January 10, 2012
As media coverage intensifies around the two-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, there appears to be a serious effort on the part of the largest donors and aid organizations to present the relief and recovery in Haiti as an unmitigated success. One notable exception is Oxfam, which released a two-year report critical of the reconstruction effort. The State Department, on the other hand, issued 11 separate fact sheets on the U.S. response in Haiti; none of them suggested that the U.S. had learned from its mistakes, or indeed that any mistakes had been made at all. One of the key statistics that is most frequently touted to suggest that big advances have been made is the decline in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps. In a State Department blog post (also published on the Huffington Post) Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, points to the reduction of IDP numbers as a clear sign of progress:
Almost two-thirds of the estimated 1.5 million Haitians living in tent shelters after the January 2010 earthquake have left camps, many returning to houses that have undergone structural improvements or moving into temporary shelters and permanent homes.
Of course, a reduction in people living in IDP camps seems like an entirely positive development. Yet a closer look at this development reveals significant problems with both the relief and reconstruction effort and a much more tepid success story.
In March, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which tracks the IDP camp population, found that there were 680,000 people living in the camps. So by March the majority of the decrease Mills cites had already taken place. Yet what the IOM found was that many people were leaving the camps for even more precarious living situations, not for new homes or T-shelters. The IOM study shows that only seven percent indicated that an “assistance package was provided” (2.0%), “my home was repaired” (4.7%) or “transitional shelter was provided” (0.3%) as reasons for leaving IDP sites. On the other hand, “Poor conditions in the IDP site”, “eviction”, “high incidence of crime/insecurity in the IDP site”, and “rain/hurricane” were cited by 77.9 percent of respondents. Between June 2010 and March 2011, some 230,000 people were evicted from IDP camps and more than 100,000 still face the constant threat of eviction.
Confirming this trend, a USAID sponsored study found that over one million people were living in “extremely dangerous” housing. Timothy Schwartz, the report’s author writes:
It means that as many as 570,178 people (114,493 residential groups or families) are living in 84,951 homes that may collapse in foul weather or in the event of another tremor. That’s yellow buildings. For Red buildings it means that 465,996* people (100,430 residential groups) are living in 73,846 buildings that might collapse at any moment. Discussing the growing problem of people returning to unsafe yellow and red buildings, Dr. Miyamoto emphasized the gravity of the situation,
“Occupied yellow and red houses are extremely dangerous since many are a collapse hazard. People occupy these houses despite communications and warnings from MTPTC engineers since they have nowhere to go but the camps. People do not want to stay in these tents. Security is poor and they are exposed to diseases. I see little children sleeping next to the heavily cracked walls every day.”
Lots of numbers will be thrown around in the coming days, indeed many already have. There are signs of progress in Haiti; there is no denying that much rubble has been removed (although at least half the post-quake rubble remains), disbursements from donors have quickened over the last few months and the rate of cholera infection has slowed with the dry season. But much work remains to be done and there have been significant problems with the relief and reconstruction efforts, not least the exclusion of Haitian voices.
A 66 percent reduction in IDP population sounds like a great success story and it no doubt will be cited in numerous news articles and official press releases, but like the rest of the stats you may come across in two-year coverage, a closer look is needed.