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Humanitarian Aid on the move #7, special issue: Haïti

Port-au-Prince – urban disaster and humanitarian crisis
Béatrice Boyer

How can the humanitarian sector’s lack of know-how and experience in urban contexts be overcome? Conventional humanitarian activities, whether one-off or sector-based, need to be rethought given the nature and magnitude of humanitarian needs and the need to rebuild the social, environmental and institutional systems which make up the city.

 The Haitian context

Haiti, which is both the hero and victim of its History, continues to try to heal the scars of the past while overlooking the present and, more worryingly, sometimes acting as if it had no interest in the future. Cursed with multiple problems, Haiti produces crises as much as it endures them. The earthquake which struck its urban, political, administrative, economic and demographic heart is unfortunately just one more crisis in the chain holding down this little country with its troubled and violent history. The impacts of the earthquake and the enormous difficulties involved in providing an appropriate response were amplified by the combination of urban vulnerabilities and the low level of preparedness in relation to risks and operations in urban contexts.

At the heart of these events was Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, with a population which had grown from 300 000 to 3 million in a few decades. The national and local authorities were affected at every level finding themselves in complete chaos due to loss of life and the destruction of public buildings. As a consequence, it was very difficult for them to make decisions. Meanwhile, a very large number of highly-skilled humanitarian organizations with impressive logistical capacity began to provide assistance but without the know-how or ability to coordinate operations required in urban contexts.

What if this urban disaster is both an opportunity for Haiti to re-organise its urban centres and an opportunity for the whole aid sector to improve its practices in this type of context?