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Avoiding reality: Land, institutions and humanitarian action in post-earthquake Haiti

Research report

Written by Simon Levine

Research report

This working paper is available in English and French.

The international aid response to the earthquake in Haiti is often spoken of as being unprecedented in its scale and in the nature of the challenges it faced.  This paper in HPG’s “livelihoods and institutions” series suggests that most of the issues faced in Haiti were in fact common, if present to an unusual degree. This makes the aid response in Haiti a useful case study for understanding how aid agencies cope when emergency needs occur in the real, and highly imperfect, world.

Much of the aid was aimed at providing shelter, given the enormous number of people made homeless, and one of the challenges often blamed for delaying the response was ensuring land rights were respected in a country where it is almost impossible to know who owns what. The study focuses on how agencies grappled with the almost Kafka-esque world of Haitian land administration, and found that the response of agencies was to create their own world of rules and standards rather than engage with the uncertain and complex reality that Haitians themselves lived in. As a result, though there were significant achievements, the aid effort was limited in its impact, more expensive than necessary and did not give enough support to helping people achieve their own solutions.

There has been important progress in the way in which the humanitarian world appreciates and tackles land tenure issues in recent years. This study argues, though, that there are underlying reasons why agencies struggle to cope with local institutions like those of land. Unless these reasons are faced directly, it is likely that the same failings will continue to be repeated in each humanitarian crisis.

Simon Levine, Sarah Bailey and Béatrice Boyer, with Cassandra Mehu