Préval’s five-year term ends in February 2011, and he has vowed to step down at that time. Thus far, the president has yet to signal his support for any of the many candidates awaiting his blessing, making it difficult for any candidate to emerge as the front runner. However, failure to hold the November elections on time will likely result in protesters clashing with police and could imperil Haiti’s fragile democracy. Tragically, all of this political uncertainty has resulted in a slowdown of progress in the rebuilding effort. Major decisions such as distribution of land for the displaced and decentralization of services have been postponed until after the elections. Failure by the government to take basic decisions is and will continue to be a major obstacle to the rebuilding process.

In the absence of leadership, tangible signs of progress are now absolutely critical. These signs must include an urgently needed reduction of the tent city camps that still cover Port-au-Prince, even as the hurricane season begins; the removal of debris that remains an obstacle to rebuilding; and the creation of an urban sanitation system. All three are very tall orders and given the sheer scope of the disaster, it will take time to accomplish these changes. Priorities for the immediate future also include dealing with budget support for the Haitian civil service; ensuring that the newly trained Haitian National Police remain on the job to support security; preparing for disaster and recovery in the event that a major hurricane hits Haiti; developing mechanisms to transfer cash to individuals so they can have a source of credit to rebuild businesses in the informal sector; and providing support in case of an outbreak of epidemic disease. Ongoing job programs must be accompanied by greater access to schools, micro-credit, and temporary housing. It is also essential that the Haitian diaspora, with a majority residing in the United States and Canada, be brought into the rebuilding equation with specific programs that can help provide capacity to institutions that have lost so many workers and skills in this most recent tragedy. With this daunting list of challenges, it is understandable why Haitians have come to think that, after six months, progress may be perpetually illusive to them.

Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate with the Americas Program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Heather A. Conley

Johanna Mendelson Forman