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Time for change in Haiti: TED Senior fellow Peter Haas responds

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On the TED Fellows Blog today, TED Senior Fellow Peter Haas writes this powerful essay, considering the two-year anniversary of the deadly Haiti earthquake.

National Palace

The National Palace is still in ruins 2 years on. Photo Credit: Cat Laine –

Today is the two-year anniversary of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and I wanted to write a positive article about the good projects I have seen there. Unfortunately after reflecting, I felt that it  would be a disservice to all the people still living in camps; it would be a disservice to all those who have been evicted. Things are getting better and will improve in the coming year in Haiti, but we are a long way from having the rebuilt, revitalized Port-au-Prince that people hoped for. And it is respecting those hopes  that I must say the international community, while good at meeting immediate needs, has done a poor job in transforming lives and livelihoods, and I fear we may fail to deliver what the Haitian people are expecting of us. Unfortunately we are running out of time to change our ways.

Failures from Past Disasters: Gonaïves

I want to bring your attention back to 2008 and another devastating tragedy in Haiti: the hurricanes and flooding in Gonaïves, a city a few hours north from the capital. Gonaïves flooded with 10 feet of water; 800 people were killed and there was over a billion dollars in damage. US$100 million was given in response (watch the video from Al Jazeera). The international community responded in force. Tents and emergency supplies were sent in. However, I invite you to visit Gonaïves 4 years on and  tell me if that was money well spent. Many  projects are half completed or not even started such as the US$19 million hospital pledged by the Canadian Government ( Admittedly there aren’t huge tent cities in Gonaïves, but that is because many people were able to reclaim existing housing stock when flood waters receded.

I bring up Gonaïves only because it is a comparatively small problem compared to what is being faced in Port-au-Prince. It is an important frame of reference. Out of US$2.6 billion given for the Haiti earthquake, only an estimated US$360 million remains in unspent private aid funding. ( Three times what was ultimately spent in Gonaïves is not enough to address the problems remaining in Port-au-Prince. Yet for some reason the UN recently declared “two years later, we can say that the humanitarian response was a success.”( With 500,000 still under tarps and tents, with a Cholera outbreak started by the UN (, and  with a huge sex scandal, you have to ask, what would failure have looked like?

While some might point to the 500,000 figure as a significant reduction from 1.3 million displaced by the disaster, it should be noted that only 4.7% of those who got out of camps got into quality housing ( ). Many were simply evicted into worse conditions than the camps in informal settlements. Many others got themselves out as soon as possible with the help of remittances from family and friends living overseas. The rate of people leaving camps over the past year and a half  has slowed dramatically. The people who are left have fewer and fewer means. The biggest fear for me is that when the money runs out in Port-Au-Prince, we will have a situation similar to Gonaïves with closed NGO offices and unfinished projects and with people left to fend for themselves in informal settlements.

The Money

Where is the money? The one positive statement I can make is that in analyzing the situation I don’t see a lot of opportunities for graft in the traditional sense. Contrary to conspiracy theory the money, wasn’t stolen, it was spent.  Largely it was spent on things people might expect: food, water, gasoline, medical supplies, and salaries. But there were some expenditures people may not have planned on. For example of the US$376 million from the US government, 30% was spent on our own military (

Of the US$2.6 billion given in the past two years and the US$9.9 billion pledged at the Haiti Donors Conference held at the UN Headquarters in New York in March 2010, it can be hard to understand where the money went.


In total, the following 10 NGOs raised $1.4 billion out of the estimated $2.6 billion of private aid funding given for Haiti earthquake relief.

American Red Cross: $486 million raised → food, shelter, medical supplies → $330 million spent
Médecins Sans Frontières: $138 million raised → emergency medical support → $58 million  spent
Catholic Relief Services : $136.9 million raised →  shelter, cholera → $67.6 million spent
World Vision: $132 million raised → everything → $194 million spent
Save the Children: $128 million raised→ child services → $100 million spent
Oxfam: $120 million raised globally → water, sanitation, shelter → $89 million spent
Partners In Health: $102 million raised → health care → $72 million spent
Care: $58.8 million  raised → food, water, shelter hygiene → $41.4  million spent
Clinton Bush Haiti Fund: $54.1 million raised → job promotion → $37.6  million spent
Habitat For Humanity: $38 million raised → emergency shelter, housing → $38 million spent



In March 2010, US$ 9.9 billion was pledged at the Haiti Donors Conference for the Haiti Reconstruction Fund (HRF), of which US$ 5.3 billion was to be disbursed by Fall 2011.  Of that US$ 5.3 billion, US$800 million is debt relief. According to the Office of the UN Special Envoy, only US$ 2.38 billion have been dispersed of the remaining US$ 4.5 billion. From Haiti Libre:

