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Haiti walks tightrope with recovery

 
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7:00 A.M. EST January 14, 2010

Josny Mehu of the United Methodist Committee on Relief says these schoolrooms built by UMCOR will help educate some 900 students a day at Camp Corail, outside Port-au-Prince. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.
Josny Mehu of the United Methodist Committee on Relief says these schoolrooms built by UMCOR will help educate some 900 students a day at Camp Corail, outside Port-au-Prince. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.
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Over the course of the year since the earthquake in Haiti, the work of recovery has advanced like a tightrope walker along a taut chord.

Go too fast, and the acrobat loses his footing, falls into the net, and has to start again. Go too slowly, and the patience of observers wears thin. The only sure way to advance is to walk deliberately, setting one foot in front of the other, eyes forward, and maintaining balance. 

For the United Methodist Committee on Relief, this particular tightrope is unique. UMCOR has responded to natural and human-made disasters for more than 70 years—including the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and, a year later, hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the U.S. Gulf Coast. But recovery in Haiti after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake has no parallel in UMCOR’s experience—nor, for that matter, in the experience of the thousands of nongovernmental organizations now working in the country. 

The earthquake’s impact on Haiti’s infrastructure and its population, the poorest in the Americas, was far worse than the effects of the tsunami, for example.

“Haiti presented us with one of the largest and most complex emergencies,” explained Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR executive for international disaster response.

An emergency this extreme requires a purposeful response, UMCOR leaders say. Such a response must address immediate needs in the context of long-term development and favor capacity-building over dependency. UMCOR had to respond with expertise and at the same time build, strengthen, or creatively remodel partnerships

Laying a foundation

“A lot of what we were doing in 2010 were pilot projects,” Crutchfield said. “We now know what works and what doesn’t, and we can move forward. We’ve been laying a foundation.”

The scope of recovery in Haiti has no parallel for the United Methodist Committee on Relief and other aid agencies, officials say.
The scope of recovery in Haiti has no parallel for UMCOR and other aid agencies, officials say.
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On the heels of the earthquake, UMCOR sent small teams to Haiti to provide immediate relief and assess damages and needs. From the teams’ experiences and observations, a comprehensive work plan was drawn up. The plan outlines tasks in the areas of shelter, water and sanitation, education, health and livelihoods. But its five-year timetable is merely a guide.

“Our response has to be as nimble as possible,” said UMCOR’s top executive, the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey. “Timing and sequencing may change as conditions change. Our focus is to empower the people of Haiti to address their own challenges. What we’re doing is helping people change their lives, their futures. And this takes time.”

Thomas Dwyer leads UMCOR’s nongovernmental organization unit, including the field office in Port-au-Prince that the organization reopened after the earthquake. UMCOR NGO has partnered in Haiti with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. Office for Project Services. The field office's active participation in the U.N. cluster system ensures effective coordination and adherence to agreed-upon standards for relief and reconstruction.

Dwyer underscored the significance of another partner: Eglise Methodiste d’Haiti, the Methodist Church of Haiti. “We are able to reach out to communities because of the church,” he said. "We've been blessed having the church in Haiti as our partner."

Students attend class in new, temporary classrooms at the Mellier Primary School, next door to the Methodist church in Mellier.
Students attend class in new, temporary classrooms at the Mellier Primary School, next door to the Methodist church.
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Because of that connection, and thanks to the generosity of United Methodists and other people of good will in the United States and elsewhere, UMCOR has addressed immediate needs for food, temporary shelter, provisional schools, medical and rehabilitative care, anti-cholera campaigns, clean water and other necessities.

Partnerships with a variety of sister organizations, including GlobalMedic, ACT Alliance and Church World Service, have expedited implementation of these measures. UMCOR is helping the Haitian church create its own relief and development office and build its capacity for response to emergencies.

“If you keep going back to Haiti, you do see progress,” said Crutchfield, who has been there four times over the course of the year since the earthquake. “The piles of rubble are smaller.

“In Camp Corail (a resettlement camp), there is a growing sense of community. There are gardens, and children are going back to school. Sometimes you have to look closely to see it, but there is progress.” 

One step forward…

There also are new knots in the cord. The cholera epidemic and the presidential elections that coincided with it slowed recovery work in the fall, as relief organizations diverted energy and funds to address widespread illness and political unrest.

These challenges added to existing ones, most notably: sorting out land tenure, confronting transparency and accountability issues, recruiting and keeping qualified personnel, addressing a broken supply chain and dealing with the utter lack of infrastructure.

A man erects a temporary shelter at Camp Corail. The camp is home to about 10,000 people.
A man erects a temporary shelter at Camp Corail. The camp is home to about 10,000 people.
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Governance is another critical issue. Not only is the national government in transition but, Dwyer says, “It has to rebuild the public infrastructure, including staff and facilities, and create an environment that facilitates the work of recovery.”

“I knew from the start that recovery would be complex in Haiti, but I didn’t know what that would mean,” Crutchfield confesses. Now, she says, many people in Haiti are beginning to understand that the process will take a long time, and partners in the United States are beginning to manage their expectations of progress as well.

Harvey is grateful to donors for the myriad ways they have responded to and enabled UMCOR’s work in Haiti.  “I can’t say enough about the generosity of our church’s response,” she says, “of the response of congregations, and of the person in the pew. Recovery in Haiti is a challenge and will be for a long time. I tell our donors, ‘Thank you; please be patient.’” 

*Unger is staff writer for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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