The HC Interview: Haiti

18 October, 2011
HC Nigel Fisher visits a Cholera Treatment Center in St Mark, 25 October 2010. Credit: MINUSTAH
HC Nigel Fisher visits a Cholera Treatment Center in St Mark, 25 October 2010. Credit: MINUSTAH

Since April 2010, Nigel Fisher has led a massive relief operation to help millions of Haitians overcome a string of devastating disasters.  On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroyed vast parts of the capital city of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas – killing several hundred thousand people, and leaving 1.5 million struggling to survive in thousands of ad-hoc camps.  

This was followed by a cholera epidemic in October 2010, which has so far infected 450,000 people and claimed more than 6,500 lives. Later that same month, Hurricane Tomas caused 23 deaths and more destruction.  And today, rising food and fuel prices threaten hundreds of thousands of Haitians with malnutrition and economic hardship.

Nigel Fisher´s career spans three decades in a dozen countries, predominantly countries in conflict, notably as HC, RC and DSRSG in post-Taliban Afghanistan, two stints as UNICEF´s Special Representative – first for post-genocide Rwanda and the Great Lake Region in Central Africa and later for Afghanistan post 9/11, with other assignments in northern Iraq, Yemen and Mozambique.

A Canadian national, he was also UNICEF´s Director of Emergency Operations, and an adviser to Canada’s foreign minister on children and armed conflict. With all this behind him, Mr Fisher still considers Haiti to be one of his most challenging assignments to date.
Q: What is so challenging in Haiti?

A: Before I came here, I had not experienced such widespread destruction and suffering due to a natural disaster. Both the scope of the devastation, and the predominantly urban environment in which we have been operating, have been some of the biggest hurdles.  Clearing millions of cubic meters of debris generated by the collapse of 80,000 houses, building tens of thousands of transitional shelters, repairing damaged houses, tracking the movement of displaced people in a tumultuous urban context: all these were new challenges for most humanitarian actors, who themselves were living and working in tents in the first months after the quake.

Most of the affected Haitians lived in poverty before the earthquake, and depended on a precarious informal urban economy which collapsed in a few short seconds. The earthquake took place in Haiti’s economic heartland, and wiped out 120 per cent of the country´s GDP in less than a minute.  

I also did not imagine that such a small country could be faced with so many intractable problems – the absence of a functioning land tenure system, of building standards, deep poverty, social inequality, poor environmental sanitation, entrenched gender-based violence, political instability and weak national institutions. This combination of factors makes it very difficult to obtain decisions on critical issues, for example, on land allocation for the relocation of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still in camps, or for disposal of waste and garbage.

This is also a country where the “blame game” thrives, and many people claim no progress has been made. But considerable progress has been made on the humanitarian front, to shelter and protect displaced people.  We see development investments starting to bear fruit. However so many of the challenges we see around us arise from structural deficiencies that existed prior to 12 January 2010.

Q: Haiti is embarking on the road to recovery while still facing humanitarian needs.  Can the two processes go together?

A: They must! There is no other option. We must look to longer-term solutions to address the many difficulties that face the Haitian people – economic development, the creation of jobs, agricultural and environmental regeneration, vastly more accessible social services. My combined functions of Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator have never been so critical as now, when we are looking at ways to create bridges between immediate life-saving programmes and activities that will enable the country to get back on its feet.

Haiti is still acutely vulnerable to sudden-onset natural disasters: hurricanes, flooding and, ironically, regional droughts. Food insecurity and malnutrition are prevalent and we can expect periodic outbreaks of cholera. In this kind of situation, I am not sure the distinction between “humanitarian” and “development” is helpful.  

In situations when emergency response and development needs are so intertwined, we as humanitarians have to think through our response – quickly supporting job creation is as important as providing shelter and protection.

Likewise, development actors have to be on the ground on Day 1 post-disaster, for example to create financing mechanisms for local enterprises to get back on their feet. 

Finally, we have a United Nations Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH) here in Haiti – but this is not a country in civil conflict, so we have to be clear on what constitutes “humanitarian space” in such an environment. Lots to think about!


Nigel Fisher is the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti.

Reporting by Emmanuelle Schneider, OCHA Haiti.

Keyword search