In a place like Haiti, overseeing disaster management and relief is no small task. Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste has been doing it for over a decade and her passion for getting everyone involved - especially the most vulnerable - is setting the country on a more resilient course.
Most of us spend our lives trying not to think about disasters. But Madame Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste is different; she spends each day preparing for the worst.
Madame Jean-Baptiste has been leading disaster response and preparedness efforts in Haiti for over 10 years. As you can imagine, in a country exposed to natural hazards on an annual basis, her job is a big one, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
A bit shy, with the kindest eyes and a welcoming smile, you might not expect the fervor and passion she has for disaster preparedness and response – but it’s evident as soon as you get her talking.
A trained agronomist, Madame Jean-Baptiste began her career working with farmers in rural Haiti. And it was there that her concern for disaster risk reduction (DRR) took root. “I started to feel more passionate and engaged in the situation of farmers,” she says, “and I began to realize that they were often losing their assets because of disasters.”
Often is right. Haiti endures the devastating effects of natural hazards from mudslides and flooding to hurricanes and earthquakes every year – and sometimes many times in one year. Each incident wreaks havoc on communities – toppling houses, destroying farms, killing and injuring many – setting already vulnerable people back further than before.
It’s clear Madame Jean-Baptiste’s heart is never far from these farmers. She always comes back to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable as the ultimate motivation for her work, day in and day out.
Madame Jean-Baptiste began her government career as an Emergency Coordinator – organizing, planning, and reporting during emergencies around the country – and really, designing Haiti’s national disaster response system from the ground up. “At the time, the structure of the DRR system was just being built,” she explained. “So that was a good moment for me to jump in and lead the creation of the system and the national structure. My unique desire was to create something important and durable.”
There was much to be done. At the time, the country was doing little in terms of disaster preparedness, primarily reacting from a central level when tragedy struck. The structure was inadequate, which was made painfully clear in 2004 when huge floods hit Gonaïves – where Madame Jean-Baptiste grew up – killing more than 2,000 people and displacing thousands more.
As the newly appointed acting head of the Haitian Civil Protection Agency (DPC) – the center she still runs – the flood was her first big challenge and a wake-up call for her and her team.
“The responders weren’t even able to get to the area because the roads were too flooded,” she explained. The flood made it clear that sending people in from the capital was not enough to save lives, so she began developing a decentralized strategy – giving local leaders and communities the skills, tools, and knowledge they needed to act quickly.
Stand with local leaders like Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste: Ask your member of Congress to introduce the STRIDE for Self-Reliance Act, which will help put frontline communities at the heart of emergency preparedness and response
Then in 2010, to everyone’s horror, Haiti experienced its biggest disaster yet: a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, one early January evening. It was a catastrophe on a scale no one was prepared for – leveling cities, killing more than 200,000, injuring 300,000, and displacing 1.5 million people.
As the world watched, donations poured in, and the international community – the United Nations, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), and volunteers – descended on the small island nation in the name of response and recovery.
“Following the earthquake, the government was not in control,” said Madame Jean-Baptiste. Not only had the government suffered terrible losses in the quake, but the staff that remained were often consigned to the sidelines of the humanitarian response. Of the estimated $9 billion that flowed into Haiti post-earthquake, less than 2 percent of it went to Haitian NGOs, businesses, or the government, with over 98 percent spent through INGOs, contractors, and donor or military agencies. And there was no system for coordinating the work of the international organizations with government bodies like the DPC.
“This was a disaster in itself, when as a donor, you put resources in the hands of NGOs who don’t have the obligation to work with the government and respect the priorities of the country,” she said adamantly. ”After that experience, we in the government made it clear that we would no longer operate that way.”
So they got organized. With the support of international donors like the World Bank and USAID, they trained over 3,000 volunteers to become part of operational teams throughout the country, pre-positioned materials and supplies for response, and created a system for coordination and communication to ensure needs are met and efforts are not duplicated.
And just nine months after the earthquake, a cholera outbreak put their work to the test.
“If you took the earthquake and cholera as examples from 2010, you would see big difference between the two the way they were managed,” explained Madame Jean-Baptiste. “When cholera hit, the state made it clear that we were in the lead and had the mandate to act…We set up an Ops Center, where we took on a variety of initiatives to combat the outbreak, including a communication hotline for community members to report emergencies. We understood our weaknesses after the earthquake, so we worked hard to make the cholera response coordinated and local.”
‘We don’t talk about aid anymore’
Though six years have passed since the earthquake, there is still a lot of work to be done in Haiti, and for Madame Jean-Baptiste and her team, local is still the name of the game. Everywhere she goes, she stresses the importance not only of Haiti being able to take charge of disaster response and preparedness at the country level, but for communities within Haiti to do the same for themselves.
In Caradeux, a post-earthquake refugee camp turned neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, that’s just what they’re doing. Their most important tool: a map.
With initial support and training from the DPC and Cordaid, a group of 52 volunteers went door to door, collecting all the information they could about their community. The map includes the locations of every business and household; the ages, economic status, and unique skills of community members; and anything else that might be useful to know in an emergency. It’s even updated when someone has a baby.
“What we want is for communities to understand that the DPC is meant to support their capacity, not fulfill their needs,” said Ralph Emmanuel, the lead Cordaid staff member on the project.
“The map represents the reality of the community,” said Jean Baptiste Herns, one of the leading community volunteers. “It identifies the resources we already have, whether human or material, so we’re able to see what we have and what we need to do.”
Now, whenever they’re alerted to a storm or other threat, the volunteers get to work, going door- to-door and providing support and direction to their neighbors about how to stay safe. “We organize ourselves so the village is prepared,” said Jean Pierre Daniel, another volunteer. “Even if there is just a possibility of emergency we take preventive measures.”
The volunteers are proud of the things they’ve learned and what they’ve accomplished already—and rightly so.
“We understand that the risk is diminished based on the capacity you have, and now that we’re trained we can use the knowledge and talent of the community to make us resilient,” said Herns.
The people of Caradeux have since taken on several new initiatives beyond DRR to improve their situation. From pooling their money to buy a TV for kids’ movie nights—giving children a safe space to be and play—to arranging for regular water service for the entire community through small weekly contributions from its members.
“We don’t talk about aid anymore, we talk about capacity building,” said Daniel.
Vision for a new Haiti
It’s Madame Jean-Baptiste’s hope that she and her team can share Caradeux’s example with communities across the country. At the same time, she’s fighting for the government legalization of the disaster coordination and response structure, and the continual improvement of their operational systems. She envisions a system that reinforces the capacities of volunteers, local and national NGOs, and government entities like the Ministry of Public Health—a coordinated effort, with protecting the most vulnerable at its core.
That way, not only will communities be better prepared themselves, the government will be equipped and ready to support them and able to fully coordinate an international response, if needed – which will set Haiti up to save more lives, farms, businesses, and communities from the worst of the next hazard.
“DRR is an area that requires a lot of time, passion, and empathy for the victims and their situation. And a lot of leadership to help others understand and follow your vision,” Madame Jean-Baptiste explains.
And having come this far, there’s no doubt, she’ll continue to lead Haiti toward that vision.
Right now less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance is used to support local humanitarian organizations in emergencies. It’s time to put more aid resources and decision-making where they should be: in the hands of local humanitarians in countries affected by disaster, conflict, or other crisis.
This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local humanitarians who are leading disaster prevention and response in their countries – working to ensure communities are protected and empowered in disasters, conflict or other crisis. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.