Are humanitarian agencies starting from scratch again in Haiti?

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, thousands of humanitarian agencies supported a huge recovery effort. Two months ago, another major quake struck. Are Haiti or humanitarian agencies any better equipped for the challenge of rebuilding? Guest bloggers Laura Smits and Maggie Stephenson look at the issues.

Laura Smits's pictureMaggie Stephenson's picture
Guest blog by
25 October 2021

Laura Smits is a former architecture for humanity and shelter technical advisor for UN Habitat in Haiti; Maggie Stephenson is a former recovery technical advisor for UN Habitat Haiti

Camp site with several informal tents made of fabric and plastic.

Temporary camp site that sheltered 30,000 Haitians after the earthquake in 2010 (Photo: IFRC/Eric Quintero via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, thousands of humanitarian agencies supported recovery. Most concluded that neither Haiti nor agencies themselves were equipped for the challenge.

There was a critical shortage of capacity; of skilled and experienced personnel, of data and appropriate methods or tools for reconstruction in the Haitian context, such as maps, standards and curriculums.

The Haitian government, donors, communities and agencies invested in a massive learning-by-doing effort that ranged from writing building codes to creating maps and training people.

In 2021, are Haiti, or the agencies supporting Haiti, any better equipped for the challenge of rebuilding after another major earthquake? What happened to all the learning, the data, the people and the tools?

First response

We participated in the post-2010 earthquake response and experienced first-hand how valuable skills, knowledge and tools were built up, using considerable energy and funds – and then lost.

Supported by IIED under the Urban Crises programme then funded by the Department for International Development (now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, we set out to retrieve, consolidate and publish data from just one sector – community planning for the rehabilitation of informal neighbourhoods.

Over 3,500 pages of planning documents, including 1,000 maps along with evaluations, videos, working drawings and specifications, are now accessible in a permanent digital archive representing the work of over 50 agencies and 500 individuals.

Most of the data had been only saved on the laptops of those who prepared them. Within five years more than 75% of previously published documents had already vanished from the public domain.

The archive represents US$25 million spent on community planning that guided over $400 million of rehabilitation in 28 neighbourhoods. The relatively tiny IIED research investment ensured the data was not irretrievably lost but potentially available to Haitian communities and authorities and to agencies working in similar crises in future.

If we recognise data, tools and expertise are a critical need, if we invest substantial resources in building capacity, why do we not value it, why do we lose it so easily and thoughtlessly? Why do we keep starting from scratch, and what are the implications?

From our experience and research, we suggest a few possible explanations.

Agencies focus on tasks, not capacity

In reconstruction, agencies and authorities are preoccupied with visible construction projects. Personnel are recruited or trained, data is collected and tools developed only as a means to execute project tasks.

Personnel are not retained when projects end. They may or may not find other opportunities to use the expertise or experience they have gained. Most will not. Personnel are appraised for their ability to implement tasks but rarely as individuals or a corps with potential future value.

For example, engineers carrying out damage assessments or training masons could play subsequent roles in building inspection or promoting safer construction. Without rosters or forward planning, experienced people are difficult to remobilise when required and have few ways to continue to build their skills or train others in the meantime.

Digital does not guarantee durability or accessibility. Files are deleted, websites expire, data is perishable.

Once projects are completed, the long-term availability or use of data or tools are rarely considered. Digital does not guarantee durability or accessibility. Files are deleted, websites expire, data is perishable.

Building local capacity is not an aim or measured outcome

Reconstruction targets and progress indicators are focused on replacing and rehabilitating buildings and services, or improving them by ‘building back better’. Building human resource capacity is generally not a project objective, measured outcome or structured activity with dedicated funding or effort.

Investing in people can be a long-term strategy with repeat returns. Agencies could have used the 2010 earthquake response to facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges with communities and professionals in provinces beyond Port-Au-Prince that share the same risks, so they could have learned what to expect in the event of future disasters.

If local capacity had been strengthened in Grande Anse, would the 2021 earthquake response have been more successful?

Wasteful duplication, professional egos and agency interests

All agencies and authorities need personnel and tools to plan and implement their work. When there are hundreds of agencies, they develop hundreds of new tools at the same time for the same tasks, often reinventing tools that already exist. Multiple agencies produce separate similar training curriculums, for example, instead of putting their heads together to develop shared curriculums.

Better coordination could avoid unnecessary duplication that wastes scarce funds and time. Better pooled funding mechanisms could enable sharing of experts between projects and teams instead of extravagant deployment within individual and often very small projects.

Rewarding or requiring ‘innovation’ and agency branding of new tools discourages reuse of existing tools or sharing and collaboration. Perhaps efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability are better measures to reward.

We are not smart about data. We don’t consider the cost and value

Agencies said uncertainty was a prevailing challenge after the 2010 earthquake, at all levels, from national politics to local contracting. Their solution was to collect data to inform or justify their plans.

We found that few agencies mentioned the cost of collecting and processing data, whereas they accounted for other project activity costs in detail. They considered data to be non-negotiable, so tended not to reflect on the cost, or the waste when data was subsequently lost.

Many transferred ways of working from their experience in data and economically rich countries. Data collection and processing consumed massive resources to produce assessments, project documents and databases.

Agencies tend to over-collect data without asking key questions: do we need all this data? What questions do they answer? Whose questions do they answer? What are the costs of data? Could the resources be better spent? Are the data only for project use, or are they of broader value? How will they be accessible, and to whom?

Agencies building and then dismantling capacity is not unique to Haiti. It happens routinely in projectised environments, with short-term staff and activities. Agencies collect and produce vast data which is not available to or used by the people it is about. Single use data, like single use plastic, is wasteful. We don’t think about how to maintain or reuse data or tools and skills.

Today, there are many Haitians with capacity in emergency shelter, building damage assessment, hazard resistant construction, training and community engagement. There are tried and tested designs, training curriculums and public information materials. There are people and there are tools. We need to make good use of both. Haiti can ill afford the waste of time and resources.

About the author

Laura Smits (laurasmits@gmail.com), is senior urban planner city of Amsterdam, former architecture for humanity and shelter technical advisor UN Habitat in Haiti

Maggie Stephenson (maggie@mestephenson.org), is former recovery technical advisor, UN Habitat Haiti

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