Resilience and willpower in Haiti

January 9, 2015
Written by Peter McNichol, Country Director, Concern Worldwide Haiti
Photo by Kim Haughton

Five years ago, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake in which 1.5 million people lost their homes, as many as 316,000 people were killed, and another 300,000 were injured.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti—Five years ago, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake in which 1.5 million people lost their homes, as many as 316,000 people were killed, and another 300,000 were injured.

I wasn’t here at the time of the earthquake, but I have seen the effects, and also spoken with many of my colleagues and each one has an irrefutable and exact memory of the events. No one was untouched.  As we look towards the fifth anniversary of this horrific event, it is important to see what has been achieved. Haiti was already recognized as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere when it faced an event that would cripple even the most prepared country.

Storm clouds gather over the tent city in Place de la Paix, Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 quake.

Storm clouds gather over the tent city in Place de la Paix, Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 quake.

Would we cope better in the US, UK, or Ireland? I am not sure how we would fare if our major airports closed, 60 percent of government buildings were destroyed, and more than 300 hospitals were badly damaged.

 As we look towards the fifth anniversary of this horrific event, it is important to see what has been achieved.

At the time of the earthquake, I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was there for a year and during that time  I worked with Gardy, our IT manager. I would often see him at the office on a Saturday, keeping things running. Gardy’s family was back in Haiti so once he finished in DRC, he headed home to be with his wife and newborn child. Then the earthquake hit. The news came pretty quickly, news so many families were receiving.

Our colleague Gardy was dead.

I have worked for Concern for 18 years and I recognize how people can tire of the requests to give money to charity. But as I saw events unfold on TV and heard about the loss of Gardy, I wrote to my family and asked, for the first time, each of them to give what they could.

Since donations flooded in, there have been questions raised about aid provided to Haiti. It is healthy to question and we charities should rightly be held accountable for the money we spend. It’s also important to bear in mind the complexities of Haiti and the number of disasters the country has faced in recent years. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, knocking out power and largely paralyzing the city. Just a few days earlier, Haiti also felt Sandy’s wrath, though it barely made the headlines. In this same year, Haiti had to deal with another tropical storm in addition to the world’s largest outbreak of cholera and the aftermath of the earthquake. These multiple disasters were dealt with on a fraction of the budget available to more developed countries.

Taking all this into account, significant progress has been made. This is due in large part to the resilience and willpower of Haitians who stood up and reacted to the hand they were dealt. The country’s government, despite its challenges and weaknesses, is striving to improve things and realize Haiti’s potential.

Girl drinking from a Concern water spout

Concern is working with the local community in Grand Ravine, an urban slum area in Port au Prince, to improve infrastructure — such as access to clean water — and to create livelihoods.

Drive through Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, and you can still see buildings affected by the earthquake if you try, but you have to look carefully. Millions of tons of rubble have been removed and more than 1.4 million people have left the camps that provided them with shelter following the quake. This is something Concern worked hard to achieve. We gave 7,000 families rental support for a year while also helping them to re-establish small businesses. In 2011, 1,500 homes were built and handed over to people from the camps.

Millions of tons of rubble have been removed and more than 1.4 million people have left the camps that provided them with shelter following the quake. This is something Concern worked hard to achieve.

Haitians, with the support of the international community, are reconstructing their country. Through all of this, there are other signs of success. Rates of malnutrition have actually fallen over the last five years, there are more children in school, and Haiti’s economy is growing – so something has to be right. But this is not to understate Haiti’s challenges. Significant improvements have been achieved but continued support is required to sustain real change. At the time of this anniversary, Haitians should be saluted for what they have achieved and for their impetus to move forward.