Haitian vision must lead rebuilding

NGO head says the Haitian people must decide their own development course.

    The January 12 earthquake was the strongest to hit Haiti in 200 years [GALLO/GETTY]

    Neal Keny-Guyer is the CEO of the aid and development organisation, Mercy Corps. He has just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos and before that he was in Haiti where he witnessed the aftermath of the earthquake that struck on January 12.

    Al Jazeera: Haiti and Davos; worlds apart?

    Neal Keny-Guyer: It's the definition of cognitive dissonance, to go straight from Haiti to Davos

    Were you happy about the way that the international community dealt with the Haitian earthquake at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos?

    I was very happy with the way the WEF really made Haiti a primary topic and theme during the gathering.

    They had put a lot of preparation into Davos and of course there was no Haiti at the time. Haiti occurred 10 to 12 days before the opening of the WEF and they recognised that this was one of those global catastrophic events in which the whole global community has to come together.

    And I think they also recognised that in the long term, Haiti can't recover and one cannot deal with the underlying issues of poverty and the lack of development that have always plagued Haiti without private investment.

    But I think that what they were hoping to do was galvanise the political community, the business community and civil society to look at rebuilding the civil society of Haiti. Or as Bill Clinton, the former US president, said one time "build back better".

    How important is it that rebuilding efforts focus on tackling the underlying issues existent in Haiti even before the earthquake?

    Seventy per cent of people were living on $2-a-day or less, just under 60 per cent were illiterate; as we all know it was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

    And it had underlying issues of underdevelopment that have always plagued it.

    For example, the brother-in-law of our country director, who is Haitian, is an architect; he had built 70 homes in Port-au-Prince, and not one of those homes had even a crack in it after this earthquake. So clearly one has to deal with codes and building standards and the civil society that holds government and others accountable to proper standards.

    At Davos, there was some debate about how Haiti's long-term development ought to look. Representatives from Brazil proposed some very different ideas to those of Bill Clinton. Which of the different views do you support?

    special report
    Special Report: Haiti earthquake
    I support what the Haitian people want. First and foremost we must support standing up the government which was hit by this earthquake. So many of the ministry buildings fell down and civil servants died, that the government is struggling to respond. Because they suffered just like the people, everyone suffered in this.

    Then you must stand up civil society so there can be a voice of the people and it is not for the international community to decide, it is not for me to decide what that should look like.

    I think that what you heard at Davos from Bill Clinton and from the Brazilians and others were expressions of concern. And I think that all of them would recognise that the Haitian government and the Haitian people should get to decide their own development course and ultimately what Haiti is going to look like.

    As in any country there are going to be differing visions of what that would look like. But ultimately we are all better off if it is a Haitian vision than if it is somebody else's vision.

    Even though Haitian conditions previously were almost unacceptable?

    It wasn't unacceptable, the current government that is in place right now had made substantial progress and I think that everyone is recognising that Haiti has come through a rough time. It has had a rough political history, a complicated political history.

    But there were some hopes that this government was finally beginning to make some of the steps that could begin to deal with the underlying problems of poverty, of low education and of lack of infrastructure that have plagued Haiti

    You wrote a few days ago in The Seattle Times that the Haitian disaster was different from other disasters. You said it didn't compare easily with the Indian Ocean Tsunami. You wrote: "I talked to Mercy Corps team of experts and many other seasoned disaster responders, and all agreed that this is one of the toughest challenges they've ever faced." Do you hold much hope that the country can recover?

    I do, but I hadn't been to a disaster before in which from day one the government was so incapacitated, the UN were so incapacitated because they lost top leadership and so many people.

    The major aid agencies that were there had all buried their own staff and they all had to consider their needs at the same time as well.

    So that was different from what we saw when I was in Aceh, and what we saw in Pakistan and what we saw in so many crises of the last decade.

    On the other hand I saw the same thing that I have seen in every crisis, and I have been involved in a lot over the past 30 years, which was the first responders are always the people themselves.

    There were street vendors out and communities had organised to get food from their own markets right away, it wasn't enough but the Haitian people themselves were doing what they could to meet their own needs.

    It is that resilience that always gives me hope. I heard a number of Haitians talk about it; they said that "if there was ever any silver lining in a catastrophe in which 150,000 plus people die, it was that this is an opportunity perhaps to get the resources that can put our country on the right path".

    With that global attention though, there have been debates over who should be in charge. For example, the US military took control of the airport, and was widely criticised for doing so, how did you feel about that?

    Thousands of Haitians have fled the capital Port-au-Prince [GALLO/GETTY]
    I thought it was absolutely essential. So little of the aid had been organised until the US military in this case was able to come in, take charge, and get some order to all of the aid that was trying to get in there and not only that but provide some security to the ports and the road so that you could start having reliable supply lines and that's absolutely critical for the aid effort to get going.

    That meant that the UN, which was grieving for the losses that they suffered there, you had the UNHCR to provide resources, there was a cluster system which is the one that we in the humanitarian community use that sets some shelter, water, dealing with children's issues, health and so forth, and to allow the level of coordination to begin to occur.

