14 February 2010

Further Defining Our Role in Developing a Sustainable Future for Haiti

Posted by jcloud under: Emergency; Forum; Future; Haiti; Resiliency; Sustainability .

Just following what appear to be the next logical steps in terms of “convening a conversation around a sustainable future for Haiti,” it seems clear we need to define some further specifics. As other groups decide what they want to focus on, we can collaborate more effectively if we know what we want to focus on. (If you are interested in contributing to this dialogue, please see my specific questions at the end of this posting.)

In the Treehugger interview of Matt Petersen of Global Green, he stated that their priorities were:

  • To inform the codes and system for enforcing codes for rebuilding.
  • Identifying school(s) and partner groups to help ensure disaster-resistant, energy efficient/sufficient, and healthy construction.
  • Identifying partners to do the same with homes (we’re talking to Habitat about this).
  • Working with others to identify and support re-forestation, ideally via a network that supports women to lead the charge and supports job creation.

Jesse Fox, the interviewer, followed this up with:

From my reading of the situation, there are three groups forming around reconstruction: one composed of the Haitian government, various states and international institutions, one composed of non-Haitian NGO’s, and one composed of Haitian building professionals. Is this an accurate reading of what’s going on? What sort of interaction is shaping up between these groups, which presumably have differing agendas and ideas?

Petersen’s response was that “no [one] group can come in and dictate how to rebuild – it needs to involve, if not be led by, the local professionals and practitioners in the building industry, informed by the best expertise from other places.”

It seems to me that there is plenty of room to focus on complementary areas with other groups. Our initial focus was not even mentioned here, except for the brief reference to reforestation, and that’s infrastructure – the roads, sewage treatment systems, power lines, communications, and so on – that need to be built in a sustainable way from the get-go.

A few other key points from this interview:

The role of corporate interests:

MP: “I think this is a real and serious concern. We just pulled out of an emerging dialogue around reconstructing facilities because it was not clear the roles – and remuneration – some of the partners, who are known to be government contractors, would play.

“In New Orleans, we’ve seen billions spent via government contractors, but with little long-term job creation or value added provided to the job base. We suggested to the office of a US Senator that one of the things they could do is to ensure that the State Department and AID provide some of the funding to women-run groups to help with reforestation or other critical needs of Haiti, not just to big contractors. It sounds risky to bureaucrats, but in the end those dollars will be spent more effectively than we have seen in places like Iraq or New Orleans.”

Lessons from Katrina:

MP: “Well, Haiti is a very different place, of course, from New Orleans. There are some parallels of course, but the biggest difference we see is that New Orleans was sparsely populated for a long time after the hurricane – the diaspora was more extensive.

“We will wait and see how many Haitians stay in rural areas. If many do, it may be better if they can return to agrarian economy (and the US government stops perpetuating policies that provide unhealthy, subsidized foods for sale in Haiti on behalf of US corporations), which may be a better life for many if it can be joined by reforestation.

“Our key lesson learned – there are several we can share – was not coming in telling them how to build, but how building differently can improve their lives, their nation, and their economy.”

(And what about lessons from the Tsunami?)

Planning vs. spontaneous action:

MP: “I think we will see a bit of both – there will be lots of homes rebuilt ‘unofficially,’ while many developments – funded by outside groups for example – will need to wait for long-term planning and codes. Again, the question of the “temporary” settlements remains a huge challenge, or opportunity, depending on how you look at it.”

(I have to say that to me it looks like more of a challenge than an opportunity: people need shelter right away, but once it’s there, tearing it down and building over is not necessarily an option, so you leave people with things that are substandard.)

Treehugger seems to be one of the better vehicles for keeping up with these issues. Here’s one short list of active groups that are working on various aspects of “green”: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/01/help-for-haiti-earthquake-aftermath-giving-green.php

The Banana Project: A project that converts the so-called ‘waste’ of banana ‘trees’ into quality notepad paper, creating skills and business opportunities for women’s groups. http://bananaproject.com/en/

Viva Rio’s Biogas: The Brazilian non governmental organization (NGO) Viva Rio had built toilets in the slums of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince and transform the human waste in a methane bio-digester to generate biogas and up to 3,000 Watts of energy per day. http://www.vivario.org.br/publique/cgi/cgilua.exe/sys/start.htm?tpl=home&UserActiveTemplate=_vivario_en

D-Lab’s Sugarcane Cookers: The famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and their hardworking D-Lab under the guidance of the indefatigable Amy Smith have developed heaps of appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions, many of which are used by the people of Haiti. These include sugarcane cooking charcoal made from sugarcane waste (bagasse), phase change incubators, low cost water testers and screenless flour hammermills. http://d-lab.mit.edu/about

