Politics of Poverty

Whose reconstruction is it anyway?

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The fixed end date for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission has come and gone, and the commitment to develop a Haitian led authority for reconstruction has not materialized.

Angela Bruce Raeburn is a former senior policy advisor for Haiti humanitarian response at Oxfam.

Sitting in a grassroots and civil society symposium in Haiti last month, I was keenly aware of the palpable energy and excitement in the swanky Karaibe Hotel grand ballroom. It was a gathering of Haitian people from the peasant movement groups in rural areas to academia—all eyes, all hearts, and one central question in the air: “when will Haiti be liberated to take the reins of its own reconstruction?”

The goal of this symposium was to hear Haitians themselves speak about what they needed from their government to rebuild the country. In many respects, it was a unique opportunity for Haitian civil society, which has been a fledgling voice in the reconstruction process, and this symposium was for many groups, the first opportunity to be heard. Many of the participants were clearly fed up with the slow process of reconstruction, the political paralysis, and the never-ending trail of broken promises. One of the moderators told the crowd that initially he did not plan to attend the symposium since Haiti has too many symposiums and nothing ever happens. He received loud applause from the Haitian audience.

The grassroots symposium came on the heels of the long-awaited approval of the Prime Minister. The ratification of Gary Connille, an aide to Former US President Bill Clinton, as Prime Minister ended the standoff between the newly-elected President Martelly and the very powerful Haitian Parliament. For five months, Haiti remained without government ministries or a prime minister, paralyzing the country and creating a vacuum in governance while essentially slowing international aid to a crawl.

What we see in Haiti is a vicious circle of blame for the country’s failures. The United States and other donors continue to write eloquent carefully worded documents that promote working with the Haitian government and Haitian civil society, insisting that these relationships are critical and that development in Haiti cannot occur without them. But, how can development occur with the government as a partner when international donors and NGO’s recognize that the state lacks capacity to fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens and usurp the role of the government in Haiti? The land and housing rights symposium put this paradox that has lasted for decades on full display.

In other countries recovering from disasters, civil society and grassroots groups have come together under a nationally-led authority to rebuild. For example, after the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 that resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths, the communities affected by the earthquake formed coalitions, pressured the government, and delivered a reconstruction document that detailed what the government should do for the affected communities. Included in this document was the call for the creation of Programa de Renovación Habitacional Popular (PRHP) at the end of 1985.

Mexico is by no means the most exemplary post-disaster example. Yet, it demonstrates how the reconstruction could be driven by affected populations. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) was created by the international community and donors as an intermediate organization to coordinate international aid. It was intended to be temporary. But the fixed end date, October 21, 2011 has come and gone. The commitment to develop a Haitian led authority for reconstruction has not materialized. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Connille is expected to extend the IHRC’s mandate with no framework in place for a Haitian-led agency to follow.

Many of the participants, keenly aware of their country´s history, expressed concerns that the IHRC could become a permanent fixture in the Haitian political landscape.

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