Haiti Two Years Later – Perspectives from Then and Now

January 12, 2012
In recognition of the two-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, UNA-USA talked to our own Monika Johnson and the UN Foundation’s Robb Skinner about the dire conditions being experienced immediately after the quake, the progress that has been made since the tragedy, and how the UN is helping the country rise up from the rubble.

Monika Johnson, Associate for Membership Support, UNA-USA

1.    What brought you to Haiti after the earthquake? What group were you with? What kind of work did you perform? What inspired you to offer your help?

I first became interested in disaster response and public service when my town of Durango, CO experienced the worst wildfire and drought season in its history in 2002. Over 75,000 forest acres burned, many houses were destroyed, and my family and thousands of others were evacuated from their homes. Despite the danger, firefighters and relief workers from across the United States poured into Durango, eager to help stop the blaze. Locals pooled resources, kids held lemonade stands to raise money for the volunteers, and our community came together in gratitude for the generosity of those who had picked up their lives to help us.

Over the next several years, other natural disasters would shock the world on much larger scales. As I recognized the impact of volunteer assistance on my own community, I understood the importance of helping those in need, regardless of who they are or where they live. In March 2010, I jumped at the chance to exercise this ideal by helping families in need of a hand in Haiti with All Hands Volunteers. The NGO provides individuals with the basics of housing, meals, tools, and work, responding to natural disasters with a flexible volunteer force. By partnering with communities before sustainable aid commences, they work with families and locals to contribute to what is needed most. Immediately after the disaster in Leogane, the earthquake’s epicenter outside Port au Prince, 80% of buildings were destroyed or damaged. Since many families lacked the tools necessary to remove rubble, I set out with a team armed with sledgehammers, shovels, and wheelbarrows to help clear sites. During my time in Leogane, we cleared three families’ home sites so they could begin to rebuild their lives. Today, thanks in part to All Hands Volunteers participants half of the debris from the earthquake has been removed.

2.    What were some of the most powerful memories you have of your time there?

The story that struck me most during my time in Haiti was about the immense human loss experienced in regards to civil society. In addition to family members and friends, the country lost many of the people who made Haitian culture most vibrant: its most dedicated civil servants, artists, and academics. One woman described to me that the earthquake happened at 4:53pm local time, just before the end of the work day. While many had already left, those who were truly devoted to the work of building a fragile democracy were still in the government buildings when they collapsed.

As a passionate activist myself, another story was particularly impactful. Myriam Merlet, Anne Marie Coriolan, and Magalie Marcelin led the growing the women’s movement in Haiti. They were instrumental in judicial reform for rape prosecution, brought The Vagina Monologues to Haiti, and had lobbied the United Nations to pressure Haiti to improve equity for women and girls. Their lives were cut short at a time when they were needed most in their country.

In many ways, Haiti’s earthquake challenged civil society to endure in a state of chaos; however, it also gave way for a new generation of leaders to emerge to continue the positive work of their predecessors. The momentum of Haitian civil servants and activists is both impressive and inspiring.

3.    What ran through your head as you left Haiti?

My short experience in Haiti had a significant impact on my understanding of international aid and disaster response. While it showed me the complexities of political and social problems, I was also encouraged to see the willingness of countries, religious groups and international organizations to lend a hand. There were few positive things to report when I left Haiti only two months after the earthquake, but two years has proven that cooperation between the private sector, government, and civil society can make a big difference. I hope to return someday soon to see the progress they are making!

Monika Johnson is the Associate for Membership Support at UNA-USA. Her interests in culture, politics, and international cooperation have led her to study and volunteer throughout the world; she holds a BA in International Relations and Asian Studies from Michigan State University.

  Robb Skinner, Senior Director of UN Relations and Special Initiatives, UN Foundation

 1.    You’ve made five trips to Haiti since the earthquake, how do you feel the event has impacted the country beyond the physical devastation?

The physical devastation is clearly the most visible impact, particularly so during my visits the first year after the quake.  Now, much of the visible rubble has been removed leaving behind the 50% of rubble that is located deep in neighborhoods on the sides of hills and mountains and is very difficult to clear quickly.  The other highly visible impact is the displacement of the people and the remaining tent camps in Port-au-Prince.  The living conditions are very, very difficult for the roughly 500,000 people still in the camps, but there is also clear progress in that about 1 million of the displaced have transitioned out of the camps back to permanent housing, with the camp locations returning to their original uses as parks or open space.  So, there is a return to activities like soccer playing, jogging or reading on a park bench that I think is having a positive psychological effect for the people of Port-au-Prince.   

