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After the quake

by Katrin Radtke
Early in January, Haiti was hit by the worst earthquake in 200 years, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was ­located about 25 km from the capital Port-au-Prince. The damage caused was devastating: according to the Haitian government, about 200,000 people were killed, 250,000 were injured and 1.5 million lost their homes. In some places, up to 90 % of the buildings were destroyed. [ By Katrin Radtke ]

Similar to the 2004 tsunami, the earthquake provoked a big wave of solidarity. Financial aid was promised from Equatorial Guinea and Botswana to the United States – approaching the billion mark in no time. The European Commission alone promised € 420 million. Also, non-governmental organisations registered record aid donations.

The help programmes were launched swiftly, yet it took some time until the Haitians were actually benefiting. Soon the media reported about social unrest and lootings and the first criticism was voiced about the “chaotic organisation of help.” Was this criticism justified? At the moment, it is too early to say. One thing is for sure: criticism was partly precipitous. Many of the participating groups have learned from the mistakes of the tsunami relief efforts.

The situation in Haiti is generally desolate – small wonder there are supply bottlenecks. The airport of Port-au-Prince can ­only handle a daily maximum of 120 aircraft landings. The harbour was severely damaged and access to the city is restricted to two major roads. In the capital, people are moving among ruins. Communication networks are useless; buildings and infrastructure of many pre-quake help organisations have collapsed. Many of the staff were injured, have lost family and are often severely traumatised.

Even before the earthquake, the Haitian government was hardly capable of acting. And now, it is even less capable of dealing with the catastrophe. Given these circumstances, the emergency aid organisation went surprisingly well.

Unlike the tsunami aid, coordination of measures was launched very quickly in Haiti. Already in the first days after the earthquake, tents were pitched at the airport of Port-au-Prince for the sector-specific cluster meetings organised by the UN. Harmonisation of German organisations was also much better this time. The German Federal Agency for Technical Relief frequently organises meetings in the German embassy, at the same time representing the German organisations during the different meetings.

Also in Germany itself, the committee coordinating the humanitarian aid gathered much more often than after the tsunami. Which region the German support was focussing on was quickly determined: the extremely damaged provincial town of Léogane, located roughly 50 km west of Port-au-Prince – right at the quake’s epicentre. Only time will tell whether this ­regional focussing is useful.

In Haiti, it is not about the reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure; it is about the reconstruction of the state. To help on a sustainable basis, strategies have to be developed swiftly in order to ­interlink emergency aid, reconstruction and long-term development. Reconstruction can only be implemented in cooperation with the local population.

The tsunami aid was mostly criticised because the affected people were hardly included. And partly, the existing structures were simply replaced. There are indications that these mistakes are being repeated in Haiti. Haitian president René Préval was complaining that his government was not integrated into the coordination of measures and that the aid was going directly to foreign organisations.

On a municipal level, aid organisations are having difficulties finding local partners. Administrative structures are substantially battered and the local civil society does not have the necessary capacities.
Yet, the participation of the local ­population is pivotal for the success and sustainability of the measures. Already at this time, the according strategies and ­local self-help capacities have to be developed. Given the weak statehood and the low level of civil-society organisation, this will be the main challenge in the months to come. If all works out well, the earthquake can also be an opportunity for Haiti.