Disaster recovery in Haiti: a case for prudence and patience

In my first return to Haiti since well before the pandemic, I am again confronted with a familiar tension: my need to move quickly in a country that always demands that I slow down, show patience, and surrender. As always, I arrive with a time-limited project—a ticking clock to launch an initiative, conduct assessments, pilot a program, and create change. 

I sweep in like a prototypical engineer, equipped with a detailed implementation plan and checklists to ensure that, after several twelve-hour days and, likely, some creative pivots along the way, I can accomplish my goal before the next flight out of Port-au-Prince. It’s a tension I feel in so many of my travels, yet it is always heightened in Haiti. Here, I am forced to reassess the value I find in efficiency and tangible outputs in exchange for building relationships, reflecting, listening, and finding value in all that is intangible. 

Only nature makes steady progress, as vegetation overgrows the rubble of shattered homes and mocks the dreams of families.

My internal struggles in this context are but a microcosm of the challenges confronting development practitioners all over the world—how do you make space and time to truly accompany another? To create lasting change together? To target structural change at the root of the problem rather than temporarily relieving the acute needs that are but its symptoms? And all of this needs to be accomplished before the next quarterly report to the sponsor with the budget they just cut for the second time. Sadly, the systems we have created and operate within have tragically little tolerance for the patience and surrender that Haiti demands. 

Moving slowly when time is against you

As a practitioner of disaster risk reduction (DRR) I am at the mercy of time, making patience exceptionally difficult. That tension was underscored as I returned to the Haitian beachfront communities I initially surveyed in a 2016 National Science Foundation project following Hurricane Matthew. Now, nearly five years later, I am advising our master of global affairs students witnessing firsthand the hurricane’s long-term impacts on shock resilience through the Keough School’s Integration Lab (i-Lab). 

In a desperate attempt to quantify the elusive notion of shock resilience, I plot points on overly simplified recovery curves. The y-axis neatly projects the figurative gap we must close to restore community functioning to its pre-disaster levels. Unfortunately, the data evident five years later here in Haiti’s Tiburon Peninsula projects a time horizon on the x-axis that is seemingly infinite, in sharp contrast with the risibly short recovery period demanded by short-term aid funding.

Constant crises

In Haiti, only nature is able to make steady progress in such short timelines, as vegetation overgrows the rubble of shattered homes and mocks the dreams of the families who have found true recovery elusive. Even worse, nature’s consistent “progress” routinely delivers another crisis before recovery from the last is completed. In Haiti, this progress is marked by the series of climatic shocks that have followed Hurricane Matthew and plunged 42 percent of the nation into acute hunger. 

These challenges are further compounded by political and economic shocks. The Tiburon Peninsula of Haiti powerfully illustrates how each shock has only widened the gap between the current state of the region and the dreams of economic stability, or even more immediately, food security. And if the distance to that seemingly unreachable goal of “recovery” is not sufficiently daunting, the weakened physical and institutional infrastructure in Haiti makes everything take that much longer: the inefficiencies, uncertainties, and setbacks that plague daily life render even the simplest of tasks so much more time-consuming. 

Perhaps the greatest setback is bearing down upon Haiti at this very moment: the violent assassination of the nation’s president in his sleep has shrouded the country in fear and uncertainty, halting commerce in normally bustling streets and making the prospect of recovery secondary now to mere survival of not just the most vulnerable Haitians, but the country itself. Meanwhile, the steady stream of humanitarian workers once again exiting the destabilizing country takes with it the prospect of social protection programs and services exactly at the time they are needed most.

Strengthening structures and systems

In short, work on DRR in Haiti—and in so many countries like it—is a fool’s errand if one fails to recognize, respect, and accommodate these time scales and commit to addressing the factors that create them. The willingness to do so is an invitation to adopt the lens of integral human development (IHD) to consider how a community’s structures and systems interact and even limit the assets available to households for recovery, whether those be the natural, physical and financial assets we so commonly associate with DRR, or the spiritual, social, and political assets that are equally critical to recovery.

And so I agree to move slowly, recognizing the time and care it will take to lay the foundation for a shock-resilient recovery, emphasizing the more painstaking but critical work of strengthening structures and systems, rather than temporarily meeting physical needs. Yet I do so knowing that such work requires patient accompaniment that unfortunately may not make sufficient progress before the overactive Atlantic Basin sends the next hurricane barreling toward Hispaniola.

The vicious cycle of disasters

While practitioners conceptually recognize how the rate of recovery varies across the globe, do we truly account for this reality in the way we design and evaluate programs and policies? Here in the US, for example, we seemingly tolerate disaster losses every few decades (and perhaps more often in a changing climate). That tolerance is exercised from the comfortable vantage of a country with the economic resources, social safety nets, and capacity for full recovery before the next disaster strikes (though there is strong evidence to suggest that is not even true for the most vulnerable Americans). 

The US tolerance for risk is so great that we have even neglected our aging infrastructure (a problem a country like Haiti would like to have), only deepening our vulnerability to future natural and manmade hazards. Our tolerance for risk on our own shores is misguided in itself, but then we export it by setting the standards underpinning international building codes, risk assessments, and hazard maps, all conceived according to the calculus that makes sense for our own privileged context. 

