Why the world cannot "fix" Haiti in a year

Widzer was homeless after the earthquake, but worked and took full advantage of assistance provided. He sees a future beyond the quake.
Widzer was homeless after the earthquake, but worked and took full advantage of assistance provided. He sees a future beyond the quake.

I am glad that the eyes of the world media are scrutinizing what is happening in Haiti one year after the earthquake. Organizations have been stepping up their game in the last couple of months. Everyone wants to look like they’ve done a lot at the one year mark. After all, more than a billion dollars has been committed. And at one year, people want results.

So one year later – what did the world’s investment in Haiti yield?

If you look across Port-au-Prince right now, you may come to the conclusion that not much constructive has happened. I can see how someone would think that – especially if they are visiting for the first time. The UN says 810,000 people remain homeless. Cholera has killed thousands. Haiti’s displaced live in fraying remains of tent cities, intended to last months, but instead lasting a year … and counting.

In the last year, aid organizations have had mixed success. Some of the newer ones have faced a steep learning curve. More established organizations like World Concern have faced logistical frustrations, with some shipments being delayed in ports for weeks, even months, for example. And every international and domestic aid group must work in the context of Haiti’s supremely challenged government and fragile transportation network.

The fact is, Haiti’s government itself is in flux – with a violently disputed presidential election still unresolved. I expect that the backlash of the election recount will likely send the country into violent protest once again in the coming weeks.

So why am I optimistic about Haiti? Why do I think Haiti has a future – and remains a worthy investment?

I am optimistic because I see positive changes. I am optimistic because I see lives being touched, and even saved.

The good news for you if you have compassion for those who are hurting: you can make a real difference. If you invest in someone’s life in a meaningful way, it changes them.

Most of all, we should continue to invest in Haiti because of this: every human life has meaning. I am a Christian and have read the clear command from God to serve those who are poor and suffering. For believers, it is a spiritual calling.

Let me tell you about a man named Widzer. He lost his daughter in the earthquake, as well as his home and his job. When World Concern met Widzer, he was homeless. We paid him to clear debris in his own community through our Cash for Work program, which uses Haitians to help their own country. Then, we helped Widzer build a temporary shelter for his family of eight.

What Widzer did next was impressive.  He saved some money through Cash for Work and invested in his home – and his wife’s business. She now once again is selling in the market, and Widzer has made his small shelter a home, finishing it with a covered porch, toilet, kitchen and more.

He told me, “When you receive something, you are supposed to build upon it. We added a kitchen, we added a toilet. We added things that would allow us to live together safely and comfortably.”

This story is not perfect, as Widzer remains underemployed. But because we offered him opportunities that provided long-term hope, he began to see life was worth living again. He sees a reason to try – a reason to plan for the future – and that’s often the biggest obstacle.

Something also worth noting is that Widzer remains in his community, instead of in a remote camp. I realize that every situation is different, but World Concern believes that whenever possible, we should keep people close to where they lived before – if not on the same property. We have seen that by doing this, they’ll have a better chance of restarting a job or educating their children.

The good news is that the humanitarian community has touched thousands of people like Widzer, although I do wish there were more like him, one year in.

As for numbers, we have measurable results. Let me be clear: I can only speak for World Concern. Here are a few ways we’ve helped thousands of people in Haiti restart their lives since the earthquake:

  • 100,000 people received disaster assistance
  • 7,091 Haitians employed through Cash for Work program
  • 1,284 houses have been repaired for Haitian families
  • 530 transitional shelters have been constructed
  • 989 livelihood grants were given out, getting Haitian business owners back to work

To achieve these figures, it took an incredible amount of work. And even when you consider World Concern with all of the other assistance, there is likely much more left to do – than what has been done already. And that’s where it is helpful to look at a fuller picture.

Consider this:

1. This was a catastrophic disaster, one of the largest of our time. It killed 230,000 people, and directly affected 3 million people – that’s one out of three people in the country. Even if all of the non-profits and government agencies were working perfectly in the last year, there would still be years of work to do. We anticipate 5-10 years is a conservative estimate to “rebuild” Haiti. And know progress HAS been made. The UN says nearly half of the 1.5 million who were homeless now are off the streets.

2. The goal should not be to “fix” Haiti in a year, or spend all donations in a year. The goal should be to make meaningful progress toward a Haiti that is equipped to take care of itself. The best life-changing assistance is long-term community development, not dropping food rations off of the back of a truck (though there is a time and place for that). In order to positively affect someone’s life in a meaningful way, to empower them to be educated, to have a safe place to live, to have some reason to go on – it often takes years of relationship. This is not instant gratification, and it is not for the faint of heart.

3. Don’t paint a broad brush stroke as to the effectiveness of humanitarian agencies. Check them out. Do your research.

The reality is, one year out, Haiti remains of the edge. About a million people. They are real people like Widzer. I hope the media continues its scrutiny. At minimum, it means Haiti will not be forgotten. While we cannot “fix” Haiti in a year, we can make progress. World Concern is one part of this – and you are too. Together we can be committed to helping people long term – one life, one family – at a time.

For more information about what World Concern has done in the first year since the earthquake, check out: http://www.haitioneyear.org

Derek Sciba is writing this from Haiti. For media inquiries, call 206-713-5564 or email dereks@worldconcern.org.