“Of the US$4.50 billion pledged, US$2.38 billion (52.9%) has been disbursed through four channels:

$1.59 billion (67%) in grants in support of the Government of Haiti, and to multilateral agencies, NGOs and private contractors;
$319.9 million (13%) in budget support to the Government of Haiti;
$275.8 million (12%) in pooled grant funding to the United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank through the Haiti Reconstruction Fund; and
$197.6 million (8%) in loans to the Government of Haiti

The donors have disbursed an additional US$654.8 million for general development in Haiti, outside of the New York conference recovery pledges.”


The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), which was formed under the mandate of the Haitian government to disburse the funds in the HRF, has granted US$1.8 billion of those funds to several hundred organizations.

Unfortunately, the IHRC suspended operations in October because the Haitian government would not renew its mandate. It is a shame because the IHRC was one of the few entities getting money out the door on a large scale. So the onus is now on the Haitian government to manage the money in the Haiti Reconstruction Fund.

But even IHRC funding going out the door doesn’t mean work is happening on the ground. For instance everybody talks about housing in Haiti as the biggest need, but one of the big barriers to quality housing, aside from land title, is access to micro-mortgages and repair financing. Over a year ago, I spoke with Gabriel Verret, the head of the IHRC about micro-mortgages as an option to facilitate home ownership for those affected by the disaster. He said yes they had been looking into that. Indeed the Housing Finance Facility was approved with US$47 million to do this in February 2010 ( ). By March 2011, this money was appointed to Development Innovations Group (DIG). As of this week, the country director at DIG couldn’t provide information on when the funds would become available. For a US$50 million fund focused on Haiti’s core challenge, it is a shame there is not even a launch date in place yet. This is just one project in the book of IHRC funded activities.

Humanitarian Projects

So a lot of the money spent by NGOs went to getting people the basics: shelter, food, water, medical care and sanitation. For the all the problems with these responses, and I am going to piss off a lot of my activist friends by saying this, all things considered the international community did pretty well on triage.  They housed and fed over a million people. They took care of 300,000 wounded. They treated 250,000 cases of cholera. That is serious work and should not be discounted. The problem is when you give to groups like the Red Cross this is the extent of the services you will get, food, water shelter, medical care. The humanitarian organizations are really good at that. What we’re worse at on the humanitarian side is rebuilding lives and livelihoods. That requires government intervention.

A good example of the failed ties between humanitarian organizations and government comes from housing and the Building Back Better Communities Expo. The Expo was supposed to be a showcase of model homes that would be used in reconstruction. I first heard about it in May 2010; the first Request for Proposals went out in June. But due to untold delays the Expo itself didn’t happen until June 2011!  I knew several of the participant companies and they were hopeful to leverage government contracts after the Expo to launch real housing solutions in Haiti. Even now two years on from the quake those hopes have not moved forward.

Another unfortunate thing about the BBBC Expo is that it took place in the common area of a giant affordable housing apartment complex built during the Aristide era that stood up to the quake (unfortunate because it took the only green space from that community). My colleague Sasha Kramer, Executive Director of SOIL, ( kept asking the organizers, “Why is nobody building apartments like that…?” She never got an answer.

Not all projects were delayed. The Iron Market is a perfect example of this and is the crown jewel project of billionaire philanthropist Denis O’Brien, founder of Digicel. In all deference, Denis became the success he is because he has a “get ‘er done” attitude that is almost a force of nature. The man gets involved in all level of projects across the country and sees them through to completion from bridges across previously uncrossable rivers to schools in the remotest regions. But as one guy he can only do so much, as epitomized by the Iron Market. If you look at photos around the market it is surrounded by destroyed buildings. The entire area looks like a war zone, except for one gleaming project.

That captures a lot of the aid effort in Haiti right now, one project at a time. Maybe a nice school or an orphanage but no systemic change. I remember in the days early after the quake being berated by Denis because I was trying to get container forklifts sent to the Port of Cap-Haïtien, the second largest port in the country and then the only functioning port. At that point in time Cap-Haïtien was not accepting new containers of goods, aid, or food for the rest of the country because it was clogged with empty shipping containers. “We need to focus on Port-au-Prince people,” said Denis who offered that he might buy the forklifts for Cap-Haïtien himself if needed. This situation became symbolic to me of the problems of centralized Haiti, a country being denied food because its main port in Port-Au-Prince was shut down, couldn’t accept supplies in its secondary port because of something as small as broken forklifts. For me at that point, understanding Haiti’s problems involved stopping for a moment and getting the focus off of Port-Au-Prince.