These societies will not have been rebuilt before the next storm sweeps across their shores.

The risks we deemed acceptable, given our rates of recovery, proved disastrous when applied elsewhere. Close to home, hurricanes led to losses that were sizeable percentages (in excess of 100 percent in some cases) of the GDP of neighboring island states: see the reports on the impact of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, Hurricanes Irma and Maria on multiple Caribbean small island nations, and Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. 

Given the slow rate of recovery across these islands and the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes in our changing climate, these societies will not have been rebuilt before the next storm sweeps across their shores, increasing their vulnerability and deepening chronic poverty. In recent decades, this vicious cycle unfolding across Caribbean small island states has resulted in average losses of 2-3 percent of GDP annually. 

Thus, knowing the projected rates of recovery and systemic vulnerabilities in such settings, it becomes crucial for DRR experts, implementing organizations, and funding agencies to define acceptable risk from the perspective of those affected, and the losses they can tolerate, rather than what we have defined as acceptable for them. Doing so will likely demand a steady transition to a more risk-averse approach to disaster risk reduction for climate-driven hazards in the Caribbean. 

Make no mistake—investing in strengthening systems and structures in support of an IHD-consistent approach to DRR is time-intensive. Doing so in a way that further empowers nations to adopt a risk-averse posture for climate-driven hazards will likely increase the time investment and, in order to prove economically viable and feasible in implementation, will require affording additional time and space for creative solutions. Some would argue that a changing climate will not afford us the luxury of this much time. That may be true, but continuing on our current path of treating symptoms and not holistically addressing root causes of vulnerability is equally unviable. Changing our course at least gives us a hopeful path forward; staying the course guarantees the steady decline under compounding sequences of climate-driven disasters.   

Success . . . on whose terms?

Making the commitment to accompany communities on the longer road toward shock resilience will further demand adjusting expectations surrounding the effectiveness of programs and policies over short time horizons. The type of change that is required demands a long-term strategy and long-term evaluation. In the case of Haiti, this is especially true given the need to reverse the savage legacy of colonialism: how much progress should our donors expect in the span of months to years? More importantly, how does one define or measure short-term progress on what is inherently a long-term journey?  

Like “acceptable risk,” “success” is, sadly, defined according to the terms set by the implementing organization or the humanitarian sector at large, both of which are ultimately influenced by the metrics set by funding agencies and donors.

Although evaluations repeatedly blame “overly ambitious goals” for the lack of progress, short-term funding itself is “overly ambitious” if sponsors intend to effect meaningful, lasting change in resource-ravaged vulnerable countries. Lacking the time to devise and implement the long-term solutions consistent with an IHD approach, DRR experts know that when the program closes and benefits are discontinued, temporary gains will be quickly erased. 

I often cite the example of transitory shelters distributed after disasters, which are designed to last five years; sponsors tacitly (and naively) assume that the recovery process will surely deliver permanent homes in that time frame. Yet, as best articulated by Oxfam, without investment in “sustainable delivery mechanisms that will stimulate the creation of sustainable communities and private investment in the sector” the sponsor’s implicit assumption proves unrealistic, and “transitory” shelters of tarp and plywood become permanent “homes.” 

A patient journey, together

Where does all this leave us? More than simply adjusting our assumptions and expectations to accommodate the inherent rate of recovery or risk tolerance appropriate for each context, should we not be defining “success” from the perspective of those who live that reality? Would not a more dignified—and effective— approach to development and recovery be one that elicits from beneficiaries what constitutes “success” on their terms? Would not such a definition of success lead to outcomes that are more sustainable? 

As our work in housing recovery in Haiti affirms, only through a patient approach can we create the space to strengthen the entire system that delivers safe and dignified housing. The same can be said for other universal human rights that must be restored in the wake of a disaster. It is within that space that we are reminded of the interconnectedness at the heart of IHD as we pause to listen to the human narratives of what “home” truly means, to discover the barriers that inhibit progress toward that universal right, and with that knowing and the aim of building shock-resilience, fundamentally reimagine the design and market-based delivery mechanisms for the physical structures that soon become homes.

On the eve of yet another journey home from Haiti, I leave again with more questions than answers.

The conversations in isolated Haitian communities grapple with the consequences of theories of change that failed to ask these questions when formulating their lofty goals. I listen today to stories of how the loss of vouchers that once nourished the victims of Matthew has now become yet another shock from which they cannot recover—all because they were unable to “graduate” from chronic poverty on our terms and our timeline. 

On the eve of yet another journey home from Haiti, I leave again with more questions than answers. I ask myself how we can work purposefully as we accompany, listen, and respond to the struggles of Haitians for whom “progress” has its own requirements and rhythms—requirements and rhythms that may seem scandalously slow to well-educated engineers and the generous people who support them. Some may question if we have the time to adopt a more patient, accompaniment-based approach when building shock resilience in the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean. Moving fast, treating symptoms instead of causes, defining acceptable risk from our vantage, and evaluating successful recovery on our terms has left Haiti no better equipped for the next hurricane. So perhaps it is time to muster our patience and prudence as together we journey to find another way.

Tracy Kijewski-Correa is the Leo E. and Patti Ruth Linbeck Collegiate Chair and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, associate professor of global affairs, and co-director of the Integration Lab in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. 

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.


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