The Winding Road from Camps to Villages

We walked down dusty pathways among a patchwork of ramshackle structures covered by tarps to a humble church building. Our group of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) advocacy staff was in the middle of Accra, an encampment where thousands of Haitians displaced by the Port-au-Prince earthquake almost five years ago still struggle to build a community and home.

Elie, and others, still hope. “Today you are in a camp,” said Elie with a slow grin. “Tomorrow I would love for it to be a village.”

Our host, Elie, told us about his experiences as a camp committee leader in Accra. Residents still have little or no access to water, electricity, or basic sanitation. Despite this, Elie and others in the camp do not wish to be defined by their vulnerability. He used the example of ants—small creatures seemingly at the whim of their environment. “Yet they remain a force to be reckoned with. I am a force to be reckoned with. Together we are trying to pull ourselves out of the system of vulnerability.”

The 2010 earthquake came at a moment when many Port-au-Prince residents were already living on the edge, and tipped a tenuous housing situation into a full-blown crisis. Parks and tracts of public land were flooded by survivors who lost their homes. Soon camps sprouted up around the capital. At the peak of the crisis, nearly 1.5 million people braced the harsh sun, rains and winds while living under tents.

While the Haitian government touts the decrease in camp-dwelling populations, more than 100,000 people remain in the camps. That number’s slow decline is really the result of large and sometimes illegal forced evictions, and weak government and international programs that favor rental-subsidy programs instead of investing in durable solutions, namely housing construction.

Where new housing projects have been implemented, they have often been marked by the misuse of funds and a disregard for people’s rights to suitable housing. The U.S. government undertook a housing project, with a budget of $55 million to build 4,000 houses. To date, the project has resulted in 816 houses built at a cost of $90 million.

Elie, and others, still hope. “Today you are in a camp,” said Elie with a slow grin. “Tomorrow I would love for it to be a village.” But the transformation of camps into villages will require more accountability on the use of funds.

The Assessing Progress in Haiti Act recently became U.S. law and is a step in the right direction. It calls for sustainable, Haitian-led rebuilding and development, and requires timely reports from the State Department on the progress of humanitarian projects. This is positive momentum for reconstruction efforts, but we must ensure the momentum builds.

We must continue to hold our governments accountable for what they say they will do and how they go about it.

And we must listen to the voices of Haitians like Elie. They have wisdom and counsel to offer and know their needs better than anyone else. Elie offered a good place to start: “Development doesn’t happen with money, it happens with people.” When you invest in people “…they can do anything.”

Charissa Zehr is Legislative Associate for International Affairs at the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

Posted: 8/28/2014 7:00:00 AM

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