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Three years since Haiti earthquake: Learning the art of listening

The third anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brings sober lessons for aid groups. First lesson: Listen more to locals.

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Boys sit on the rooftop of a home damaged by the 2010 earthquake, across from the Jean Marie Vincent camp where they now reside, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

AP Photo

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The third anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, has not drawn much attention. This is despite the fact that 1 out of every 2 Americans donated money to the relief and thousands of people from around the world volunteered to rebuild the Caribbean nation.

The reason is that the hope of “rebuilding Haiti better” after this particularly big natural disaster is, well, still largely a hope. The obstacles of reconstructing a new Haiti have proved steep – such as ineffective government, powerful elites, not to mention hurricanes since then. Billions in aid has flowed in. Yet, to cite just one example of slow progress, more than 350,000 people are still living in tents.

In addition, foreign aid groups are learning difficult lessons about not overpromising, about listening to local people, and about cooperating with each other. Why, for example, did two aid groups each build peanut-butter factories when only one is needed?

Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy to Haiti since 2009, told Esquire magazine soon after the quake of a key lesson: “You can’t forget [Haitians are] listening when you say you are going to do things, and I try not to overpromise. Mostly, I think people who have been worked over and messed around with, they kind of get it. Now, I also believe they could withdraw their support from me if they feel I don’t do anything.”

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