Haiti four years on: a WASH partnership that worked

Posted by Marc Cohen Senior Researcher, Oxfam America

14th Jan 2014

Measuring out for the construction of latrine pits at the new resettlement camp at Coraille (part of the Government's rainy season evacuation plan) Oxfam provided toilets, showers, water points and public health activities. Credit: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

Four years ago this week a deadly 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince. Successful partnership with the national government was central to Oxfam's response, Marc Cohen examines why it worked and identifies lessons for the future.

Oxfam played a significant role in the humanitarian response to the large-scale disaster in Haiti, particularly in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector. To mark the anniversary of the disaster Oxfam is releasing a Programme Insight paper,   Urban Disaster Response and Recovery: Gender-sensitive WASH programming in post-earthquake Haiti, focussing on lessons learnt.

The future of humanitarian action lies increasingly in the global South.One key learning point from Oxfam's humanitarian response in Haiti and elsewhere is that 'the future of humanitarian action lies increasingly in the global South'. This does not mean that international humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam no longer have a role to play; far from it. But standard operating procedure has to change from that of direct service provision to one of helping to build the capacity of governments and civil society in crisis-prone nations to take the lead in addressing humanitarian crises.

At first glance, this might seem like a tall order in a country such as Haiti. As the Chilean scholar Andreas Feldmann has pointed out, Haiti has 'one of the weakest states in the world'. With regard to WASH, the country faces what experts call a 'structural catastrophe'. More than a third of Haitians do not drink water from an improved source, and in rural Haiti (home to the majority of the populace) the figure is just under 50 per cent. Just one in four Haitians uses improved sanitation facilities, and in rural Haiti the figure is an abysmal 17 per cent. The latter statistic is a major reason for the rapid spread of cholera throughout the country beginning in 2010.

Despite this bleak picture, the Haitian government managed to develop a reasonably well-functioning WASH governance structure prior to the earthquake. Its National Directorate for Potable Water and Sanitation (DINEPA) played a crucial leadership role in the response to both the earthquake and the subsequent cholera outbreak. Oxfam collaborated closely with DINEPA in its humanitarian activities, and has supported the Haitian government agency's efforts to create a new emergency response department following the earthquake.

DINEPA has responsibility for overseeing the work of more than 200 community-based committees that manage local drinking water systems. This mandate includes ensuring that these committees follow democratic procedures and have gender-balanced leadership.

Since the earthquake, DINEPA has become co-leader, along with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), of the WASH cluster, the body tasked with overall co-ordination of humanitarian WASH programmes. The WASH cluster proved to be a very important mechanism for information sharing, ensuring a cohesive and coordinated post-earthquake response.

DINEPA staff considered Oxfam... 'trustworthy, respectful and flexible'Oxfam was an active participant in the cluster and drew on DINEPA's experience with local water committees in organizing WASH service provision in more than 100 camps housing people displaced by the earthquake. Oxfam set up gender balanced WASH committees of camp residents. Training of committee members emphasized the differing needs of men and women with respect to WASH, as well as the practical issues involved in managing WASH systems.

An external evaluation of Oxfam's humanitarian programme in Haiti found that DINEPA staff considered Oxfam to 'have been trustworthy, respectful and flexible'. According to this review, both organisations believed that their relationship helped ensure an effective WASH response to the emergency, and saw continued collaboration as essential for future emergency preparedness in Haiti.

From Oxfam's perspective, this strategic partnership with DINEPA, a key national humanitarian agency, is a valuable model for how emergency assistance should look in the 21st century.

Read more

Blog post written by Marc Cohen

Senior Researcher, Oxfam America

More by Marc Cohen

Marc Cohen