Haiti’s Road Home: Rebuilding Lessons from the Gulf Coast

The Louisiana Road Home program was established to provide up to $150,000 for homeowners rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Almost 5 years after the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, the Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that one third of grant recipients have yet to rebuild and return home. Why? Garett Jones and Neighborhood Effects blogger Daniel Rothschild offered a few reasons last year in Forbes:

While initially designed to rapidly provide rebuilding assistance to residents, [the Road Home program] was loaded down with caveats and clauses meant to engineer a particular rebuilding plan, rather than allow the rebuilding to emerge spontaneously. Government rules became government direction, and private decision making was shoved into the back corner….

The biggest problem with Road Home was that it caused people to wait for promised federal help, and indeed, some people are still waiting. The initial promise of quick and easy government assistance combined with inept program administration and a 57-step application process mean that even [nearly five] years after Katrina, thousands of homeowners are still waiting for their checks…. So government action delayed private action and government plans crowded out local solutions.

Haiti — and the international commission that will direct its reconstruction — should heed lessons from the Gulf Coast recovery.

Yet development economist Jeffrey Sachs, like many other experts, advocates a centralized reconstruction strategy for the country. “There should be one overarching framework. There should be one major multi-donor bank account to finance the heavy outlays required for Haiti’s recovery. There should be a highly professional executive team co-ordinating the international support efforts.”

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission grants Sach’s wish. It will determine which reconstruction projects deserve funding and then disperse the $9.9 billion pledged by donors. But it must beware entangling Haitians in obstacles that plagued Gulf Coast rebuilders — crowding out of local solutions, creating bureaucratic red tape that delays recovery, and unintentionally encouraging inaction as citizens wait for government or international panaceas.

Evidence from the Road Home program suggests that the federal government’s Katrina recovery strategy encouraged residents to battle for grants rather than innovate creative solutions to overcome their challenges. The international community’s reconstruction strategy in Haiti must avoid doing the same.

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