December 15 2011

"Extreme poverty is still omnipresent"

15/12/2011 - As part of the international SOS Children's Villages team in Haiti, Max Lamesch from Luxembourg is in charge of institutional donor services. He takes charge of projects realised by SOS Children‘s Villages Haiti that are funded or supported by: foreign governments, foundations, universities, UN agencies, governmental agencies, embassies, intergovernmental organisations, NGOs and Haitian ministries. In this interview he shares some insights about challenges NGOs are faced with in Haiti.

Photo: Sophie Preisch
A woman in one of the SOS Community Centres in Port-au-Prince is preparing meals for children - Photo: Sophie Preisch
When did you first come to Haiti and why did you decide to take on the challenge?

When asked in May 2010 if I was interested in a mission to Haiti came as a very big surprise to me. Although I had not had time to reflect and, at that moment, there were no details available, I immediately said that I was very much inclined to accept the offer. During the first months of 2010, my responsibilities were as a desk officer for the projects in Haiti financed by supporters of SOS Children's Villages in Luxembourg, which is why I had followed the tragedy of the earthquake since the very first days. This may explain my readiness and spontaneity to accept the mission. For me it was all about helping the Haitian population and showing international solidarity.

In which aspects has Haiti changed since, which things have not changed?
Looking at the country and the living conditions of the Haitians in general, I cannot say that I have seen considerable changes. On the contrary, the major structural problems remain the same. There are still very high unemployment rates which are one reason for Haiti’s massive brain drain. Also, the education system is essentially dysfunctional and in need for radical reforms. Not only are there half a million or so children not going to school but, even worse, a high percentage of children finishing school remain basically illiterate. Finally and above all, extreme poverty is still omnipresent.
And yet, I would like to highlight two positive trends: first, compared to the political crisis that kept erupting after elections in November 2010, stability has returned and the new president seems to do a good job in spite of all the challenges. And second, according to the UN, 50% of the rubble has been cleared so far, a trend that could stimulate reconstruction.
Two years after the earthquake, some 550,000 people are still living in camps. Why do you think the process of reconstruction so slow?
There are many reasons. Rubble needs to be cleared from the earthquake-affected zone and the government must be able to decide on and invest in large urban development programmes. Due to the lack of a cadastre, land propriety is not regulated or defined, in neither the urban nor in rural areas of the country and some funds promised for Haiti have not materialised. These are just a few of the many factors delaying reconstruction.

Photo: Sophie Preisch
At the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo/Port-au-Prince
SOS Children's Villages has implemented different measures in the field of education. Can you explain how the public educational system works in Haiti?

The scourge of the Haitian education system is two-fold: the quality of education is relatively poor and school infrastructure is either non-existent or in deplorable conditions. One major impediment for improvement is that 80% and more of Haitian schools are in private hands. This situation undermines efforts of the Haitian state to coordinate nation-wide reforms and to standardise quality education.

What is the approach of SOS Children's Villages in terms of education in Haiti?
The situation in terms of education illustrated above has made SOS Children's Villages Haiti concentrate on both "bricks and brains". While we rehabilitate a certain number of public and community schools, we are also developing a teacher’s training programme for SOS teachers and non-SOS teachers in order to improve their capabilities to use child-centred pedagogy.

How did you in your position perceive the cooperation of NGOs, how are they coordinated?
Although SOS Children's Villages Haiti currently has more than 20 national and international partners, the coordination between NGOs does not work smoothly. Most international NGOs have their favourite partner and they sometimes work with community-based organisations. Also, most NGOs are connected via the UN cluster system but - except in the case of emergencies - NGOs usually stick to their own strategies and priorities which makes cooperation difficult.

What are the main factors to ensure a positive progress in Haiti?
I would say that Haitian politics must become more trustworthy by fighting corruption. At the same time government agencies need to be strengthened in terms of quality (policies and their implementation) and quantity (number of civil servants). This again would allow better coordination of NGOs and international aid in general. Finally, a stronger government could implement urgent reforms in all sectors for the sake of the population.

Looking back at the first two years after the earthquake: What were the main challenges for SOS Children's Villages and how could they have been better resolved?
I think that the biggest challenges for SOS Children's Villages are always at programme level: How can we ensure that the children in the SOS families receive the most appropriate care and how can we really strengthen the families in the communities and incite them to better care for their children. Having high quality programmes is the result of two factors: coherent and on-going training for our personnel combined with a coherent and attractive human resource policy.