Two new overviews of housing in Haiti underscore need for action

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House construction in Haiti in 2011, photo Roger Annis

By Roger Annis, Jan. 4, 2013

A report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Review and published on December 20, 2012 provides a comprehensive review of the plight of Haiti’s population of internally displaced people. It amounts to yet another serious call to action to address the country’s chronic housing and shelter crisis.

Among the wealth of information in the report is the following:

  • The 2010 earthquake displaced up to 2.3 million people. As of December 2012, 357,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) remain in camps or camp-like conditions.
  • Over the last three years, more than 61,000 people have been displaced again as a result of forced evictions and other threats.
  • Internally displaced people living outside of camps or camp-like settlements are a critically important subject. They include people staying with host families, who previously lived in the camps and are still living in makeshift conditions, and those whose situation continues to put them at high risk of further displacement. Unfortunately, “a lack of information makes the number of IDPs living outside (the camps) difficult to assess.” The report quotes the Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (a UN agency) as follows: “Many of those who have already left camps may not have found a lasting housing solution.”
  • The report says that storms and floods, further aggravated by drought conditions in parts of the country, have left around 20 per cent of Haiti's population, or 2.1 million people, suffering severe food insecurity. This, it says, is another likely driver of displacement. The current number compares to 800,000 food insecure people in 2011, in other words, a significant deterioration. Of the 2.1 million food insecure people in 2012, 500,000 are classified as extremely vulnerable.
  • On Oct. 23 and 24, Tropical Storm Sandy struck Haiti and displaced 31,370 people (elsewhere in the report, it says 58,000 people were displaced). The storm damaged or destroyed some 30,000 homes.

The report examines in considerable detail the difficult conditions in which the internally displaced continue to live and suffer.

It also looks briefly at the shelter provisions that came into Haiti following the earthquake. [According to the latest report of the Emergency Shelter and Camp Management Cluster, a total of 110,000 temporary shelters were built following the earthquake, approximately 25,000 house or shelter repairs have been made, and 5,900 new housing units have been built.]

Weak on solutions

Unfortunately, the report is strong on analysis and weak on solutions. At the end of the report, it reads:

Durable solutions in Haiti can only be fully achieved as part of an integrated and accountable government-led approach. This in turn requires long-term commitment from international donors and other partners to support the government's ability to fulfill its obligations as the primary protector of the rights and interests of all Haitian people. Central to this is ensuring IDPs' right to participation in the formulation of solutions that respond to their specific local contexts, with particular attention being paid to vulnerable groups and those with specific needs.

Yet it is precisely the failure to take a strong lead in the construction of new housing and repair of damaged housing that is lacking from the Haitian government and its international partners. The government's draft housing policy, issued last April and never published in a final form, explicitly rejects a determining, social role for the government. It says the Haitian government's primary role is to help create mechanisms for aspiring homeowners and people seeking to repair damaged homes whereby they can obtain loans from financial institutions. Accordingly, the government has not even established a ministry of housing.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Review does not mention this state of affairs in its report, and therefore has no comment to offer. Its recommendations for housing policy fall flat, amounting to little more than a hope that the claimed "promising start" (about one year after its announcement) of the neighbourhood rehabilitation component of the '16/6'-style camp clearance projects may grow and expand.

But the signs of neighbourhood rehabilitation are far from what is needed to seriously redress Haiti’s chronic housing and shelter crisis. The IDMR report references a handful of small examples.

Another comprehensive look at housing by the New York Times

A recent article by Deborah Sontag of the New York Times continues that newspaper’s and reporter’s detailed examination of housing conditions in Haiti. This latest article summarizes the situation in quoting former prime minister of Haiti Michèle Pierre-Louis who says, “If you ask what went right and what went wrong, the answer is, most everything went wrong. There needs to be some accountability for all that money.”

Of the $7.5 billion in aid money "disbursed" since the earthquake, Sontag writes, "... just a sliver of the total disbursement — $215 million — has been allocated to the most obvious and pressing need: safe, permanent housing. By comparison, an estimated minimum of $1.2 billion has been eaten up by short-term solutions — the tent camps, temporary shelters, and cash grants that pay a year’s rent."

Sontag explains that "disbursed" aid funds have not necessarily been spent. The word "disbursed" can refer to promises yet to be delivered, the transfer of promised funds from one account to another, etc. "That is the case for nearly half the money for housing," she explains.

She writes, “sluggish reconstruction has been the latest dispiriting chapter in the chronically dysfunctional relationship between Haiti and its benefactors.”

... an examination by The New York Times shows that such post-disaster idealism came to be undercut by the enormousness of the task, the weakness and volatility of the Haitian government, the continuation of aid business as usual and the limited effectiveness of the now-defunct recovery commission that had (former U.S. President) Clinton as co-chairman.

With no detailed financial plan ordering reconstruction priorities, donors invested most heavily in the sectors that they had favored before the earthquake — transportation, health, education, water and sanitation — and half their financing for those areas went to projects begun before 2010.

“One area where the reconstruction money didn’t go is into actual reconstruction,” said Jessica Faieta, senior country director of the United Nations Development Program in Haiti from 2010 through this fall.

In her article, Sontag cites approvingly Haiti businessman Reginald Boulos for apparently giving $400 to earthquake displaced families in 2010 in order that they move off a piece of land over which he was claiming ownership. The land in question is close to Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport. Boulos claims that 14,000 people were living on the land, meaning about 3,000 families would have been paid the $400, amounting to app. $1.2 million. It's not clear from Sontag's account whether Boulos paid for this from his own pocket or got the money from international aid funds.

Boulos claims that this program was a visionary precursor to the 16/6 program announced in early 2011. Reports and articles in 2012, including a newly-published report by an April 2012 Canada Haiti Action Network delegation to Haiti, have analyzed  the limitations of those programs.

Sontag writes the following about the rental subsidy programs (to which Canada pledged $20 million for clearing the Champ de Mars camp in central Port au Prince):

Mr. Martelly secured international assistance to close six highly visible tent camps and repair 16 neighborhoods and to shut down the Champ de Mars settlement. Some Haitians felt he was just trying to sweep the homelessness problem from view without resolving it — indeed the neighborhood repairs have lagged far behind the camp closings — but others expressed relief that he was taking action because a temporary solution was better than none at all.

In an article in the Times last August, Sontag wrote:

A World Bank document estimates that more than $400 million in "large-scale permanent solutions" - new houses, home repairs and infrastructure reconstruction - are planned, under way and in a few cases completed. To date, though, small-scale temporary solutions - transitional shelters, mostly in the countryside, and year-long rental subsidies in the city - have soaked up a lot of the shelter reconstruction budget.

Haiti’s housing challenges are enormous, but they are not insoluble. At the heart of their solution must be a commitment to a vast building program of public housing, coupled with meaningful assistance to prospective, individual homeowners. That’s how every country in the world has acquired its stock of housing and Haiti is no exception.

The report of the Canada Haiti Action Network delegation that visited camps and housing projects in Haiti in April, 2012, including looking closely at the Champ de Mars relocation project, has recently been published and can be read here.