Opinion: Hurricane Matthew undermines Haiti’s development hopes

United Nations Peacekeepers, Haitian government agencies, international organizations, and residents, work to distribute food and emergency supplies, and to repair the massive damage caused by the passage of Hurricane Matthew in the western Haitian town of Les Cayes. Photo by: U.N.

Last month Hurricane Matthew hit the southwestern Haitian city of Jérémie, killing hundreds and leaving hundreds of thousands without homes.

Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007, saw the island battered by 145 mph winds, destroying 90 percent of Haiti south. Time has passed since the initial impact, yet it seems things may still get worse before they get better.

The biggest threat now is cholera, with the World Health Organization urgently sending more than 1 million vaccine doses to guard against an epidemic developing on the Caribbean country. If that wasn’t enough, the United Nations has also stated 1.4 million Haitians are currently at risk from the widespread threat of famine.

In many ways, disaster on Haiti is a way of life. Hurricane Matthew is one in a series of natural disasters to hit the country — 14 natural disasters in the past 12 years — including an earthquake that killed approximately 200,000 people in 2010. And whilst there is no good time for a disaster to hit, with Jérémie having recently establishing its first road link through the Haitian mountains to the rest of the country — opening up opportunities for improved commerce and service access — their future had been looking up.

Now many signs of progress — the banana and cocoa plantations that were beginning to flourish, the new cell phone towers providing long overdue phone coverage and the steadily improving transport links to other areas of the island — are gone. Decades of work undone in the space of hours.

Marie Roselore Auborg, minister for commerce and industry in the Grand Anse department, where Jérémie is the capital, said, “Instead of going forward we have to restart. This storm leveled all of the potential we had to grow our economy.”

Humanitarian assistance must continue to be provided now. Yet, when many are facing a future with seemingly far less potential than it had a few weeks ago, we cannot fall into the trap that has seen Haiti fall victim to these same threats time and again, planting them firmly in the middle of a disaster-recover-repeat cycle. Instead, aid must be used as a first response, a way to clean the cut so it can heal, before investment in resilience building is undertaken to future-proof areas prone to natural disasters.

The Cuban city of Baracoa, which was also hit by Hurricane Matthew, is a prime example of what can be achieved when an embedded resilience approach drives a country’s way of operating. The city reported no deaths, with state-controlled media warning well-drilled citizens of the risk, and state-owned businesses and schools assisting in the evacuation and shelter effort.

Contrast this with Haiti and the differences are stark. Buildings and infrastructure are infirm, the government response is unpredictable, media is chaotic and assistance delivery efforts are compounded by the sustained threat of crime, which means people are unwilling to leave their homes due to the threat of robbery.

Each disaster will affect different countries in different ways, but it is clear to see why some countries are better at handling them than others.

The level of resilience — that is, the capacity of people to prepare for shocks, persist through chronic stress and thrive through opportunities for transformation — is closely related to better outcomes.

Resilience is about preparing for conditions of opportunity, rather than simply planning for and controlling a range of vast variables, both natural and manmade. Resilience is a rapidly expanding arena with new knowledge, evidence and methods coming to light, and we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to be bold, go beyond persisting and tinkering at the edges, to deliver tangible progress at scale and find ways in which we can turn a crisis into an opportunity for sustained change.

The disaster in Haiti highlights a distressing and persistent reality that the most vulnerable communities, if we don’t invest in building their resilience capacity, are unlikely to escape the increasingly crippling cycle of disaster-recovery-repeat — whether it be in one, five, 10 or 20 years.

It is only possible to address this through adopting a resilience-based approach. Resilience stakeholders, whether private sector, communities, governments or charities, must stop acting alone and instead work together, using each’s area of expertise to find solutions and strengthen the capacity of communities to prepare for and respond to disasters.

It had been nearly seven years since Haiti was last hit by a natural disaster, there’s no reason why in years to come the right approach cannot be taken to ensure negative impact on this scale is eradicated from the country’s future.