Operation Green Leaves: With less than 2% of Haiti’s forest still intact OGL has been initiating reforestation programs with vigor. For example their Trees for Life campaign plants trees on mountaintops to arrest soil erosion, whilst also providing families in affected areas with kerosene stove as an alternative to cooking with tree-derived charcoal. They’ve also planted thousands of fruit and forest trees with other partner organizations. http://www.oglhaiti.com/

The Lambi Fund: This not for profit organization pursues a variety of environmental and social programs in Haiti. Their sustainable agricultural projects help increase food security and income for peasant families. Their pig and goat breeding projects contribute to the economic development of rural communities. Community cisterns and irrigation systems help communities secure safe and efficient water supplies. And their community-based reforestation projects help curb the most rapid forest destruction in the Western Hemisphere. http://www.lambifund.org/aboutus.shtml

Haiti Green Project: As with other Haitian environmental programs the Haiti Green Project has as its primary goal the reforestation of the country. But they believe the problem is so large that it requires all hands on deck if it is to succeed, so they are working not only tree planting projects, but also on endeavors to engage and educate Haiti youth. On programs that will provide them with education, employment and respect in the creation of extensive forests. http://www.haitigreenproject.org/

Architecture for Humanity: And as expected, the ever reliable and truly awe inspiring Architecture for Humanity group have already swung into action, and have their donation page up, so they can get a grassroots network of architects, designers and building professionals working with the local people of Haiti to provide appropriate buildings and shelter. http://architectureforhumanity.org

More importantly perhaps, AFH has a discussion of the realities of reconstruction at http://architectureforhumanity.org/updates/2010-02-12-haiti-quake-a-plan-for-reconstruction:

When we are rebuilding, do not let the media set the time line and expectations for reconstruction. I remember vividly well known news personalities standing on the rubble of homes in the lower ninth proclaiming that ‘this time next year we will see families back home.’ Some well meaning NGOs, who usually have little building experience, are even worse — ‘we’ll have 25,000 Haitians back home if you donate today.’ In reality, here is what it really looks like:

  • Pre-Planning Assessments and Damage Analysis (underway, will run for a year)
  • Establish Community Resource Center and Reconstruction Studio (Week 6 to Month 3)
  • Sorting Out Land Tenure and Building Ownership (Month 6 to Year 5)
  • Transitional Shelters, Health Clinics and Community Structures (Month 6 to Year 2)
  • Schools, Hospitals and Civic Structures (Month 9 to Year 3)
  • Permanent Housing (Year 1 to Year 5)

As for a long term plan, our team is growing day by day and thanks to hundreds of individual donations we now have the resources to start enacting a long term reconstruction initiative. The details are being fleshed out, but as [it is] here is our plan (so far):

1. Community Based Anchors

We will set up Community Resource Centers to supply architecture and building services to community groups, NGOs and social entrepreneurs on the ground. This is not an ‘exclusive’ center, it is open and collaborative. We’ve already talked with a dozen local and international organizations to create the Haiti Rebuilding Coalition. This team will be housed in each of these centers. See below for the value of these facilities. Want to start another? Donate today.

2. Distribute lessons learned

Translate and distribute a Rebuilding 101 Manual that we originally developed after Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami. If you just read aid agency websites you’d think they never got it wrong. In eastern Sri Lanka I sat with representatives from nine other NGO’s and we discovered in our ‘no BS sessions’ we had made the same $500 mistake. Collectively, that is a transitional school for 120 kids. Don’t get me started on New Orleans. If we only share ‘best practices’ we never really adapt and learn. The handbook of ‘what not to do’ is far more valuable. P.S. Read The Man Who Tried To Save The World on the work of Fred Cuny, the original NGO whistle-blower.

[UPDATE: Project Underway]

3. Earthquake Resistant Housing Manual

Adapt, translate and distribute an Earthquake Resistant Housing Manual for local NGOs and community groups. A coalition of partners can collaborate and work on this, including Haiti-based AIDG, Build Change, Engineers Without Borders and other engineering partners. We developed one after the Kashmir Earthquake a few years ago. This time we need to put them on every NGO workers’ Kindle and create a training manual for local contractors.

[UPDATE: Project Underway]

4. Provide Building Expertise

Provide teams of architectural and construction professionals to develop and build community facilities, including schools and medical centers. These teams will be local and regional with some international support. The full time staff must also have a unique knowledge of disaster mitigation and long term sustainable development. Also, the team is very site specific. In one of our programs we had an elephant migration expert to help locate buildings so as to not disturb the flow of animals.

[UPDATE: Partnership formed with AIDG for mason training program]

5. Build A Construction Workforce.

Train and educate incoming volunteers and community members in building safely, emphasizing the need for sustainable materials and construction techniques. It is not about just building homes, but jobs.

