The road to recovery is paved with trust

UN Development Programme
5 min readMar 28, 2022

SURGE Advisor Nermine Mohamed Wally reflects on her first-responders mission to Haiti in the aftermath of the August 2021 earthquake.

By Nermine Mohamed Wally, Programme Specialist, UNDP

The impact of the August 2021 earthquake in Haiti was exacerbated by Tropical Storm Grace, which made landfall two days later. Photo: UNDP Haiti

It all happened so fast. I was working at UNDP’s headquarters in New York when I received the call from the global crisis response team to deploy to Haiti, which had just been hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. The impact had been devastating, and they urgently needed people on the ground to begin the response and recovery efforts. They asked if I spoke French. I confirmed, and I was on my way.

The view from a UN flight to assess damage and formulate an emergency response. Video: UNDP/Nermine Mohamed Wally

As a member of UNDP’s pool of SURGE advisors, I have been trained to be sent into crisis situations in the aftermath of disasters. The role of a UNDP SURGE team is to deliver immediate and targeted support to the affected population in a very short period of time.

It was time for me to put my training into practice.

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake demolished not only buildings but also roads and national networks, hindering efforts to deliver emergency shelter, food and water. Photos: UNDP/Gerson Brandao and UNDP/Nermine Mohamed Wally

When crisis strikes — twice

The impact of the earthquake in Haiti was exacerbated by Tropical Storm Grace, which made landfall two days later. Around 2,300 lives were lost and more than 10,000 people were injured in these two events. Around 1.2 million people, including more than half a million children, were in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Homes were destroyed, hospitals and schools were demolished, and roads were cut off, rendering access to shelter and delivery of protection impossible.

When crisis hits, traditional humanitarian actions focus on delivering lifesaving services such as food, health kits and temporary shelter to alleviate suffering. The UNDP SURGE team complements these efforts by recalibrating local capacities and working with the community and local actors to sustain the delivery of services when the humanitarians exit.

At Mairie de Cavaillon, the team met with the mayor and community leaders. The building previously renovated by UNDP was partially destroyed during the earthquake. Photo: UNDP/Nermine Mohamed Wally

My task was to support the Country Office management in coordinating UNDP’s recovery efforts. With a team of experts, I developed plan to mobilize additional capacities and resources for recovery and rehabilitation. This included recruiting additional people, such as engineers, early recovery and livelihood experts, to implement sector-specific actions, and allocating resources to support the functions of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office to help the Government of Haiti implement a nationally-driven recovery.

Lespwa fè viv

Haiti is a magnificent country. Its struggle for emancipation and self-determination is inspirational and cannot be separated from the work we pursue as development professionals.

It was a republic formed and led by Black leaders who rose against slavery at a time when other nations remained under colonial rule. In the late 18th Century, while the Haitians were revolting to reclaim their freedom, my country, Egypt, was being invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte.

It brings to mind the creole proverb lespwa fè viv. Hope gives life.

To me, the country’s rich if difficult history indicates the level of consciousness, courage and resilience Haitians possess. It gives me hope that, despite the immense challenges, Haitians can overcome this latest blow and emerge stronger and better prepared for the next.

Hurricane Matthew was an unforgiving category 4 storm that left tens of thousands stranded in 2016. The SURGE response relied on the same actors and organizations who were active then to start recovery work after the 2021 earthquake. Photo: UN/Logan Abassi

Destination: Grand Sud

With the arrival of the SURGE planning team, we boarded the UN flight from Port-au-Prince to Jérémie, the capital of Grand’Anse. In three days, we were able to visit three departments and eight communities most affected by the earthquake.

Trauma accumulated from frequent disasters was identified as one of the key obstacles for the communities. Children and their parents did not want to stay in any indoor structures because they did not feel safe. But when I spoke with people who lost their homes, I was struck by their will to stand up and regain their lives — many were already working to repair or rebuild.

We knew then that one of the areas where UNDP support could have the greatest impact was the housing sector. We worked side by side with UN agencies and other partners to ensure that self-repair was done properly and was backed by local expertise, incorporating lessons learnt from the 2010 earthquake and 2016 hurricane responses.

The SURGE team prepares to board a UN Humanitarian Air Service flight, headed to the most affected areas in Grand Sud. Photo: UNDP/Nermine Mohamed Wally

Incremental gains

In Pestel, a remote commune of 87,000 inhabitants, roads were badly destroyed and over 80 percent of the people were hit hard by the earthquake. In part because of previous work done through UNDP field offices to strengthen the role of the Office of Mayor, the organization was well-equipped to reach these remote areas and help address their most urgent needs.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, UNDP partnered with the Directorate for Civil Protection of Haïti (DGPC) to help around 23,000 households in cities such as Les Cayes, Jérémie, Corail, Anse-à-Veau, l’Asile and Miragoâne. It also provided around 22 tons of equipment to humanitarian organizations.

“In such turmoil, the Country Office was able to count on the SURGE team right after the earthquake in the Southern Region of Haiti,” said UNDP Haiti Resident Representative Fernando Hiraldo.

Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) is another important piece in the crisis response puzzle. By assessing economic and physical damage, it allows the government to determine priority recovery needs and plan how best to respond to them. UNDP Haiti and SURGE Advisors collaborated with other partners on the ground to produce the assessment in six weeks.

Heavy equipment is brought in to start clearing rubble as post-disaster needs assessments continue. Photo: UNDP Haiti

The essential ingredient

The SURGE plan and PDNA identified practical steps and resources to implement a full-scale recovery programme in Haiti which aims to build on earlier development gains. The SURGE team handed this plan over to the UNDP Country Office, which will continue to work with local and national authorities to deliver it.

During my deployment to Haiti, I learned that trust is an essential ingredient to a successful recovery. I also learned that trust must be earned over time. I was able to witness the trust that had been built over the past 15 years through UNDP’s ongoing work with local communities, and see the role that it played in enabling us to work rapidly to help these communities recover.

I feel privileged to have served Haiti as part of the UNDP SURGE team and meet a population that is so resilient, creative and life loving.