The realities of resettlement after disaster

by David Week on 12 January 2011


“Blaming” the government of Haiti

My antennae perked up when I saw this flick by on twitter:

Why Haiti is still such a mess a full year after the quake and who’s to blame:

The reference is to a post by an Australian NGO, ActionAid. The post begins like this:

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in which over 230,000 people perished. I wish I could be using this occasion to celebrate the amazing progress made in rebuilding this shattered country, but I’m afraid nothing could be further from the truth.

Sure, recovering from a large-scale natural disaster always takes time – New Orleans is still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and much reconstruction work remains in Aceh following the 2004 tsunami. But in Haiti, the situation is made that much more difficult by the government’s failure to [resolve] the issue of land disputes.

I think this is a poor call by ActionAid, and below is my response, in two parts. The first on the general dynamics of disasters and of NGOs. The second is specifically addressed to the ActionAid Post.

The conflict between post-disaster dynamics and NGO dynamics

I worked in post-independent Timor Leste during the two years following the referendum.

I worked as an adviser to the a number of projects in Aceh from 2005 to the end of 2008: four years.

From this experience, I learned many things. Among them:

  • There is no one shared view of what is the right way forward, just many different perspectives. Please see the film “Rashomon” for an artistic explanation of what this is like. That’s the nature of complex situations. It they were simple, they wouldn’t be a problem.
  • In a post-disaster situation, a lot of people are working crazy hours facing horrendous and in fact (to be honest) often insoluble problems.
  • External criticisms which attack the people on the line are damaging: they create a misinformed donor public who think that rabbits can be pulled from hats; they pour scheiss on the heads of frontline workers who already have a tonne of real scheiss to deal with. In saying “workers”, I make no distinction between government workers, NGO workers, multilateral workers, or community workers. Workers are workers.
  • Take home lesson: Either come with a solution, or don’t come at all. If you have a solution: then fund it.

Three stages of reconstruction

On a more technical level, I also became aware of the wisdom of the three stages of reconstruction, which are:

  1. Rescue: focused on saving lives at immediate risk
  2. Relief: focused on re-establishing basic services to keep people alive
  3. Recovery: during which the infrastructure and economy are slowly rebuilt.

The “standard” time frames for these three phrases are:

  1. Rescue: 7 days
  2. Relief: three months
  3. Recovery: five years. 1

Note the five years.

In terms of housing, these three stages take the form of three different housing forms:

  1. emergency shelters, including tarpaulins and tents
  2. temporary housing, including tents, kits or self-built shacks
  3. final, permanent housing—ideally

Here’s a (rare) example of temporary housing in Aceh:

This “standard” timetable may work for “simple” disasters, such as Gujarat, or Jogja, in which people don’t move. They stay where their homes have collapsed. They need to be fed and given temporary shelter. But otherwise, they can begin rebuilding almost immediately. In Jogja, within days you could see people cleaning the bricks from the collapsed houses, ready for use in building their new houses.

Complexities of land tenure

What is the oldest, and most difficult-to-change human-made aspect of the urban fabric? Buildings? Wrong. Roads and pipes? Wrong. It’s the land tenure system. In a place like London, Hanoi, or Istanbul, you’ll find land boundaries and roadways going back thousands of years.

When there is a massive displacement of people in a disaster or post-conflict situation, the Recovery phase can be rendered enormously complicated. Simply: there is no point in building permanent housing on land to which people have no rights. Land rights come from the land tenure system.

How complicated can that be? Well:

Timor Leste

When the Indonesians invaded Timor Leste in 1975, many people fled, leaving their houses and property behind. These vacant properties, which were owned under Timorese colonial law, were subsequently resold under Indonesian law, as Timor Leste was then part of Indonesia. After independence, some of the fighters who had been living in the hills, after being shot at for 25 years, came down and turfed out some of the occupants as “collaborators”, awarding themselves the properties as a compensation for their 25 years of service. So, the Government of Timor Leste was faced with three claims: the original claims to land, under colonial law, no longer extant; the second claim, for the same property purchased under Indonesian law, no longer extant; and the third claim, a kind of “revolutionary” redistribution. The challenge to you, King Solomon, is to adjudicate tens of thousands of these claims, without violating anyone’s natural rights, their legal rights, or having an AK47 pushed up your nose or a grenade thrown into your Land Cruiser. Oh yes, and most of documentation was destroyed during the conflict.


