International Development Law Organization

Haiti: much remains to be done three years after the quake

IDLO Signals Readiness as Haiti Marks Three Years since Quake

Over the past two years, IDLO’s work in earthquake-hit Haiti has brought home the scale of the reconstruction task. The third anniversary of the tremor, which killed hundreds of thousands, finds the group ready for more hands-on involvement. 

More than three-hundred-thousand Haitians are still housed in temporary camps. This does mean that up to a million people have now been resettled — but how well, and how durably, is a moot point.

The issue is not so much one of showering the stricken nation with money: vast amounts have already been disbursed, to mixed effect. A lot, as IDLO sees it, is about targeting measures that might make a lasting impact: sorting out the ownership of land; clarifying the right to build; and knocking together a framework for long-term resettlement. 

IDLO, in other words, is keen that for every dollar spent putting a roof over people’s heads, some time be also spent worrying about the land beneath their feet. 

Who does own Haiti’s land? Which land is public, and which private? What can go up on it? If things are built, will they last? Throwing up houses is fine, the argument goes. But what happens — as indeed it does — when the land suddenly gets pulled, rug-like, from under them?

“International actors have come to Haiti,” IDLO’s Elena Incisa di Camerana says, “and helped build temporary housing. This is very commendable, but the risk is that the owner will come back and say, ‘Ok, this is my property, and all this stuff has gone up on it...’” 

The ‘owner,’ it should be noted, may or may not be that. Not every Haitian has an identity card or birth certificate to prove who they are, still less the paperwork to prove what is theirs. It is not unknown, in Haiti, for three unrelated persons to turn up and claim rights to the same patch of grass. It may take months to establish the facts — if at all. There are land titles and deeds in the country, but they are by no means comprehensive, up to date or reliable. 

Records, such as they exist, are kept in archaic, hand-written ledgers — although it is hoped a grant from the French government will help modernize the system. Locating the right documents at the Tax Inspectorate in Port-au-Prince is an arduous endeavor, made worse by acute shortages of both staff and basic equipment.

Establishing and upholding who owns what in Haiti, deciding what can be built, where and by whom, therefore seem crucial steps if the mass re-housing effort is to be put on a sound footing. Yet these are the very steps which IDLO argues have been routinely skipped. 

Put land ownership aside, and further questions arise. For example: which is more desirable for the re-housed — outright home ownership or tenancy? International agencies have tended to privilege the former, perhaps out of sheer cultural inertia; IDLO, which has given the issue much thought, opts for the latter, as more expeditious and in keeping with local occupancy patterns. 

Whether rushing to build, or paying little heed to pre-quake living arrangements, the international community’ alleged tin ear for local conditions is a frequently heard complaint. In Haiti, ill feeling has been exacerbated by a devastating cholera outbreak blamed on UN peacekeepers, and by the inability of many among the foreign aid community to communicate in French.

“We found a lot of incomprehension, a lot of mistrust,” says Ms Incisa di Camerana, who led IDLO’s US-funded mission to Haiti. Her and her colleagues’ brief was to gather all re-housing stakeholders around the same table, sound out opinions, and offer law-focused solutions. “People in Haiti were very unhappy. They felt quite a bit of money was being spent with no proper regard to their needs. The fact is, behind the destitution that you see, there are other problems in Haiti: legal issues to address, administrative deficiencies that need solving, governance that must be strengthened.”

All good and fair, one might reply, but what should international actors do? Hold back from re-housing the displaced until Haiti achieves the goal of efficient, law-ruled statehood? Leave its people to sleep under the stars until property rights are faultlessly enforced?

“Of course not. But there are things one can do in a matter of two years or less,” Ms Incisa di Camerana stresses, as she goes on to speak of developing the understanding and practice of land law, including at university level; of training notaries (some of which has already taken place on a small scale); of boosting employment at registry offices; and of setting up a system of escrow — or third-party — accounts, where purchase sums for land may be deposited until ownership is clarified.

“For me,” Ms Incisa di Camerana concludes, “what we did in Haiti was preparatory work. It was about clearing the way for something more. And I’m still hoping.”