Prospéry Raymond, Christian Aid’s country manager for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, reflects on how Haiti is moving on from one disaster and preparing for another
You could be forgiven for associating Haiti with disaster: when the country is mentioned, it is usually alongside words like ‘earthquake’, ‘hurricane’, ‘political turmoil’ and ‘cholera’.
In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew’s 146mph winds swept across the south of our country, leaving a trail of destruction. Now, the Caribbean’s six-month hurricane season is underway once again. With the Haitian Ministry of Finance estimating that each disaster causes a 2.2% loss of Haiti’s GDP, people here are looking ahead with trepidation.
Although suffering and fear have long been part of Haiti’s story, I have also seen stories of hope. When I visited the south in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, many trees in the area had been uprooted and those that remained standing had lost their leaves. On my latest visit, I noticed how green the area had become: it is creating hope, but it is a fragile hope.
As we strive to move forward, there is still a lot to do to lift Haiti onto its feet. Hurricane Matthew caused an estimated damage $2.5bn worth of damage, and the total aid provided was only about 10% of this. Today, 35,000 households (each with approximately seven people) still need shelter, with many squatting in schools or living with family members. While there is a great sense of solidarity among Haitians, many simply want their own place to call home.
Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent and the likelihood of significant meteorological events is increasing: experts have suggested 5-7 could take place between June and November 2017.
While NGOs like mine are in place to respond, by providing water filters and repairing roofs, the focus is now on preparation and education, to limit the potential damage. Planning is key: the predicted death toll from Matthew was in the thousands, but with good preparation from the local authorities, the fatalities stopped at 546.
Haiti does not want to depend on handouts; our people want to be able to stand on their own feet. That’s why Christian Aid and its local partner, KORAL, are committed to empowering communities to do more for themselves. Following Hurricane Matthew they provided cash grants, so that locals could get small businesses up and running, and provide for themselves.
They also supplied farmers with seeds that are less affected by wet conditions: bananas, sweet potatoes and different types of beans. We saw the benefit of this following the heavy rains and floods in April and May of this year, when the crops withstood the impact of the deluge.
For many Haitians, Matthew was the first major meteorological event they had experienced, and they did not know what to do. I spoke to a woman in the coastal town of Arcahaie, who lived close to the beach. She received an alert before the storm but, feeling a refreshing breeze and seeing a calm sea, she didn’t believe the warnings. A few hours later, the wind and rain hit heavily and she had to be rescued by boat. She told me she would never make that mistake again.
Christian Aid and our partners are working with local mayors to improve disaster response systems in Haiti, so they can decide who is responsible during an emergency and make evacuation plans. This includes designating shelters and ensuring they can handle an influx of people: for instance, by having secure roofs, proper toilets, clean water and spaces for both women and men, to respect their dignity.
This work is ongoing. There are many systems that can help us prepare, but the relative inevitability of disaster – along with a lack of human and material resources – means that millions could still be affected.
Haiti does not want to be dependent on aid, but we are not at that stage just yet. Christian Aid is challenging the government to put in place a greater disaster loan and disaster laws to manage prevention, preparedness, response and rehabilitation. We have seen improvement in government transparency and we hope that a good disaster loan would improve this further, leading to funds being managed in a way that benefits all the residents of Haiti.
While the world may see Haiti as a place of disaster, there is much more to the country. It is the world’s fifth most vulnerable country in terms of climate change, but the climate also holds potential: the sun and wind can produce renewable energy, bringing potential investment and economic growth.
June 2017 saw the first annual Haiti Tech Summit, during which 100 global speakers from companies like Google and Airbnb discussed innovation and sustainability. It took place in one of Haiti’s beautiful beach resorts and included celebrations of our culture, music and cuisine. Haiti has many unique beaches and diverse, delicious food. Though the people may be poor, they are extremely hospitable.
Yes, Haiti has been a troubled country, but in that trouble are stories of people who are looking forward, becoming resilient and preparing: people who want to ensure that when they are knocked down, they have what they need to get back up again.