Here, the wave didn’t just displace people. In some cases it took away the land altogether. Below is a photograph of something hundreds of metres out to sea. What is that? Oh. It’s a bridge support. For a highway. Which used to run where now there is sea. So some people’s land just disappeared. In the second zone, also near the ocean, where the land didn’t actually disappear, up to 90% of the people were killed. Though they died, their title didn’t, since they had heirs, some of them in other parts of the country, who have to be contacted, etc. Although the people in the villages that were lost under the sea lost their land, they didn’t all die. Some were out to sea fishing. Some were away at work in town. Some, miraculously, survived the wave. So we ended up with a class of people who were traditionally fisherfolk, who have lost their land. Where can they be resettled. Well, not immediately inland, because that’s owned by someone else. So one has to travel kilometres inland before one finds large tracts of unoccupied land where they might be resettled. But: they refuse to move there, because, for goodness sake, they are fisherfolk, not farmers, and they can’t practice their livelihoods far from the sea. Records? Well, about before the tsunami, only about 10% of the land ownership was ever centrally registered. Most of those titles ended up as big sodden masses of paper which were freeze-dried and flown to Jakarta, I guess to be disassembled some day. Most titles were “adat” titles, traditional titles, simply a sequence of sale documents witnessed by a notary. Most of those, again: lost. So we have submerged land. We have swamped land. We have land belonging to those who have died. We have land damaged by salt, and rendered unfarmable. We have little documentation. We have chaos. Again, King Solomon, your task is to sort out.


To be honest, don’t know the details. Do know this. Both Timor Leste and Aceh have a population of under 1 million. Haiti has a population of 12 million.

If you want to imagine a more sensitive issue, imagine that you have lost everything, including family members, and the only thing you have left is your land… and someone wants to mess with that.

If you want to imagine a process ripe for corruption, imagine a centralised redistribution of land.

Where massive displacement starts to raise questions of land tenure, the final stage can of recovery can take 10 years. Or more. The general sense I found in Aceh as the donor timetables at inception were unrealistic. That everyone should have planned for a ten year involvement, from day one.

NGO constraints

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog NGOs are businesses, albeit not-for-profit business. There is money in, and money out, and the two must balance, or the NGO must shrink, or even die. If it is dead, it cannot deliver social benefits or services. So a natural part of responsible NGO management is to ensure that money coming in exceeds money going out. Most NGO seek to grow their donation base, so they can better deliver their mission to society. That’s all good.

However, this business side of the NGO world also means that they have to cater to complicated stakeholders, and this can lead to conflicting pressures. Key among these is that NGOs have to look two ways: to donors, and to beneficiaries. And the interests of donors and beneficiaries do not always align, simply because they are so far apart from each other in space and culture.

For instance, Aceh saw many NGOs getting into the housing business, even though they had never been in the housing business. This was understandable, because the biggest recovery cost in Aceh was new housing. Many of these NGOs raised their money from “mom and pop” donors, the man or woman on the street, sometimes just throwing change into a bucket. The problem with these donors is they expect to see a house for their dollar. Soon. Not in three years. Certainly not in 10 years. So there was enormous pressure on the NGOs in Aceh, pressure from “head office”, to build permanent housing. Fast. That, it turned out, to be not such a good idea. Because you can’t have housing without tenure, surveys, flood control, civil design, access, and services, all of which were not being funded by NGOs, and were not yet designed, let alone built.

Here’s an example of the result:

The problem is that donors generally want to see speed, and speed is not always the best thing for the long-term interests of the beneficiaries. The solution lies not in pounding on the people in the field (government or otherwise), but to inculcate realism in the donors: in particular the “mom and pop” variety, who have the most to learn.

My questions to ActionAid

I don’t see how you can “blame” the government of Haiti for the problems that you cite.

  1. The government had very little capacity to address the problems of its people before the earthquake. Now the government has been weakened by the effects of the earthquake (loss of facilities, death of personnel, disruption due to personnel having to attend first to their own survival needs), while the problems have increased a hundredfold.
  2. In the last year, the government has also gone through a general election.
  3. The land record system before the earthquake was already weak. The earthquake caused the destruction of many records.
  4. It is estimate that even allowing for 1000 truckloads a day of rubble removal, it will would take three years before that rubble is cleared—and Haiti is not even at that capacity yet. 2
  5. Land ownership problems are notoriously difficult to resolve. They involve determining a winner, and a loser, and therefore involve considerations of due process. When ownership disputes involve tens or hundreds of thousands of cases, another concern comes into play: civil unrest. Another risk: potential for corruption. The ICG notes that “Eight years after independence, Timor-Leste is still without a legal basis for determining ownership of land.” 3 Yet the Timorese problems are minor in comparison with Haiti’s. Even in OECD countries, land disputes take many years to settle. And in OECD countries, reorganising the land tenure system is never even attempted. My questions are: Can you cite the place and method where such intractable problems have been solved in a year? If not, by what lights can you say that the Government of Haiti has failed, if in fact no one else has ever succeeded?
  6. You say that the Government of Haiti should “prioritise” settlement of land issues. Like everyone else, the GOH has finite resources. Therefore, to prioritise one thing means to de-prioritise another. My question here is: What would you propose they de-prioritise while they attend to your proposal? Health? Temporary shelter? Jobs? Donor coordination? Water? Crime? Return to school? I’m curious as to what you think they are doing which is less important than land tenure.