    It was getting better every day, and there is still a way to go, to be sure, but it was certainly a lot better by day seven than it was on day three, and it was better on day 10 than it was on day seven.

    There was some criticism though that it was not sufficiently well coordinated.

    It never is. It can always be improved. But I think what contributed more in Haiti was the fact that the government had suffered so much loss. It destroyed buildings, it destroyed lives, their own people were homeless in this case. The UN and the larger aid agencies were the same as well.

    One has to appreciate that, and just with the enormity of the disaster, it takes time.

    Port-au-Prince was down, the airport was down, and the only highways coming in were through the Dominican Republic. You have to get those supply routes back up before you can get organised and respond to the needs of the people.

    Do you think that in future catastrophes the coordination between aid agencies could be better? It really did seem that for days news reports suggested whole areas of the capital remained untouched by aid.

    Look, I don't have any way to assess how true those reports were, all you know is that in every disaster the international community can do better. So I hope that we'll be looking at the lessons learned in this one and that will enable us to do a better job when the next crisis comes.

    One example of this would have been to have worked with the cellular phone companies to distribute remittances, because the cell phone companies got up and working quickly, way before the banks did.

    One of the challenges was that the people who were displaced had no money at all, even as these local markets recovered.

    Haiti depends on a billion dollars of remittances, mostly from the US and Canada, each year. Had they been able to get money over the cellular network, or even vouchers over the cellular network that could have been applied in the local market, that would have made an immediate difference. That was something that we all did in Pakistan, and if we had a little more forethought in Haiti, that would have helped enormously.

    Another thing that would have helped would have been a little bit more disaster risk reduction. Training communities how to deal with a disaster despite the enormity of this crisis, would have enabled communities to better organise, better respond themselves and to work more closely with the humanitarian community as it was coming in.

    So there are things that we can better do to improve these situations and I think it is so critical that we capture those lessons learned and apply them. But I do feel strongly about this, I think that there will be enough time later on for reflections and lessons learned and criticism, but that time is probably not now.

    Do you think donations from the international community will be adequate?

    That's a hard one to answer. I think it has been adequate to meet the short term emergency relief and humanitarian needs if it is spent wisely and properly.

    It is certainly not adequate to enable Haiti to recover and address all the underlying issues of poverty and poor infrastructure and educational opportunities and so forth that were there beforehand. That is where we will need another round of investment, but I think in the short run, the amount that has come in is adequate to meet the humanitarian needs of the people.

    After the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Mercy Corps were part of a team that helped to set up microfinance organisations, not just in Aceh, but for Indonesia as a whole, would a similar scheme work in Haiti?

    Up to 3 million people are reported to need help [GALLO/GETTY]
    There is a great microfinance organisation working in Haiti, a Haitian organisation that already exists called Fonkoze, and we are already working with them, as are others to try to expand their own reach.

    The other thing you need to look at is that it is important not to have everybody come in and start their own microfinance organisations. There are banks there as well; one of the things that we did in Indonesia was put a guarantee fund in some banks that would encourage them to give to micro-entrepreneurs as well.

    So we are leveraging existing bank capital and not just creating our own green filled institution. I think it is better to leverage what already exists and to leverage the capacity that is there, than for everyone to rush in and try to do their own thing.

    Could social entrepreneurs work in situations like this in businesses for profit?

    I think so. In fact one of the most exciting areas in the relief world is this concept of social enterprise and this idea that people who build enterprises can make profit that is sustained, and that sustains the enterprise so that they don't have to keep going back again and again to donors and to donations.

    I think that is really important and you are seeing enterprises doing things like bringing new kinds of irrigation pumps all across Africa, and enterprises that are delivering vehicles that deliver vaccines because states and other entities couldn't keep those vehicles going.

    You are seeing an awful lot of innovation come out through social enterprise and I think that there is always room to do well and do good at the same time.

    Now for most social entrepreneurs, they are not in it for the profit. Most of those profits are there to sustain the development activities that are going on. I think it would be inappropriate if someone were to come in and take advantage of the situation and earn unfair profits, but we could probably debate what that is anyway.

    After the Indonesian earthquake, it was remarked that the NGOs did a very good job actually saving lives, but in the rush to do that, emotional and social ties were neglected. Do you think that the same problems could be avoided in Haiti?

    I hope we will avoid those problems and I hope we will be out there.

    During the Tsunami, I know in our own case, we made a special outreach to work with the religious institutions. Islam is such an important part of Indonesian culture and we felt that if you are going to do psycho-social programmes you've got to do it with the mosques and the religious schools.

    Because the people were rushing to those institutions for their own comfort it was terribly important to preserve those ties, because that's what gives us all our strength. We all go back to our core beliefs in times of crisis.

    I don't know Haiti as well as some, but I do know that they are an incredibly resilient people; they are incredibly entrepreneurial, with very strong family ties.

    And if you are going to do good work, whether its relief or recovery or long term development you have to draw upon the natural strengths of any community, of any people and it is those ties and those deep seated beliefs and values that are critical.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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