While it is difficult to overstate the horrible and tragic devastation and loss of life as a result of the quake, an impact that could support the longer-term development of Haiti is the fact that the international community, Haiti’s people, and its government have had to scrutinize and confront the poverty, inequality and broader development problems that plagued the country before the quake, which further enabled the quake to be so deadly.  The Haitian people are incredibly resilient and hard working, and strongly desire the opportunity to rebuild the country in a way that works better for them.  With President Martelly’s government now in place with the support of the people, I think there is hope for real partnership between the international community, the people, and the government to make lasting progress.  However, I also believe the Haitian people need to see evidence of that cooperation and partnership in order to keep hope for “building back better” alive.   

2.    What are some of the best ways that the UN has furthered the development and reconstruction of the country?

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the focus was humanitarian assistance and the UN system worked to provide crisis medical, food, and shelter needs, and did it well in the face of an urban disaster on a scale never seen before.  OCHA, WFP, WHO, MINUSTAH, IOM, UNICEF, UNFPA and others quickly put in place systems to help people survive the initial days following the quake and get people under shelters.  

Now that there has been a transition from humanitarian assistance to development, UNDP has become a much more visible presence with its support for rubble clearing projects, efforts to ensure housing is safe and adequate, and support for institution building.  UNICEF has done impressive work in getting children back in school, and IOM and UNCHR have worked to get people in the camps much needed services, with IOM working hard to get people out of the camps and into permanent housing.   And, MINUSTAH played a key role throughout by providing the security and safe space for the election cycle to take place and get the new government in place.   

3.    What are some of the obstacles left in getting Haiti back on its feet?

The development road in Haiti is going to be a very long one.  As a very poor country with minimal infrastructure and major deforestation issues before the quake, the disaster served to multiply the challenges.  Donors need to stay with Haiti and not lose focus on it, and President Martelly’s government needs to keep the international community engaged in Haiti and provide investors with the confidence that they are investing in a stable, secure country that is committed to progress.  I think that is already happening, and by all accounts the government is getting the message out.  

The people of Haiti want to make the country work – every conversation I had in the camps and on the streets of Port-au-Prince started the same way.  I’d ask, “What do you need or want?”, and the first response was “a job” or “to work” in every case.  The people do not want hand-outs; they want opportunity.  To make that possible, they will need to be trained and young people will need to be educated to compete and live in the modern, globally connected world, in addition to learning how to contribute to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.        

The attention and focus that Haiti should continue to receive could allow it to utilize the latest technologies and become an example of a nation building a truly green economy.  It could use wind and sun to create power; it already is using mobile phones to overcome telecommunications issues; it can redevelop its agriculture with the most modern and effective techniques.  There are major challenges, certainly, but great opportunities as well.   


4.    What ran through your head as you left Haiti immediately after the quake, and after departing last week?


Immediately after the quake, the devastation and humanitarian needs were so great, my thoughts were on how the UN Foundation and other organizations could best help get medicine, food , water, and other necessities into the hands of the victims.  I also wondered at the enormous effort that the individuals from the UN were putting in to help – the same UN officials and staff that had just lost love ones, family and friends to the earthquake themselves.   The dedication to the task of saving as many lives as possible and providing for those in need was truly impressive.  

Last week, my thoughts were that much has been done, but much remains to be done and we need to stay committed to help Haiti’s development.  I describe my feelings as a kind of emotional whiplash – one second positive and full of hope, the next overwhelmed by what seems an enormous task.  But, after talking with Haitians of all economic levels - from those still in tents to those in government and other leadership roles - and seeing their commitment to a better future, the positive won out.  The Haitian people have been through a lot, but have persevered.  I feel this time, with our ongoing support, that Haiti can seize the opportunity and “build back better” for its entire people.   

Robert Skinner is Senior Director for UN Relations and Special Initiatives at the United Nations Foundation.  Before joining UNF in April 2006, Robert spent nearly nine years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, serving in U.S. Embassies in Trinidad & Tobago, El Salvador, and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.  He also practiced law in Chicago, including over three years as a criminal defense attorney with the Office of the Cook County Public Defender.  Prior to his legal studies, Robert spent four years arranging and managing international sports events.     

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