Building blocks

Reconstruction in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake has been a model of how to engage communities, says the UNDP’s Helen Clark

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During my visit to Haiti a few months ago, I saw huge change from the desolation I witnessed in the capital four days after the earthquake of January 2010. The streets of Port-au-Prince were alive with sellers of handicrafts, fruits, vegetables and much else on every corner.

The earthquake caused more than 80,000 buildings in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas to collapse. Now, 70 per cent of the debris has been cleared, thanks to efforts by the Haitian people, civil society, the international community and local authorities.

Debris has been recycled into non-structural building materials, out of which memorials, stairs and public squares have been created. These initiatives generated temporary work for thousands of people and have provided opportunities for Haitians to set up small businesses and to promote recycling and safe construction standards.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN agencies also assisted the government to develop a national strategy for debris management, creating a debris stock exchange to co-ordinate the reuse of rubble for construction.

To encourage the return of displaced families, houses, essential services and infrastructure needed to be restored. Haitian families and communities have been at the forefront of efforts to build more resilient cities. Women, who head more than 40 per cent of Haitian households, have played a vital role.

Community Support Centre for House Self-Repair (known by its French acronym Carmen) has been empowering earthquake-affected communities in Port-au-Prince and the western town of Léogâne to take charge of house repairs, backed by engineering assessments and construction training. This UNDP and Haiti government initiative has registered around 20,000 people, and 5,000 are being trained in disaster-resilient homebuilding techniques. Nearly half the participants are women.

I was inspired by 48-year-old Gela Richemond, whose house was severely damaged by the earthquake. She joined the house repair initiative so that she could repair her home, earn money and gain new skills – putting her in a position to offer services to others with similar needs.

Richemond is among 1,000 low-income Haitians who have received a $500 grant to buy construction materials through the Carmen project’s innovative money transfer scheme via mobile phone. The eyes of this woman, who had never had a bank account before, brightened when she recalled receiving that first text message informing her the deposit had been made in her mobile banking account.

In each neighbourhood, community platforms have been formed where community members themselves decide on the design and layout of their surroundings, and prioritise needs such as the establishment of disaster-resilient infrastructure.

Experience in Haiti, as elsewhere, shows that investing in local solutions and technologies works. The results achieved so far, though, would have been impossible without the unprecedented support and funding following the earthquake.

There is still a critical need for housing solutions as Haitian cities continue to expand. The need is acute in Port-au-Prince, where more than 2.5m people – a quarter of the country’s population – live. The UNDP believes there is a need for a comprehensive national strategy that adheres to agreed urban plans and standards. To help solve this problem, the first housing policy in Haitian history is to be launched this year.

Haiti’s main cities still face challenges to recover fully and develop sustainably. These can only be solved with the leadership of national authorities, the engagement of the Haitian people and the continued support of Haiti’s international partners.

Helen Clark is administrator of the UN Development Programme and a former prime minister of New Zealand

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