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Haiti’s Recovery is Real

Three years after a devastating earthquake rocked the country, a chorus of critics has slammed the reconstruction effort. Here's why they're wrong.

PORT-AU-PRINCE -"Beyond the mountains," according to a well-known Haitian proverb, there are "more mountains." It's an apt line in a country that has faced outsized challenges for as long as anyone can remember, but one that can only begin to describe the trials posed by the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which rocked the half-island nation three years ago. The quake killed more than 200,000 people, displaced 1.5 million, and destroyed some 300,000 buildings. It also inflicted close to $8 billion worth of damage, and destroyed roughly 80 percent of the country's economy.

But Haitians are accustomed to scaling mountains -- and the country's recovery has been stronger than many realize. With support from national and international partners, Haitians are rebuilding a better, more resilient country -- a fact that has been repeatedly overlooked in the international press. Among Haitians, however, the sense of progress is unmistakable.

In Feb. 2012, roughly two years after the quake, Gallup pollsters found that a record low number of Haitians described themselves as "suffering," while a record high number said they were "thriving." Gallup also found that an unprecedented 46 percent of Haitians expressed confidence in national government institutions. (In 2008, just 24 percent reported confidence in the government and by 2010, that number had fallen to 16 percent.)

Despite considerable damage by hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in 2012, Haiti is moving forward. Government, private sector, and international organizations are working with families and communities to rebuild the country and revive its economy. Eighty percent of the 10 million cubic meters of earthquake debris has now been cleared, meaning that the cleanup effort in Haiti has progressed significantly faster than similar efforts following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Much of the earthquake debris has been recycled into paving stones, stairs, corridors, houses, and public spaces through a project managed by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

At the same time, more than 1.1 million people who were displaced by the quake have been moved out of camps and into long-term housing, also with UNDP support. Neighbourhoods, roads, and houses have been rehabilitated, creating thousands of jobs in the process. More than 40 percent of people employed in this work -- primarily located in low-income communities -- are women. The UNDP is also supporting crucial governance initiatives aimed at increasing transparency and strengthening the rule of law -- the foundation of a better and more inclusive Haiti, and the sine qua non of a vibrant economy able to attract and retain international investment and trade.

Haiti's remarkable recovery, moreover, has been largely driven by Haitians themselves. Within neighbourhoods, community members have set priorities for rebuilding homes and infrastructure, ensuring that the unique risks faced by city-dwellers are satisfactorily addressed. Women, especially, have played an important role in this process. In one program aimed at rehabilitating 16 neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, Petionville, and Delmas, for example, combating gender-based violence with improved public lighting has emerged as a major priority.

The UNDP has established community support centers to facilitate the reconstruction process, enabling some 30,000 families to take charge of repairing and rebuilding their homes to date. At the same time, more than 1,000 families have received $500 grants to buy quality construction materials through an innovative money-transfer scheme that uses mobile phones -- the first ever to support housing repairs.

The UNDP has also helped train more than 7,000 people in home reconstruction, strengthened Haiti's national disaster risk-management system, and launched environmental protection programs. The results have been significant and tangible -- a direct outcome of the international support that followed the earthquake and that remains a critical lifeline. The government of Haiti is now building on these achievements and developing a longer-term development roadmap toward a truly inclusive, resilient society. Haiti's remaining challenges demand the sustained support of the international community, but a horizon with fewer and smaller mountains is now in sight.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that 1 million cubic meters of earthquake debris had been recycled. In fact, only 30 percent of that 1 million cubic meters has been recycled, since not everything is recyclable. 

AFP/Getty Images

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