U.S. housing effort in Haiti criticized — again

By Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald, April 16, 2014

The U.S. Agency for International Development says it will continue to work with Haitians displaced by the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake to get them into permanent homes — just not by building the houses itself.

The announcement comes as yet another audit — this one by USAID’s inspector general — highlights the shortfalls of the agency’s ambitious housing program in northern Haiti.

In August 2011, USAID set out to build up to 4,000 new houses and prepare 11,000 sites with basic services for Haitians outside of Port-au-Prince. The new settlement would be located not far from the new U.S. government-financed Caracol Industrial Park, and cost about $55 million.

But by the time the audit’s fieldwork was completed in August 2013, only 816 new houses had been completed, the audit found. “The mission did not achieve its goals for constructing houses and developing home sites within budget and on schedule,” the audit said.

The report found that USAID not only overestimated the number of houses it would be able to construct in the time frame, but that costs were also far higher than estimated. Also, the agency did not provide adequate oversight of contractors doing the work, the report said.

Auditors are calling on the agency to be more diligent with their supervision of contractors to bring the project to completion. Among what the agency must do, the audit said, is “document and resolve all deficiencies identified,” and to address environmental-mitigation issues with contractors.

The findings are similar to those outlined last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In the wake of that report, USAID Haiti Mission Director John Groarke announced that the agency would be shifting from new home constructions to alternative, less complicated and more cost-effective ways to help Haitians obtain homes.

To date, these efforts include helping Haitians obtain mortgages to build their own homes and working with the government of Haiti to transform the informal mushrooming settlement called Canaan, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, into a formal settlement. Four years after the earthquake, the once empty, arid area, named after the Biblical region, has become a squatters’ paradise of makeshift shacks and concrete homes, with quake victims, land speculators and ordinary Haitians seeking a better life. The U.S. government, which had pressured the Haitian government to set aside land for a new settlement, is now, through USAID, trying to help the government bring urban-planning norms to the community.*

Meanwhile, efforts to help Haitians secure a mortgage remain challenging, the agency said recently, noting that banks are reluctant to lend to the poor.

In response to the latest audit, USAID mission officials say such reports are welcomed and help them address problems. The agency also noted that new housing construction is but one component of USAID’s efforts to provide shelter solutions to Haitians displaced by the earthquake.

“Efforts by USAID to help Haitians address their housing needs continue and are succeeding despite the many challenges of working in Haiti,” Groarke said. “Since 2010, more than 328,000 people — approximately one-fifth of the 1.5 million people estimated to have been displaced — have benefited from USAID housing support.”

* In July 2013, the International Organization for Migration in Haiti and the Haitian government reclassified with a stroke of a pen 54,000 people living as homeless earthquake survivors in the vast settlements on the northern outskirts of Port au Prince, including Canaan, Jersusalem and Onaville. See also a report on this matter by the Mennonite Central Committee, Oct. 2013.--CHAN website editors