Home | The Haiti Observatory | What we do | The Observatory Newsletter | The Haïti Observatory newsletter #6, June 2013 | Land, institutions and humanitarian action in post-earthquake Haiti

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Land, institutions and humanitarian action in post-earthquake Haiti

The earthquake that hit Haiti on 12 January 2010 created a disaster on an extreme scale and led to a similarly extreme relief effort. Over 200,000 people were killed, over 300,000 were injured and nearly 300,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. A million and half people ended up living in tented camps.

Executive summary of the report published in September 2012

The relief effort confronted major challenges beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake. Much of the capacity necessary for the response, in the civil service and in international agencies, was affected by the earthquake, including by the death of personnel and their families. The humanitarian crisis took place in a context of deep and chronic needs, including a lack of adequate shelter and basic services and high levels of poverty. Haiti was also characterised by decades of poor governance and political instability, near-political paralysis at the time of the earthquake and by a political and state system dominated by the interests of a tiny elite. The international aid effort was also made more difficult by insecurity, a flood of aid from the nearby US through private channels and non-traditional aid organisations and by the fact that much of the destruction was concentrated in an urban setting, a relatively unfamiliar context for most aid agencies. To make matters worse, the country was struck by a cholera epidemic in October 2010, a disease previously unknown in Haiti, and which continues two years later.

Given the enormity of these challenges, it is hardly surprising that the relief effort encountered difficulties. The aid effort has been evaluated many times, and this report does not try to repeat work already done by looking at the successes and failures of the assistance effort. This paper is instead based on two premises: that Haiti posed many challenges, but these were far from unique: humanitarian action often takes place in contexts showing many of the same problems; and because the same ‘lessons’ are so often repeated in reviews of different emergency relief operations, there must be underlying reasons which have made it difficult for international aid actors to apply those lessons. This study seeks to understand those underlying reasons by looking at how international aid actors coped with the challenges they faced, specifically relating to the institutional issues around land.

Land rights were seen as a major obstacle to relief, particular in the shelter sector, preventing the timely delivery of relief and reconstruction and trapping aid workers in what one called a ‘time-consuming void of complexity’. Land law and land administration are indeed both complex and confused in Haiti and it almost impossible to know definitively who owns what. The formal institutions of administration and justice do not function well, and formal mechanisms such as the land tax system are often used in non-legal or even illegal ways. Formal institutions have much less traction than the powerful individuals to whose interests they can be subverted. As a result, a series of informal systems for reaching agreements has grown up, based on flexible and unwritten ‘rules’. One of the most common types of arrangement is affermage, by which someone leases land on which they build a house that they own.

Following the earthquake, local people built, rebuilt, repaired and relocated in just the same ways that they had previously done. The constraints they faced were almost entirely limited to lacking the necessary funds. The international aid effort was not able to direct its efforts to supporting people in their own endeavours, relying instead on providing its own solutions – but inevitably these were not on the scale needed. The reluctance of aid agencies to engage and compromise with the messy and complicated local context was striking in many areas.