http://www.humanitarian.info/2010/01/24/reinventing-haiti/ – Paul Currion
humanitarian.infobecause information can save lives Reinventing Haiti with 11 comments Some people are attached to “Build Back Better”, and it bothers me. If we want to “build back” a country that was such a nightmare that most of the citizens basically wanted to get the hell out, build back better is the way to go; if we want to participate in a project that has clear ideological intent to sustain the status quo with marginal improvements in people’s lives, then build back better is the slogan to front it. I don’t want that; I want something new, something better than Build Back Better. Architecture for Humanity volubly disagreed with me on Twitter, which is ironic, because they’re exactly the sort of organisation that I’d like to see get more play in the great game of aid – see their plan for reconstruction if you don’t believe me. I don’t have a coherent over-arching plan to fix Haiti, because coherent over-arching plans to fix Haiti will fail – that’s kind of the point when it comes to dealing with complex systems like countries, right? So perhaps I should clarify what I meant when I said Just Say No by providing a few examples: •Reinvent Building. Shelter is critical to most service delivery in an emergency, but particularly after earthquakes when people have lost their housing. Now’s the time to introduce sustainable housing using techniques such as rammed earth construction, supported by a radical land rights regime based on the work of Hernando de Soto. •Reinvent Sanitation. The industrialised model of sanitation simply doesn’t scale in rapidly-growing cities in developing countries, sometimes creating more problems than they solve. There are alternatives to the flush-and-forget toilet, so why not roll out composting toilets that enable more effective management of human waste as well as supporting urban agriculture? •Reinvent Agriculture. It might seem strange to talk about farming in the middle of the city, but if it can work in Detroit, then why not Port-au-Prince? Permaculture projects hit several sweet spots all at once – not just food security but waste management, livelihoods and so on – and an alternative to the more destructive patterns that Haiti suffered before. •Reinvent Power. Solar solar solar isn’t the answer to every question, particularly at large scale, but it hits a lot of household usage in poor countries (including the ubiquitous mobile phone). There are smart ideas like the FLAP bag floating around, but basic solar – solar cookers, for example – have been around for a while. Anything to shift away from wood. •Reinvent Communications. Forget restoring any landlines that might have existed before the earthquake, because I bet that everybody was using mobile phones anyway. Roll out free wireless broadband across the city – maybe find a use for those OLPCs that are hanging around in warehouses (eventually), but more importantly create new business opportunities. •Reinvent Transport. Segways! Not really. Roads are for the rich; why not think about the needs of the poor and simply make sure there are pavements? A simple but profound idea if you want to go for a walk without falling into a hole filled with dirty water and metal poles. In an ideal world, there’d be some integrated transport plan that looked at how to convert tap-taps to LPG, but even I’m not that silly. •Reinvent Finance. Facilitate the free flow of remittances, even if they’re not the biggest link in the chain of solidarity… but it would be interesting to see what happened if, instead of channelling funding through big multilaterals and the Haitian “government”, cash grants were used to kickstart the economy through community finance mechanisms and plain old cash distributions. •Reinvent Governance. We all love democracy, the worst form of government. Unfortunately we tend to forget that democracy comes in different flavours; it’s frustrating when the cloning attempts repeatedly fail and everybody acts surprised. So let’s be more inventive – community-level direct democracy, emergent rather than directed policy, referenda rather than elections, issue-based not party-based, and so on. Am I naive to think that these things are possible? Well, no, because I don’t really believe these things are possible. To be clear – none of these things are part of the immediate humanitarian response, but we should be thinking about knitting together Haiti’s social fabric before it suffers permanent trauma through a range of small-scale exploratory projects, rather than calling for a Marshall Plan for Haiti. Unfortunately that’s the way that the international community responds – too much planning and not enough searching. The tool kit available to the aid bureaucracy is almost comically limited; there are numerous small projects going on around the world that can make a difference in people’s lives, but the challenge is placing them in a long-term view of reinvention. We’re not very good at thinking in realistic timeframes for country-level development, forgetting exactly how long it took rich countries to get rich and how recently that wealth arrived. There are two main obstacles: first, existing institutional structures will work very hard indeed to replicate themselves, and they have the leverage; second, scaling up is incredibly difficult to achieve past anything more than the level of an extended community. The institutional structures are the same ones that brought you – Afghanistan! Iraq! most of Africa! – i.e. structures that have repeatedly demonstrated that they’re most likely not fit for purpose. And scaling up? That’s where the real work is – trying to rebuild from the inside these systems that have grown up over the years, using the same tools that built those systems in the first place. I’ve been trying to work this out for most of my working life, and I still don’t have many good solutions. So if anybody has any other ideas for reinventing Haiti, plug them into the comments below – and don’t come screaming with approaches that are so radical that nobody outside the US will ever use them, please…. In the meantime, there are lives to save, and I have to write an evaluation report on NGO co-ordination in Southern Sudan.
