How Haiti Should Respond to Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew, which killed more than 1,300 people, destroyed 80% of the city of Jeremie and left over 35,000 people homeless, is the 14th hurricane since 2004 to impact Haiti, and is the 10th since 2004 to cause loss of life in Haiti’s south.

The US and UN disaster response systems, and a number of regional disaster response agencies such as the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDEMA) and the CARICOM Disaster Relief Unit (CDRU), are key resources for supplementing Haiti’s own national pre- and post disaster response agencies. These are the Department of Civic Protections (DPC) and the Permanent Secretariat for the Management of Risks and Disasters. The DPC has the lead responsibility among Haiti’s domestic disaster response facilities.

These institutional arrangements have been in place for over a decade and tested through multiple disasters, including the 2010 earthquake. The part of Haiti that was devastated by the hurricane has experienced 10 hurricanes in the past 12 years. Also, for the entire week before October 4 it was widely predicted to be highly possible, even likely, that Hurricane Matthew would make landfall on Haiti’s southern peninsula. In spite of this, Haiti’s preparations for Hurricane Matthew on October 4, and its ability to conduct a post-hurricane assessment, were far from adequate. Why?

A large humanitarian response bringing food, medicine, waterproof tarps, and potable water was mobilized by private individuals and humanitarian organizations including Haitian diaspora organizations, private aid groups and churches, as well as by the international donor community. Though these resources are keenly needed by the population, their distribution is largely outside regular distribution networks, data collection opportunities are lost, and the relevance and possible contribution of local organizations are largely disregarded. Few local Haitian organization are in a position to distribute large amounts of aid. This is because under Haiti’s highly centralized governance system Haiti’s local institutions are weak, local political authority is lacking, corruption is high, and the DPC’s local emergency response plans are limited to poorly provisioned shelters. Decentralization of state services and resources, called for in Haiti’s constitution of 1987, has been delayed by political interests and institutional gridlock. The post disaster response capabilities of local authorities are therefore limited.

But these problems have existed in Haiti since the 1960’s and, since then, donors and the international aid community claim that they are forced to bypass local organizations because of their low managerial and technical capability. This suggests, at the very least, a serious shortcoming of the aid community’s capacity building and managerial acumen, and at most a self perpetuating model in which the scale of disasters and urgency of response are a standing rationale for growth of the international disaster response business at the expense of local leadership and capacity.

The good news is that in spite of this, local leadership and institutional capacity have been appearing. This has been happening outside the extractive structures of the state and in spite of the international disaster response industry.

Hurricane Matthew now provides an opportunity to support a new group of highly engaged young community leaders so that they can be technically prepared, factually informed and organizationally positioned to give voice to local needs and issues in the work of rehabilitation and development. If given support and training, they are the ones who will rebuild the south and make it resilient.  It is these leaders who can ensure that economic rehabilitation is based on local needs and is equitable for the entire community rather than to the privileged few who benefit from Haiti’s widespread poverty. It is these young community development workers and emerging local leaders who are in a position to facilitate debate and develop new solutions.

The only sustainable response to the hurricane is to provide aid through local institutions and in conjunction with training and technical support to these young agents of community development. The Government of Haiti should insist on integrating disaster response and food security with local governance-building.

 

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