Haiti’s potential train wreck

Nick van PraagHaiti’s railway lines, which were laid in the 19th century, fell into disrepair long ago. But there is growing evidence of another kind of train wreck waiting to happen. This one has nothing to do with rolling stock; it’s about the fate of the tens of thousands of Haitian citizens desperate to get back on their feet after years of living in temporary camps in and around the capital of Port au Prince.

Ground Truth has just completed a third round of data collection from people whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake 4 years ago and are now being transitioned, to use the official term, from camps to neighborhoods.

Most of them have been aching to get away from the misery of the camps for years, so why worry? The concern stems from the sobering findings we surfaced on peoples’ perceptions of the sustainability of the huge camp relocation program now underway that rests on providing subsidies to rent approved properties back in their neighborhoods.

The data we have been collecting at regular intervals over the past 6 months tells a pretty consistent story: unless something is done to alter course, the camp transition programme, which is the main pillar of the humanitarian action plan for 2013, is headed for the buffers.

What our data shows is that people have grown increasingly pessimistic about their ability to pay their rent when the subsidies run out. Some 70% of people who have been out of the camps for 6 months now strongly disagree with the statement: “I will be able to pay my rent in a year’s time” – and the desperation among people relocated more recently is rising fast.

The rent question is one of 5 we ask every 3 months – the others relate to trust in the implementing agency, safety and protection, coverage of priority needs and the peoples’ own readiness to pitch in.

If the tragedy foreseen by the data does happen, people who recently left the squalor of the camps will likely find themselves living at the bottom of Port au Prince’s many ravines. If this happens the focus on having them move to seismic-proof housing, which is a criteria for the subsidy, will be seen as a well-intentioned but ultimately foolish requirement of the international community and the local government that wasted millions of dollars while doing little if anything to improve the lives of ordinary people. Landlords of course have made out like bandits.

I am glad to say that our data is provoking some rethinking of the approach to relocation as new programmes for those still in camps go from the design table into the funding hopper for next year. Without a regular heart-beat of data elicited direct from affected people, there would be nothing but anecdotal evidence about beneficiaries’ concerns; concerns that are all too easy to dismiss as made by people who want more. In fact our survey suggests they don’t want more, they want different — less for short-term over-priced housing, more on measures to enable them to provide for their families and to build a safe roof over their heads.

It is not too late. The surveys also surface smart ideas that could help turn things around – like paying 6 months for housing and the balance to start a business. What is needed is for the humanitarian community to use the feedback as the basis for some hard thinking – and some equally hard course correcting – about how they can ensure that the policies they pursue in good faith don’t end up pushing impoverished families down into the ravines.

Nick van Praag is the Director of Keystone’s Ground Truth programme and leads our work in the humanitarian space with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Foundation.

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