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CHURCH and EMERGENCY and DEVELOPMENT: In a joint earthquake response, "a lesson in working 'smart'"

Interview with Donna Derr, who coordinates Church World Service's humanitarian and development programs, and Patrick Bell, formerly Christian Aid's emergency program officer.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

By Chris Herlinger, Church World Service

Earlier this year, Donna Derr, who coordinates CWS's humanitarian and development programs, and Patrick Bell, formerly Christian Aid's emergency program officer, visited programs funded by both agencies that are assisting communities with housing along the Haitian and Dominican border.

CWS, Christian Aid (CAID) and Servicio Social de Iglesias Dominicanas (SSID), CWS's long-time partner in the Dominican Republic, supported two camps of displaced families in the Haitian communities of Gantier and Boen. In time, the ACT Alliance members helped families to leave the camps and return to their land, and began repairing and building homes for those in need. Among the achievements: thirty-six homes repaired, 40 new homes constructed, with 70 more to be built.

"Due the success of the CWS, CAID and SSID collaboration, we have succeeded in bringing a new ACT member to the project," said Aaron Tate, who is coordinating CWS's Haiti earthquake response. "The Dutch-based inter-church organization ICCO is now contributing nearly half of the funds for this new phase."

What follows is an interview with Derr, and with Bell, who now works as West Africa program associate for Lutheran World Relief, based in Baltimore.

HERLINGER: What impressed you so much about the border housing program? You've said "we did it right" in Haiti. Why?

DERR: The border housing program was, from my perspective, a great example of multiple ACT members planning and working together with a given community.  SSID, CAID and CWS were all intimately involved in the planning, monitoring and implementation process of this shelter repair/reconstruction program.  While SSID took a primary leadership role with the community leadership and oversaw the day to day work, CWS and CAID, at various times brought needed technical expertise (monitoring, engineering, etc) to the table along with financial support.   So, it was an effort built on our individual capacities and interests and more importantly, in which, from the outset, all of us were actively involved in planning.

HERLINGER: So much has been written in the last two years about the failure of humanitarian response in Haiti. But you seem to feel that at the scale of our work in Haiti, the response has made small, concrete steps. Is there a lesson here in working "small"? 

DERR: I think there is a lesson here in working "smart."   Our response was undertaken with a lot of assessment and thought – discerning where other ACT members were working and what they were doing;  confirming what we felt were our and our local partners capacities and expertise that were immediately available; assessing what were real gap areas given what others were going to be doing; determining what we felt we could do really accountably  and well while fully involving communities themselves  in the decision-making process; and then doing what we had a realistic belief could be sustained and/or built on as the recovery from this earthquake evolved.

HERLINGER: The links between emergency and development also seem tough to manage, maybe even difficult to pull off. How did CWS and others pull this off?

DERR: For me, for the first time in memory in Haiti, we saw two of our local partners who were involved with development work (food security program and school program for at-risk children) become immediate responders, initially using some of their own resources. This was reflective of the many years of support and accompaniment we had done with these organizations to develop some of their own capacities and to encourage certain types of skill sets within their staff teams.  So, in the relief phase -- they were out there and they led and were an integral part of the planning for the recovery program with us.  To me, this was representative of our oft stated desire to see local organizations become leaders in their countries in the arena of relief and development.    And, given that they were development program partners, they had done enough learning and planning around the relief - development cycle that they understood and were prepared within the "cycle" to mitigate and respond to disaster events, even as they remained committed to their on-going development program end goals. 

HERLINGER: Patrick, what were your impressions of the overall situation at the border and of the work CWS and Christian Aid are doing?

BELL: When I arrived at the border and visited the displacement camps that SSID, CWS, and CAID were working with, I was struck by the harshness of the conditions, exacerbated by the April heat. SSID was strongly committed to providing support to these camps through food, water and shelter provision, but they were also aware of the need to avoid these camps becoming permanent dwellings. This issue was made all the more urgent by threats made by the local authorities to forcibly remove people from one of the sites in September. In response, SSID, CWS and CAID worked with community members in the camps to design a plan to first, mobilize the camp dwellers back to their communities, and then to implement house repairs and a home reconstruction program.

I think SSID is doing great work, although the project took a while to get going due to an initial lack of capacity on their part, something which CWS and CAID helped to resolve. One of their strongest assets is their field coordinator, a Haitian-Dominican who speaks Creole and is good at collaborating with the local community leaders. Before I left, I was able to visit some of the houses SSID built in 2011. I had visited the same families when they were living in the cramped, sweltering conditions of the tarpaulin tents back in the camps, and it was encouraging to see the impact that living in sturdy houses had made on their lives, although the challenge remains to bolster their livelihoods.

HERLINGER: Donna seems to suggest that we hit the right balance between support for the partners and larger program implementation goals. Is that a correct assessment?

BELL: I think my honest answer to this is that, from Christian Aid’s perspective, supporting local partners is an integral part of the larger implementation goals. By that I mean CAID only works through local partners, so without them there would be no implementation. Admittedly, working through partners can sometimes have its challenges, in terms of the speed of program delivery for example. An important part of our work, therefore, is to help partners build on their strengths to become even more effective development organizations. This is something that CAID and CWS managed to do in our partnership with SSID.

HERLINGER: Draw a picture for us -- describe the situation as you saw it.

BELL: The border region where the displacement camps were located is extremely arid and intensely hot, making living conditions at the two camps SSID, CWS, CAID were serving particularly harsh. Communities are scattered around hillsides that have been gradually stripped of the majority of their trees over the years, making flash-floods a threat in the rainy season. Provision of water is inadequate; most communities seem to rely on wells. Behind the villages, local farmers plants crops on hillsides. One advantage of this particular location is that there is well-paved road which runs between the border and Port-au-Prince, making trading opportunities easier to find.

The border itself is chaotic. It is located on a narrow strip between a hill and a lake, and the lake waters are continuously rising. The road at the border crossing itself has been raised on a number of occasions but the customs and immigration buildings are partially under water. In fact, the original buildings are almost completely covered by water, and the second-generation buildings are flooded. When I left, at the end of 2011, immigration officials were working at tables set up behind the water-logged offices. Being the shortest route between Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince, this is a busy border and yet only one lane of traffic can pass at a time. On top of this, the border serves as a bi-national market twice a week, which has become an occasion when Dominican border guards extort bribes and sometimes physically abuse Haitian vendors.

HERLINGER: What is something funders and supporters of ACT Alliance work perhaps don't know but should know about Haiti and the difficulties of response/long-term development work there?

BELL: It is important to bear in mind that when the earthquake struck, Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and that it has suffered from decades of insecurity, social unrest, and unresolved development challenges. 2010 was an election year, which meant that there would be a new government by the end of the year -- it actually took longer than that -- but no one knew who that would be. This slowed down the process of coordinated reconstruction.

ACT supporters should know that ACT member organizations like CWS and CAID work through local partners and this means that through work such as the earthquake response, Haitian civil society organizations are building their capacity and resources, thanks to the support of the ACT Alliance. As a result, CWS and CAID can be confident that the programs we support have been developed in close consultation with local communities, at the grassroots level, and are addressing the actual needs and concerns of the people most affected by the earthquake.

Photo: A beneficiary of the Rural House Repair & Construction in Gantier & Boen, a partnership between CWS and Christian Aid, implemented by Servicio Social de Iglesias Dominicanas, standing in front of her home, nearly completed (Jason Knapp  CWS)

Source: Church World Service, CWS:


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