Haiti earthquake 10 years on – a new chapter in disaster response

On 12 January 2020, it is 10 years since the Haiti earthquake. The devastating tragedy raised challenges between traditional, more rural humanitarian responses and the difference for when it is in an urban area. It brought humanitarian actors into closer collaboration with urban development specialists and started a new chapter in disaster response.

Lucy Earle's picture
Insight by 
Lucy Earle
Lucy Earle, principal researcher, IIED's Human Settlements research group
12 January 2020
People walk past ruined buildings

Earthquake debris in the city centre (Maggie Stephenson)

It is 10 years since a massive earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. It is a time to remember the hundreds of thousands who died and the suffering and grief of those who survived. It is also a time to reflect on the extent that the international community has applied the lessons learned from the disaster itself and from the relief and recovery efforts that followed.

The crisis in Haiti was distinctly urban in nature. This in itself was a challenge for humanitarian agencies that had honed their skills in response to largely rural crises – floods, famines and refugee movements in remote areas.

In Port-au-Prince, the majority of affected people were the chronically poor, who had been living in informal settlements, often in poorly constructed housing, clinging precariously to the city’s many ravines. Even before the earthquake, access to water, basic services and housing were often below the minimum standards that inform international humanitarian agencies’ relief efforts.

Unused to working in such a densely populated urban area, humanitarians struggled to make sense of the existence of slums, and huge levels of need. Early on, a division became visible between emergency responders who saw a crisis in a city, and urban development actors who saw a city in crisis.

A return to vulnerability

Local authorities were often excluded from the discussions around where and what type of assistance was needed – particularly at the start of the crisis when meetings were held in English and behind barbed wire at the airport, where the United Nations had set up camp.

Millions of dollars were spent on transitional shelters for very poor households that cannot afford to upgrade them. Micro projects searching for ideal housing solutions created islands of excellence. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people rebuilt their homes quickly, either in the same vulnerable sites or in new sites, massively increasing the city’s sprawl.

Without technical assistance, unsafe building practices were repeated. Far from ‘building back better’ as the mantra went, vulnerability was built back in.

The outpouring of aid was staggering. The plethora of agencies – large and small – at times led to uncoordinated response. But the scale of the disaster, the huge numbers of those affected and the multitude of actors also created a situation in which many different approaches to neighbourhood reconstruction were trialled, based on a wide range of community planning initiatives.

At its best this work helped to bring together the humanitarian and development worlds – meeting devastated communities’ needs for safe housing and basic services, while also literally putting whole neighbourhoods on the map where previously there was no documentation of their existence.

But many of these projects were carried out in isolation, with little thought of how they connected physically, socially or economically to other neighbourhoods, or to the wider city.

New archive rescues 'lost' data

A wealth of data from maps, drawings and plans, to videos, drone footage and even songs that are critical for planners and planning education exists, but was only saved to personal laptops or uploaded to temporary websites and at risk of being lost.

IIED has worked with partners to pull this material together, which is now publicly accessible via its Haiti Community Planning Archive. It will inform a new generation of planners specialising in post-disaster recovery, and the work of humanitarian actors who are increasingly finding themselves responding to complex urban disasters.

A map showing the neighbourhoods around Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Haiti earthquake opened the eyes of many humanitarian actors to the limitations of their traditional modes of response and brought them into closer collaboration with urban development specialists.

These new connections coalesced in 2016 under the Global Alliance for Urban Crises. Its members are key actors in efforts to promote area-based approaches in urban crisis response. This takes a geographical approach for coordinating assistance, which makes sense in a town or city,  rather than the UN-led sector-based approach in which coordination is between actors working on the same issue (such as water, food, shelter), but does not reflect the interconnectedness of urban systems.

Municipal authorities need to have greater involvement given their experience, knowledge and connection to local people.

Old habits die hard, and change has been slow. Nevertheless, the tragedy of the 2010 earthquake has had a profound impact on the humanitarian sector.

There are still lessons to be drawn from the relief and recovery efforts, and they will remain relevant for years to come.

  • IIED is holding an event, '10 years on: What Haiti taught us about urban crises and community planning', on Thursday, 23 January when a panel of experts will discuss their experiences working in Haiti before and after the disaster. Registrations are still available.

    The panel includes two of the authors of a new working paper, 'Learning from community planning following the 2010 Haiti earthquake', that will be launched at the event. The paper provides a case study of community planning projects carried out in 28 neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince.