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Three years since Haiti earthquake: Learning the art of listening

The third anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brings sober lessons for aid groups. First lesson: Listen more to locals.

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    Boys sit on the rooftop of a home damaged by the 2010 earthquake, across from the Jean Marie Vincent camp where they now reside, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
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The third anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, has not drawn much attention. This is despite the fact that 1 out of every 2 Americans donated money to the relief and thousands of people from around the world volunteered to rebuild the Caribbean nation.

The reason is that the hope of “rebuilding Haiti better” after this particularly big natural disaster is, well, still largely a hope. The obstacles of reconstructing a new Haiti have proved steep – such as ineffective government, powerful elites, not to mention hurricanes since then. Billions in aid has flowed in. Yet, to cite just one example of slow progress, more than 350,000 people are still living in tents.

In addition, foreign aid groups are learning difficult lessons about not overpromising, about listening to local people, and about cooperating with each other. Why, for example, did two aid groups each build peanut-butter factories when only one is needed?

Recommended: Where does Haiti stand three years after its 7.0 earthquake?

Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy to Haiti since 2009, told Esquire magazine soon after the quake of a key lesson: “You can’t forget [Haitians are] listening when you say you are going to do things, and I try not to overpromise. Mostly, I think people who have been worked over and messed around with, they kind of get it. Now, I also believe they could withdraw their support from me if they feel I don’t do anything.”

Often aid from wealthy countries fits the agenda of donors more than that of the recipients. Aid workers on the ground are held accountable to staff and boards elsewhere. Success is often counted in money donated and spent, not actual results.

Aid also sends a subtle message that local people are somehow always incapable of making decisions in their best interests. Overcoming this perception requires even greater efforts to listen to and quickly empower local groups.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a result largely of its colonial history and political turmoil, but made even worse when 300,000 people perished in the 2010 quake. Its problems make the shortcomings of the global aid community show up in stark relief. Many aid workers speak of a “Groundhog Day” feeling that the same problems keep reappearing.

If there is hope for Haiti, it lies in the fact that aid groups have greatly improved in recent decades. Their work is less top-down and more sensitive to local needs. It is better coordinated, more fluid to changing circumstances, and more sustaining over years. Expectations are measured to reality.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is still recovering from its 2005 hurricane – and that recovery was largely driven by locals. New York and New Jersey now realize the years of work it will take to recover from superstorm Sandy. Haiti needs even more patience and listening by those willing to assist it if it is to become self-sufficient and sovereign over its future. “I’ve tried never to have my words outrun my deeds in Haiti,” as Mr. Clinton stated.

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