Reconstruction and Decentralization

At one time Haiti had a number of vibrant port cities, Port-au-Prince was just one of them. If Haiti wants to get out of poverty it needs to reclaim its regional metropolis structure. Creating economic opportunities requires development in the regional city hubs: Cap-Haïtien, Gonaïves, Jacmel, Jeremie, Mirebalais, St. Marc, etc. A few months after the quake former Haitian Prime Minister Michelle Pierre-Louis sent me a copy of this interministerial plan ( This was one of a few plans developed for the first donors’ meeting in the Dominican Republic. The countering government plan that was presented at the March 2010 Donors Conference in New York also included  decentralization as a theme (, but the implementation has been muted. Following a true plan of decentralization could lead to wealth generation for all Haitians.

It is important for people outside Haiti to understand the importance of decentralization for the economic development of the country. Rugged terrain and a poor road network heighten the needs for stronger regional economic markets. People  have blasted the industrial park at Caracol, currently the largest project in Haiti at US$257 million, for being located on the North Coast and for being low wage textile jobs. In my mind, the primary mistake in this project is that they did not hire 50% of the workers straight from camps in Port-Au-Prince and build them worker housing at Caracol.

The country needs more projects like this, generating large amounts of employment, leveraging functioning urban centers outside of the metropolitan Port-Au-Prince area. The US$16 million teaching hospital being built by Partners in Health in Mirebalais is another example of projects outside the capital that hold bright promise for the future of the country. The ideal would be to tie these projects to housing initiatives that clear out the camps in Port-Au-Prince. In Port-Au-Prince everybody argues about land title. If you offered Jeremie a new road network, factory and airport, I can guarantee you’ll find land for a 40,000 person community out there. The same holds for other cities.

I am just trying to be clear here that the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince is going to be a decades long affair. The conditions there are not ideal for the population contained within the city limits. We are late on this. We should have started transitioning people day one out of camps by empowering business development throughout the country. I remember the Delegate for the North telling me he expected 100,000 people relocated to Cap-Haïtien. How many did Cap get? 15,000 coming on their own. That is not an effort toward decentralization. But we should know it is not too late to start. There is still hope for developing an economically robust decentralized Haiti.

Ending Stopgaps

And let’s be clear the clock is ticking. The aid money is drying up in Port-Au-Prince ( ). Of 35 major charities surveyed by the Chronicles of Philanthropy, 15 had less than US$200,000 or had spent all their Haiti aid money.  The time has past to be focused on the basics. If you are going to help, don’t waste your money on sheds built out of 2 by 4s. Focus on permanent solutions that improve people’s lives and livelihoods, don’t settle for stopgaps that should have been finished 6 months after the quake.

It is time to get those larger systems in place leveraging what is left of the money pledged at the Donors Conference. The massive jobs programs. The micro-mortgage programs. The SME investment. The industry relocation. The agricultural renewal. The road rebuilding. Port and airport Revitalization. Grid development. Ecotourism development. Improving ease of doing business. Overhauling the courts. If these projects don’t get moving soon, the money available to the government won’t keep pace with the continued triage work that has already drained the aid community. If these projects move forward they will also help engage the diaspora. The diaspora are the silent lion for the redevelopment of Haiti. There are  over 1 million Haitians and people of Haitian descent living abroad. These families send over US$2 billion annually in remittances back to the country. They want to invest but the economic climate in the country needs to improve.

The Anger

If I seem angry, it is because I am. No rational person in my situation wouldn’t be angry. Instead of trying to build a new Haiti, we fed people false promises of housing and T structures in government-sanctioned wastelands right outside of Port-au-Prince. Financing has been stuck for reconstruction and training. In the meantime people rebuilding on their own have been doing so improperly with limestone “quarry sand” just perpetuating the risk in the next earthquake. There was a point for a few weeks after the quake when the international community had a real chance to capitalize on the migration out of Port-au-Prince and could have avoided a lot of this suffering. But we blew it in our focus on the camps.

I am angry that we broke our promises, that all of us, for however hard we worked, truly failed the people of Haiti in the scale of the response. Even the voices to the voiceless project ( has an empty echo to it these days, not updated, not followed up upon. The sad story of people’s sad stories, another echo of empty promises made to people after the quake, never fulfilled and nearly forgotten. It is time to own up to those failures and move the dialogue forward beyond stopgaps and T shelters and towards the future of the country.

Peter Haas is the Executive Director of AIDG.

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