because information can save lives
Haiti is on my (thankfully) short list of “Countries for which I genuinely can’t see a solution”. It’s a possibility that we don’t like to think about – that perhaps there are certain situations which countries (loosely defined) cannot get out of. There’s no logical reason why this couldn’t happen – read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “The Ingenuity Gap” back-to-back to get a loose idea of what I’m talking about – but our natural instincts are to deny the possibility.
The argument is simple, and it goes like this. Societies are complex systems that rely on a wide range of mutually-reinforcing factors in order to maintain themselves. We don’t actually understand all the factors that are in play, let alone how they interact with each other, but some of the more visible relationships make it possible to make reasonable estimates of the health of the system. To anybody who’s investigated Haiti’s situation, it’s clear that it was a complex system that was failing, if it hadn’t failed already.
I refuse to use the term failed state, a political construction used to justify a particular ideological position; Tyler Cowen is closer to the mark when he talks about coming to terms “with the idea that the country of Haiti, as we knew it, probably does not exist any more.” It’s a little mysterious why he thinks that it’s President Obama that needs to comes to terms with it, rather than, say, the people who live in Haiti, particularly because it’s the latter who get to say if their country doesn’t exist any more.
Which brings me to the question: if I’m such a Gloomy Gus about Haiti’s prospects, do I have any positive thoughts about the situation? It’s going to take a long time to clear the rubble – both physical and emotional – but the opportunity before us collectively is huge. Let’s stop talking about reconstruction, when we’d be reconstructing a system that was a failure even before the quake; let’s stop talking about long-term development when long-term development had clearly failed to deliver significant poverty reduction.
Instead, let’s talk about reinventing Haiti. What sort of Haiti would its citizens like to see rise from the ashes of the old Haiti? The answer, unfortunately, will not be to the taste of those in power both inside Haiti and out. We don’t have the tools to respond to the wishes of people affected by the earthquake simply because it’s not within the parameters by which the system was designed. Alternative models of governance, of urban planning, of service delivery – they literally can’t be considered.
What might reinvention involve? I’ve got ideas (what else did you think?) but the whole point is that it’s not up to me. Our job is to look at the role that our decisions have played in building a structure that knew Haiti was an accident waiting to happen but prevented anybody from taking action to prevent it; even now we’re reaping the results of that in the logistics bottlenecks facing the relief effort, in a city built against resilience. Forget about reinventing the wheel; the real danger is reinventing Haiti as it was.
The earthquake that struck Haiti is a terrible disaster that requires the international community to provide both immediate aid to save lives and longer-term support to rebuild infrastructure and livelihoods. Even as I write those words, I’m reading between the lines, and my sympathy for the Haitians affected by the quake is tempered outweighed by my anger at an international system that allows Haiti to languish at the bottom end of the Human Development league, but mobilises millions of dollars as soon as infrastructure collapses.
Nobody can deny that Haiti needs assistance right now to save lives, but it also needed assistance yesterday when the infant mortality rate was the 37th lowest in the world. When it comes to natural disasters, we – our governments, our media, ourselves – are victims of the same biases that cause impulse buying at the supermarket. Thousands of people dying from buildings falling on them instantly mobilises a huge amount of resources, but thousands of children dying from easily preventable diseases is just background noise. This is the uncomfortable reality of the aid world, but it’s not one that our media or governments really wants to hear.
I’m not looking to condemn any particular individual or organisation that wants to help in whatever way they can, but if we think there’s something wrong with that picture, perhaps we shouldn’t just be handing over money to our chosen charity, but lobby for the following:
- Develop a more consistent and more coherent aid architecture that takes a long view of human capability instead of a short term view of human suffering.
- Encourage more creative approaches to rebuilding Port-au-Prince for an urban plan that meets the needs of the poor, not just the rich, and builds more resilient communities.
- Put an end to the portrayal of Haitians (and others) as victims and takes notice of the fact that they are the ones who responded first to this emergency.
My thoughts go out to the people of Haiti; first suffering the earthquake, and now the international community.