When a natural disaster devastates a country, the global community earnestly reaches out to help in the recovery and reconstruction efforts. Funds are pledged and donors set up new projects to address various areas of development. The approach that donors take and the systems they use to manage and implement projects in the aftermath of a disaster can either aid or place unnecessary burden on local people who are very often grappling with personal crisis and scarce resources in the new post-disaster operational environment. How can donors be more effective in supporting local people and institutions, especially in small island developing states in the Caribbean?
My first visit to Port-au-Prince was in early 2011, exactly one year after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that shook the country and left a devastating mark on every facet of life on the island. Haiti was still coming to terms with what had happened amidst piles of rubble on every street. I stayed at a well-known local hotel, half of which lay in ruins with several areas unpassable. Many things about that first visit to Haiti felt bizarre. I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast of leaving my well-appointed hotel room to walk past the hotel’s tennis courts which then served as the ideal space for a sea of tents – temporary shelters for the families of hotel staff and others. Seeing children emerge from the tents in their school uniforms each morning gave a sense of normalcy to this unusual situation.
The Haitian government was tasked with the mammoth job of coordinating the reconstruction effort with every development agency on earth vying for their place to help.
I was there in my capacity not as a donor, but working with the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) as a regional implementing agency for a global environmental fund that had been set up and approved prior to the earthquake. This put me in the interesting position of working closely with international donor agencies as well as Haitian partners in government, civil society, communities and the private sector. This opened my eyes to how a disaster not only has the immediate crisis effect but also creates ripples of longer term stresses and challenges that continue beyond the immediate relief phase and in ways that are indirect and unexpected.
I remember one instance in 2011, over a year since the earthquake, when a key project was flagged as ‘problematic’ due to missed reporting deadlines and delayed and cancelled activities. Among other factors, it turned out that the local project manager refused to work in the recently leased office building in Port-au-Prince for fear of it collapsing like his home did during the earthquake. Personal trauma prevented him from working efficiently. Other project staff had lost family members and colleagues. They were still grieving. They were in crisis even when the donor felt operations should be functioning post-disaster.
Looking at the devastating effects that hurricanes Irma and Maria have had in the Caribbean, I’ve been thinking back to Haiti, particularly in terms of funding and natural resource management projects that were ongoing at the time of the disaster. What’s happening in the region due to the September 2017 hurricanes is different to the 2010 Haitian earthquake in scale and scope and the small island context as compared to Haiti and its international funding streams is in many ways incomparable.
However, I think there are lessons to be shared from funding that went to Haiti post-earthquake that are relatable, especially to islands such as Barbuda, Dominica, Puerto Rico and Sint Maarten/St. Martin that are completely devastated. Trying to adapt environmental funds to the post-disaster situation in Haiti, for example, by redirecting those funds towards national environmental regeneration efforts, turned out in most cases to be burdensome on local people and institutions, even up to several months and a year after the earthquake. This was true despite several donors’ good intentions.
I think many donors underestimate the time needed for a country to recover after losing everything. Local people need time to get their lives back together and ensure their family’s safety, one basic need at a time. As critical as the environment is in national discussions about regeneration actions, personal safety and sanity are paramount and understandably so.
Some Caribbean islands have political relationships with larger countries such as St. Martin/ Sint Maarten (France and the Netherlands), Anguilla (UK), and Puerto Rico (USA – although this is a complicated case!). Islands such as Dominica that have no “big brothers or sisters” to turn to are extremely vulnerable and must rely on the international community to support recovery and reconstruction efforts.
There are also particular vulnerabilities by very nature of being a small island state in both the preparedness for and aftermath of a natural disaster that continental areas may not experience. For instance, when preparing for hurricane Irma, people in Florida were able to literally drive to another county or state to evacuate. In the aftermath, first responders from unaffected neighboring areas were there within hours. Compare that with the situation in Barbuda and Dominica after hurricanes Irma and Maria respectively – the entire islands were completely cut off from all communication with the outside world for days.
The aftermath of a disaster is no time for donors to pull out, quite the opposite. It is time for the donor community to re-connect with those affected, adjust expectations and objectives and have sincere dialogue with local people about their situation, their needs and their capacity to work.
Below are a few points for donors working in affected Caribbean islands to consider.
My heart is with my Caribbean family as they come to terms with what has happened. I hope that with the right support, they can lead the way for others to be able to effectively help them in the long task of rebuilding their lives and islands.