In the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake, 1.5 million Haitians suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves homeless. United in a collective effort, those affected by the disaster spontaneously congregated in open-air spaces, forming gatherings that would later receive the more formal designation of internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps. Not waiting for external assistance, they used bed sheets, tarps and scraps of wood to construct their own temporary shelters.
During the impromptu creation of these camps, which began forming mere hours after the quake, leaders of these various gatherings emerged, installed through a process that was much more reflexive than it was deliberate. In most cases, the individuals were already seen as natural camp leaders, due to their previous influence in their former communities. Under this leadership, nearly every camp independently established its own management committee, notwithstanding a few cases in which NGOs were involved in the process. These committees played a critical role for camp residents, serving as the bridge used by local authorities, police, NGOs and civil society groups to provide access to shelter, food, medicine and legal support. In fact, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Haiti engaged with the management committees of 14 camps around Port-au-Prince to provide canned meat and locally purchased food supplies as well as essential non-food items such as tarps, tents, relief kits, water filters, water bottles, comforters and flashlights. Through this role as camp ambassadors, the camp committees grew in power and social status as they distributed humanitarian assistance, managed the registration of IDPs and resolved conflicts within the camps.
The distributions mediated by camp management committees were, for the most part, quite orderly. And to the degree that MCC was able to verify, the goods were distributed equitably, with priority given to the most vulnerable IDPs. This differed significantly from the large-scale distributions organized and implemented by other international responders. For example, various UN agencies and larger NGOs, eager to deliver aid as soon as possible, opted for mass distributions with security provided by UN peacekeepers or U.S. Marines. Aid recipients were made to stand in very long lines and wait for hours in the hot sun—an assault on their endurance, to say nothing of their dignity. Some of these distributions turned chaotic, with trucks getting looted and people getting stampeded.
Unsurprisingly, distributions carried out through camp management committees were clearly preferred by recipients, at least early on. But as time went on, it became evident that the committee-led model faced problems of its own. Lacking adequate systems of accountability, these camp committees had the opportunity to abuse their authority through coercion, corruption and sexual exploitation. Women were particularly vulnerable, with some camp committee members using their power in order to gain favors in exchange for access to humanitarian assistance. In other cases, where donors were supporting camp committees from abroad, funds were siphoned off for personal use. As the months wore on and aid began to wear thin, frustrations were directed more and more at the management committees. In some larger camps, grievances led to rival committees forming to challenge the authority of those in power. Even the best examples of camp management committees were never meant to last forever. By six months, most of them had spent their social capital and outlived their usefulness.
Reflecting back on the situation, it seems that many of these unfortunate outcomes could have been avoided had there been some form of accountability instituted for camp committees. However, given the spontaneous nature of their creation, the question is, how? Ideally, this role would be played by the government, at both the local or national level, yet even before January 2010, the Haitian government was in a weakened position. With the destruction of nearly every governmental building and the death of many public service workers, the state became completely paralyzed, unable to make major decisions regarding the coordination of the overall response. Even now, almost five years later, Haiti ranks eighth on the failed states index. This incapacity was seen as a green light by the international community to provide assistance with no governmental oversight.
In lieu of the government, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) was founded as an international partnership that would provide strong oversight to build the country back better than it was before. Co-chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and then-Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive, the IHRC was mandated to manage all money that entered into Haiti for relief and development projects and to coordinate the overall response. However, the Haitian members of the IHRC ultimately protested against the organization, saying they were simply being treated as a rubber stamp, while other critics suggested that placing an American ex-President on equal footing with the Haitian head of state was an attack on Haitian sovereignty. As Sannon Reynolds from MCC partner organization, Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA) stated, “They [Haitian government] didn’t have the capacity to act, but they shouldn’t have been left out of the decision-making process.”
To be fair, however, Reynolds admits that the government assumed no role in the initial stages of camp management. Thus, there was no choice of engaging with the government in the realm of material aid, because “the government was absent.” Then, as emergency assistance transitioned to recovery and resettlement, things got more complicated. The national government showed signs of taking leadership in the earthquake response, but not in ways that were appreciated by MCC or its Haitian partner organizations: it championed one-year $500 rental subsidies to incentivize IDP families to move out of the camps and focused on short-term cosmetic fixes meant to spur private investment and tourism, rather than addressing the dearth of safe and affordable housing in the capital.
Against this background, MCC opted to continue engaging with its partners at the community level. It worked through several Haitian organizations to repair earthquake-damaged homes, and took on a project with the Christian Center for Integrated Development (SKDE) to build a new village for 100 displaced families. Compared to the camp management committees, these organizations were a bit further removed from earthquake survivors, but still a more viable medium-term option.
In the absence of an effective government, the homeless earthquake survivors performed a miracle: they bravely rescued each other from the rubble, built a habitat where they could wait out the aftershocks and shared what they had. In a society long riven with class divisions, they lived in solidarity with each other. They developed leadership and effectively absorbed assistance. But impressive as this was, it was short lived. In a different setting, a more rural setting, a community of disaster survivors might be able to recover and thrive over the long term without assistance. But in ultra-densely populated Port-au-Prince, true recovery is impossible without the assistance of state planning. The challenge now, as it has been for a decades, is for the international community to support the local Haitian population by supporting its government. If its government can be as responsive as its people are resourceful, Haiti will be able to weather any storm.
Kristen and Wawa Chege served as Policy Analyst and Advocacy Coordinators for Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti. Kurt Hildebrand is Co-Representative for Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti.
Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.