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Disasters: no quick fix to recovery

earthquake-damaged school in Haiti

Schools destroyed in the 2010 earthquake still need to be reconstructed. IDV Media under a Creative Commons Licence

One can’t help feeling a little bewildered when news comes through of yet another global catastrophe, another ‘biggest’, ‘worst’, ‘deadliest’. Last month, as the Philippines struggled through the immediate aftermath of the worst storm since records began, one had to hope that the attention it received would bring with it the sense to think ahead.

My bewilderment lingers, however, because another ‘worst’, ‘deadliest’ catastrophe that took place nearly four years ago is still a disaster zone. Haiti’s monstrous earthquake wasn’t the strongest in recorded history, but it was by far the deadliest natural disaster in such a concentrated area. What went wrong? And can the Philippines do it better?

There have been some notable examples of good reconstruction since the earthquake. But these are the exception rather than the rule. Of the $9.3 billion promised to Haiti, most never made it there. The little that did has seldom been invested in permanent reconstruction projects..

More common uses of aid money include temporary structures and emergency shelters that have, in many cases, redefined the infrastructure of a poorly planned city for the worse. The over-arching focus of response has been on meeting basic human needs within the remit of donor budgets, project management capabilities and time frames. Permanent, sustainable reconstruction can rarely happen within these constraints. So, those going about reconstruction planning the right way frequently find themselves without the funds to continue. And Haiti remains, like so many other places, stuck in a cycle of vulnerability to disasters – economic, social and environmental.

Take one particular site in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as a fine case study for this phenomenon– despite the best efforts of its exceptionally resourceful and dedicated managers, the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. While tents and temporary toilets came in time for ‘back to school’ after the disaster, the only longer-term support offering was demolition works here and hangers (strong shelters with open walls) there.

Out of this vacuum of sustainable development planning support a new project, Thinking Development, was born.

When we started, it seemed obvious that ours was a project that should qualify for some of the billions destined for permanent reconstruction. It was, after all, an essential disaster recovery service: a school. It was one of the biggest school sites in Port-au-Prince; and it served some of the city’s most disadvantaged children. It had experienced, honest managers, and it had uncontested land tenure – a rare commodity in post-disaster Haiti.

Yet, even six months after the disaster, the only discussion that could be had with aid agencies was about ‘how many hangers you need?’ or ‘I’ve got this one-storey shelter or nothing’. As a Haitian service provider, you couldn’t help but be tempted by temporary solutions when your alternative is tents. But this cannot be the position that we’re putting disaster sufferers in. After a few months of trying to figure out how to get this school connected to the resources it needed and failing, we decided to do it ourselves.

It’s a project that has to happen.

You can find more information and help in our crowdfunding efforts at bit.ly/TDGirls



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