Canadian Red Cross admits that ‘permanent’ homes in Haiti only have 15-year lifespan

Natasha Dumolas and her three children, aged five, seven and 11, at their home in Haiti, which was built by the Canadian Red Cross.

The Canadian Red Cross is easing off previous claims that it helped build 7,500 “permanent homes” in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake, acknowledging now that the homes likely have a life span of “approximately 15 years.”

The relief agency can’t say for certain how many of the homes are still standing or inhabited as it doesn’t plan to do a comprehensive assessment until 2017, officials said.

Scrutiny of how charities allocated money in the quake-ravaged Caribbean nation has intensified in recent weeks following a damning investigative report that found the American Red Cross — which raised a half-billion dollars — failed to follow through on key promises. One of the most startling revelations in the report by Pro Publica and NPR: While the relief agency claims to have provided housing to more than 130,000 people, it actually built only six permanent homes.

The report has sparked calls for a congressional hearing into the charity’s finances.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Red Cross told reporters it raised $222 million in donations for Haiti and that $65 million went toward the construction of 7,500 “permanent homes” in the coastal areas of Jacmel and Leogane.

That drew immediate skepticism from the Canada Haiti Action Network, a watchdog group. “I frankly doubt the Canadian Red Cross claims to have constructed 7,500 houses in Haiti,” spokesman Roger Annis said in an email. “I suspect that … it is speaking of semi-permanent structures.”

A review of the Canadian Red Cross’ own publications shows that the agency has previously described the 18-square-metre homes as “transitional shelters.”

Asked for clarification, Canadian Red Cross spokesman Nathan Huculak said the wooden shelter design evolved in 2010-2011 and the homes were constructed with “more robust specifications than considered at the outset of the project.”

The homes were built to withstand hurricane-strength winds and constructed using rot-resistant treated lumber and insulated metal roofing.

“As a consequence and subject to individual circumstances, the structures should remain in good condition for many years,” he said. “CRC projects the lifespan to be approximately 15 years.

Huculak was unable to connect the National Post with someone on the ground in Haiti to discuss the current status of the homes. Previous surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012 showed the homes had 90-per-cent occupancy, Huculak said. An analysis of the physical condition of the homes and another occupancy survey are scheduled for 2017.

Architect Tom Carnegie, who oversaw the design and implementation of the housing project, said in an interview that the homes were built with sustainability in mind and the Canadian Red Cross was “generally known to be providing one of the most durable structures” — ones that could be modified or expanded down the road.

Rather than building the shelters “stick by stick” on the spot, officials decided it would be more efficient to assemble parts of the homes in Canada and use local crews in Haiti to erect them. Quebec-based company Maisons Laprise was contracted to do the prefabrication.

Paralegals worked to get permission from landowners to build the new homes on their properties. The Canadian Red Cross ensured families — roughly 80 per cent of whom rented before the earthquake — were provided with titles of ownership allowing them to move with the homes in the event that relationships with landowners soured.

The new homes were designed so they could be easily disassembled and unbolted if they needed to be moved, Huculak said. “It’s as permanent as those people will ever know.”

The wisdom of building transitional shelters after a major disaster has been the subject of much debate, according to a 2013 research paper published by Oxford Brookes University in England.

Critics say transitional shelters may suit the budgets, time frames and marketing needs of NGOs but fail to meet long-term needs and may remove political incentives for governments to assist in reconstruction. A lack of planning can cause transitional shelters to turn into poor-quality permanent housing, the paper said.

But, in the case of Leogane, Haiti, which saw 80 to 90 per cent of its buildings destroyed, the transitional shelter approach may have provided “the best possible solution for the worst possible situation,” author Avery Doninger wrote.

“The approach may have been stop-gap, but it is difficult to imagine that any other strategy would have provided the same kind of protection.”

Source: National Post Douglas Quan | June 12, 2015

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