Rosa Grabe (Representative, Welthungerhilfe)

17.09.2010 - Interview conducted by Elizabeth Hurst

Q1. How can relief and reconstruction efforts lead to development and empowerment in Haiti? What opportunities does it present for Haiti?

Well, the earthquake was so devastating that it actually presents a huge chance to reorganize the country. Not only in terms of how roads are constructed, or how houses are being built but also in terms of making sure that certain standards are put in place.  About 200 years ago, an earthquake destroyed Port-au-Prince, the capital. But no one cared about earthquake proof construction procedures and so all these buildings collapsed when it happened again. As you could see in Chile for example or Indonesia after the tsunami and the earthquake, all the houses that were reconstructed there according to certain standards did not collapse again. In Haiti, earthquakes are likely to reoccur. Moreover, there are always hurricanes in that region. Haiti is extremely vulnerable to natural hazards.

It is also a good opportunity to strengthen the government as there is a lot of attention from the international community. So a lot of the old structures of corruption are likely to have less impact and can be avoided if the humanitarian community is successful in strengthening the governmental structures and in involving them all in the reconstruction activities. In fact, the reconstruction should proceed according to Haitian regulations. However, NGO activities often provide social services and therefore also take over the state’s responsibility. If these government responsibilities could be strengthened that would be a huge step. Of course there is also a need for a strengthening the civil society, the economy and the education system. This is a lot of work, but as there is a huge amount of attention and money, there is a good chance that the reconstruction can follow the principle of “building back better”.

Q2. In terms of civil society, what do you think are the challenges at the moment to building civil society institutions and strengthening civil society in Haiti?

There are only a few Haitian NGO’s which are able to comply with international donor’s regulations. Of course there are further small, community based organisations, but it takes a long time for them to develop. Thus there are only a few who are capable of changing something and most of them already have five international partners, which is likely to overburden their capabilities. It will take a long time to establish a civil society in Haiti, as most of the people do not have a high education level. About 4 million Haitians live abroad, most of them in the U.S. As there are not many possibilities for young, educated people in Haiti, the majority leaves the country.

Q3. Do you see possibilities for Haitian culture to interplay with government reconstruction in order to build a strong government that joins culture and government institutions in support of development efforts in Haiti?

This is a difficult question. Cultural events like the Carnival (the third biggest Carnival in the world) play an important role in people’s lives. This year the Carnival didn’t happen, because everyone was sad and shocked.  But in Jacmel, for example, there is a community of artists who are seeking support. At this stage however, most donors prioritise the urgent needs like shelter and livelihoods, not culture. Therefore, it might take a longer time for cultural activities to develop again and to interplay with development activities.

Q4. In terms of NGOs - do you feel you confront challenges as a European NGO functioning in a Latin American country?

We are strangers, so of course we face challenges due to cultural differences. However, Welthungerhilfe has had projects in Haiti for more than 35 years in fact and can draw from it’s own structure and experience.  We have a lot more local staff than international staff. Most of our expatriates live and work in Haiti for years. Moreover, we have worked through partners for many years.  So, although we are still strangers, our team gathered a vast amount of local knowledge and earned respect among the target groups. Thus, I would say, that we are not facing as many challenges as NGOs who just arrived in the country.

Q5. You mentioned that in Haiti, NGOs sometimes play the role of the state. In what sense do you see that transition taking place, that is, the time line for handing over what the NGO’s are doing now to when the Haitian government can take over and really being in charge of those state duties?

It will still take some time. Now the international community is trying to comply with the regulations that are in place, or projects have to wait until there are detailed reconstruction guidelines. In some of our projects where we train people for disaster conditions, like establishing a disaster response team, we always hand over to the local authorities after the project ends. However, Haiti is really centralized. Even if you want to apply for a driving license in the second biggest city, you have to go to Port-au-Prince. Maybe the centralisation has to be a little decreased before state agencies and the local authorities can really take over the full scale delivery of social services. The handing over is in the process, but it will take some time before the Haitian government will be able to take over the delivery of those social services completely.

Q6. How do you feel Haitians perceive themselves at the moment? You mentioned the high profile media coverage after the earthquake. Do you feel that it has affected the way that Haitians perceive themselves in their country in the wake of the disaster?

Rosa Grabe: In a way, yes. Generally, Haitians are very proud and are aware of who they are and what they can achieve, in contrast to some other formally colonised countries, where foreign aid workers have a very high status. In terms of feeling like an object of the media - sometimes yes, they do feel it, because the media was really everywhere and people were in misery. But some realised that it’s also a tool to bring attention and thus more money into the country.

Q7. Do you think that it did help?

Yes, definitely. Otherwise a lot of money wouldn’t have come into the country. Also, after many disasters like this, governments are quite quick to promise a lot of money. But when the media coverage decreases, they tend to forget. Since media coverage is still quite high in Haiti, the international community hopefully sticks to their promises.

Q8. You mentioned foreign aid and Bill Clinton being in charge of the Haiti Reconstruction Fund and the United Nations coordinating a lot of aid. Do you think that it presents challenges to Haiti, that foreign governments are so heavily involved in reconstruction?

The United Nations play a huge role in the reconstruction process, which is absolutely within their responsibility.

During the Donor Conference in New York, governments committed themselves to donate a certain amount to the Haiti Reconstruction Fund. It is headed by Bill Clinton, but Haitian state agencies, businesses or NGOs which want to apply for funds have to cooperate with either the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank or UNDP. All projects have to be in line with the Haitian Reconstruction Plan. So in that aspect the influence of certain governments is not that strong. However, this fund is only open for proposals since two months. We have to wait and see how that will work.

Of course the United States have a strong interest in Haiti. By sending US military troops, they signalised that they were ready to help, but also made sure, that the country wouldn’t destabilise further. As the most powerful actor in the region it might be their responsibility, but of course they were also interested in preventing more refugees to enter their own country.