Lessons from Haiti

Haiti, January 26, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Neal Keny-Guyer and Nancy Lindborg accompany Mugur Dumitrache, water and sanitation expert (in black t-shirt) and Richard Jacquot, team leader. The group is visiting spontaneous tent camps to make sure the communities have access to water. Mercy Corps is also planning to start cash-for-work and other programs in these communities, as needed. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Yesterday I left Port-au-Prince after spending a few days with the Mercy Corps team. My next stop is a world away: The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The two places couldn’t be more different, but even in Davos, Haiti is front-and-center in people’s minds.

Haiti is filled with tremendous devastation and suffering, as well as amazing examples of human resilience. Against a backdrop of so much tragedy and a growing number of triumphs, a few things come into sharp relief. These are my lessons from Haiti:

This disaster is different. 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. The earthquake dealt a traumatic blow to Haiti’s government, the UN and many of our peer NGOs. It choked off supply routes, and despite valiant efforts, flows of aid have been slower and more complicated than any of us would have liked.

Locals must lead, the international community must support. I’m heartened by the outpouring of support from across the globe to help Haitians. But at the end of the day, it is the people of Haiti and their government who must rebuild this country in a way that’s sustainable, economically viable, and less likely to be crippled by a similar disaster in the future. It’s our job to support them along the way.

People are resilient. Everywhere we went in Haiti, we saw communities coming together and working toward their own recovery. In one neighborhood, locals had developed a detailed database of the population, their resources and their needs. In another, people quickly organized a committee to work with our water expert and had salvaged all possible bits of their damaged and destroyed homes. Despite their incredible losses, Haitians are not victims but empowered actors who only lack resources and opportunities.

As I left Haiti, shelter for as many as 800,000 new homeless was the most pressing need. There are few tents, and neighborhoods are usually a muddled mix of total destruction, dwellings desperately in need of repair, and some lucky homes standing intact. The challenge of finding housing for so many people – in a way that preserves their dignity – is enormous. But it’s only one in a long line of challenges that Haiti will face.