To my knowledge, it is a widespread view that it unwise to proceed to permanent housing where a disaster has led to large scale displacement. People first to have to find their final place, before they can rebuild. We certainly saw massive waste in Aceh as, many NGOs rushed to build permanent dwellings, prioritising disbursement needs ahead of the slower timescale of sustainable resettlement.

It seems to me that ActionAid has, in this case, just mis-planned. Without impugning your otherwise good work, perhaps you’ve just made a mistake here. Why have you budgeted for permanent housing when it would seems clear that this is not yet the time? Why should the Government of Haiti jump to your disbursement priorities? Why should they be publicly attacked by an Australian NGO when they face problems which — I put it to you — no-one on earth, not you, not me, not the UN, not the World Bank, not anybody, could resolve quickly.

This is not a failure of the Government of Haiti. This is simply one of many consequences of a very bad situation, and a reminder that there are limits to what humans can do.

My view:

  • Tune your program to the inbuilt problems and the natural timetable of recovery
  • Don’t mobilise your donors to militate impatiently: educate them to understand realistically.
  • If you know of ways and means to accelerate the resolution of land tenure, get engaged. Run a program. Fund it.

But finger-pointing is not a way forward.


  1. Asian Disaster Reduction Center, Total Disaster Risk Management – Good Practices, Section 3.1.4: Rehabilitation/Reconstruction
  2. USAID
  • Pingback: Summary of posts about Haiti at the 1 year anniversary | Good Intentions Are Not Enough Summary of posts about Haiti at the 1 year anniversary | An honest conversation about the impact of aid()

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting article. Don’t know much about Action Aid, but it sounds like it always easier to point the finger. My family is Afghan and they have one topic of conversation that gets everyones blood boiling and that is land disputes. All you ever here about is who has what land and how much and what should I sell first?… There is so much corruption and money going everywhere. It’s all a race towards, regulating and making the money. Whichever one gets there first, it seems. Land disputes… its very interesting.

  • Archie Law

    Hi David

    Thanks for the excellent post! I agree with so much of what you say, but think we might have different perspectives on the capability and priorities of the Haitian government.

    I’ve responded to your post in a comment at the bottom of my original post:

    Thanks again for an excellent post.

    Archie Law
    CEO – ActionAid Australia

    • I recommend reading Archie’s reply, which expands the discussion considerably. And here’s my further thoughts, posted first on his site:

      Hi Archie

      Thanks for the positive feedback. Sometimes, when go on a long rant, I wonder later if I’ve gone too far. I’m glad that it seems I haven’t, and you found it positive.

      I don’t know Haiti on the ground, but it seems from the history of Haiti that is does not have a very auspicious political history. But just as one can’t move rubble or land disputes quickly, I’ll be interested to see if you can succeed in changing deep-set patterns of inequity quickly.

      One of the most positive aspects of Aceh was the early identification of land titling as a critical element to recovery. This was then followed by the identification and use of community land mapping as a technique for re-establishing adat titles quickly, allowing for reconstruction to begin. You can read a brief summary of the Aceh community land mapping experience here:

      The process was started by a local NGO, then expanded radically through successive waves of donor support. Of course, the situation with adat title is unique to Aceh, and that particular solution is unlikely to apply to Haiti.

      So critical is tenure to any reconstruction activity, I’m surprised that land tenure specialists are not sent in early, by parachute if necessary, as a matter of course! Unfortunately, land tenure is an abstraction, and much of the rescue/relief paradigm is oriented towards goods and services. It’s only downstream that things grind to a halt on tenure issues.

      There, is of course, a long history in South America of people camping on peri-urban land without legal tenure, and then establishing de-facto tenure by building permanent dwellings. In fact, the estabishment of a permanent structure is a such a powerful claim to land, that groups of rural migrants would organise overnight building campaigns to get perimeter walls constructed in one night, leaving the authorities somewhat powerless to move them in the morning. Such processes were described by John F C Turner and his colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s, in the books Freedom To Build, and Housing By People:

      The paradox I guess is that as an INGO, you can’t support local communities to carry out illegal though effective processes, even though such processes may be (if the rest of a South America is any indicator) their best chance at a future.

      Thanks for the lively conversation.

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  • Intelligent post about the importance of property rights for the poor in Haiti:

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  • Dear David,

    I’m building a image library of resilient and sustainable design strategies for a new educational design platform currently under development by Architecture 2030, a non-profit Building Sector research organization. We’d love to include the above image of temporary housing in Aceh as a representation of temporary structures. If you are interested, please email me at

    Kind Regards,
    Francesca Desmarais

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