With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of $725, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over half of its population of 10 million lives on less than $1 a day, and 78% live on less than $2. Haiti’s history is marked by natural and man-made crises. In 2008, rising food and fuel prices led to riots and the fall of the Government. The same year, tropical storms and hurricanes caused losses estimated at $900 million. While the economy contracted in 2010 by 5.6% due to the earthquake, in 2011 it grew by 5.1% due to construction, manufacturing, and services and is projected to be 4.8% in 2013.
The earthquake of 2010 killed 220,000 people, including one in three civil servants. It displaced 1.5 million people and destroyed nearly 120% of GDP. The earthquake hit the densely populated Port-au-Prince area, where 65% of the country’s economic activity occurs. The private sector suffered losses of approximately $5.7 billion, mostly in housing, commerce and private education. The earthquake compounded Haiti’s chronic poverty and further weakened its capacity to address its major development challenges, making rapid repair and reconstruction even more difficult.
Haiti ranks as one of the countries with the highest exposure to multiple natural hazards, according to the World Bank’s Natural Disaster Hotspot study. With 96% of its population living at risk, Haiti has the highest vulnerability to hurricanes among the region’s small island states (12.9 on a scale of 13). In addition to hydro-meteorological hazards, Haiti is located in a seismically active zone, intersected by several major tectonic faults.
Over the past ten years, Haiti has been impacted by several major disasters. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne affected over 315,000 people; in 2008, Hurricane Fay and Tropical Storms Gustav, Hannah and Ike affected more than 865,000 people; and in 2010, the January 12 earthquake affected more than three million people, resulting in the worst humanitarian disaster in recorded history in Latin America and the Caribbean, causing massive destruction to public and private infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, government buildings, houses, and roads.
Most of the time, you will read that Haiti is the “worst” or the “most” something, and I have to admit that after spending 20 years working in Latin America, South East Asia and Africa, Haiti is definitively one of the most complex countries I have ever seen.
Complexity is driven by Haitia’s scale of poverty, exposure to multiple natural hazards, its institutional fragility, the aid dependency, its history and social complexity with strong individualism as the main survival strategy. Its hybrid social fabrics consist of poor trust in each other and a poor vision of any future.
Despite this complexity, or perhaps due to it, who knows, the population has developed an amazing resiliency. Part of it is center is Haiti’s artistic heritage- the creativity is absolutely impressive in all art forms – writing, poetry, painting, sculpting, singing, playing instruments.
So even with so many “mosts” focused on the negative- the losses, the devastation, the destitution, Haiti could also be consider the most creative country in the word and in a way, the creativity is inversely proportional to the poverty!
This level of complexity is not easy to tackle and has required some holistic planning. For American Red Cross work in Haiti we had a unique opportunity to address this complexity and develop immediate, midterm, and longer term solutions.
From the emergency and post-emergency period our focus was on saving lives. We transitioned to a recovery strategy aimed first at meeting ongoing needs like clean water and shelter and then transitioning to rebuilding communities, be it the physical infrastructure or the social fabric of a neighborhood.
This is taking time as there is no quick fix, no snap of the fingers, no universal intervention that can address all the needs. We had to tailor each project to the Haitian context, the Haitian institutions, the existing governmental policies, and the needs and demands of people demands. This articulation, this anchorage in the community was critical to ensure long term impacts in the lives of the most vulnerable. The recovery strategy has to be shared and owned among the key players, the “community”, the local and national institutions, and the Haitian Red Cross.
It is not “us”, it is them and one of the key learnings about working with disaster affected communities is “nothing about us without us”. It means that that our work should be developed with national and local governments and with communities members in order to reduce vulnerability and meet the “most” immediate needs at all levels.