[UPDATE: Partnership formed with AIDG for mason training program]

6. Disaster Preparedness.

Hurricane Season! It is primed to devastate Haiti once again. The time line is such that if a hurricane hits Haiti head on, the loss of life will be severe and every temporary housing camp will be wiped out. Last year we had developed a youth sports facility and hurricane resistant disaster recovery center for Port au Prince. We will complete that project and look to implement other centers.

7. Build Schools

We will design, develop and implement community and civic structures for various locally-based community partners. This will include reconstruction and building educational facilities given the particular loss in structures and our expertise in school construction. Beyond the basic human right to give children access to education, if they don’t have a place to go, parents can’t work and there is no economic stability. Schools are the focal point in community recovery. We’ve talked with elementary and high schools all over the United States to adopt the rebuilding of schools in Haiti.

[UPDATE: Partnership formed with Barefoot Foundation and Haitian School Initiative (formerly Stillerstrong). Schools in development]

8. Implement Digital Acupuncture.

Working with groups like Inveneo, Samasource, AIDG and the 50 x 15 Foundation, we can incorporate ICT into all of the community facilities. Bridging the digital divide, we can give the aid agencies the technology they need to expedite the recovery process but also upgrade the digital infrastructure of Haiti in the long term.

9. Safe, Secure and Sustainable Housing.

Haitians are not going want to hear ideas; they need shelter. It is our job to build homes that are not only safe but incorporate the needs, desires and dreams of the families that will live in them. Additionally, like after Katrina, we are not just building a roof over someone’s head — we are building equity. To many, their home is their safety net. They don’t have 401Ks or investment accounts. If we build homes the same way they have been built before, we are just setting people up for this again. We can force better building codes by building examples of what the future will look like. Again, this will be a coalition of building partners.

[UPDATE: Refining Transitional Housing Developed for Sri Lanka in 2005]

10. Support Social Entrepreneurs and Job Creation

Like in many of our other post disaster programs, we will reach out and work with women’s empowerment groups and artisans (like Lulan Artisans) to help rebuild their facilities, speeding up job creation and the ability to distribute micro-loans (aka Kiva, etc.).

11. Open Source and Share Everything

If your focus is social change and not financial gain, it is only innovative if it is shared. We were fortunate enough to win the TED Prize in 2006, and from that we built the Open Architecture Network. All of the works we produce are shared openly, under Creative Commons license, and distributed through the network. In the two years we’ve run it, hundreds of other organizations and individuals have uploaded humanitarian design solutions.

By connecting with other NGOs and open sourcing construction documents, we can influence many building programs in the region. We can leave a legacy of innovative, locally appropriate solutions to protect from future disasters.

Ironically, we offered this entire system for free to the Obama administration for open sourcing all government infrastructure and making programs more transparent. If anyone in the administration is reading this, the offer is still on the table. I would personally love to see what was done with my Red Cross donation and our tax dollars.

Community Resource Centers

As we have reviewed the damage we’ve assessed the greatest impact is to open community recovery centers — much like the ones we help develop after Hurricane Katrina. The Katrina studios, supported by local partners, a myriad of NGO’s and staffed with building professionals, were integral in the housing of hundreds of families in Mississippi and Louisiana. If there is to be a community-focused long term reconstruction initiative for Haiti, we need to do the same.

Three reasons this is important:

1) Aid organizations, especially local groups, will know where they can go to get professional design and construction services. We can serve not one organization doing one project, but many. When we get it setup, they know they can walk in any day, at any time, to get professional help. This will prevent a lot of shoddy construction. We can host training sessions in job site safety and in basic building. We can make sure that these volunteers really do have the skills and knowledge they need to build safely in a seismic and hurricane zone. We can engage local officials and coordinate the services we and they provide better.

2) Volunteer professionals who want to come down for a week or a month or just a few days will have a place to check in and be helpful doing damage assessments, making housing plans, etc. Architects and engineers partnering with NGOs will have a local place where they can touch down and understand the local building codes and conditions. They can design remotely and know that someone will be shepherding the project on the ground and assisting as they need it. At the same time, the services will have some continuity and the community will have a place they know they can come for design and construction help.

4) We’ve already funded the first center independently, through online donations and support from our existing donors. We can run and manage specific building projects through the center with our design studio staff sharing resources and best practices. We can also vet contractors and train community members to be a part of the rebuilding process — making sure clients’ funds are directly benefiting the community, not only with an innovative structure but with job creation.

Our Katrina centers were filmed as part of the Iconoclast show I did with Cameron Diaz. Check it our on You Tube or the Sundance Channel.


There is no ‘ownership’ in rebuilding lives. It sickens me when I hear agencies say their processes are proprietary. If you like what we are doing either support us or steal this plan. We need dozens of tug boat NGO’s working together to build back Haiti better. Let’s not waste donor dollars on working in silos. Haiti has suffered enough.

Then there’s Planet Green at Discovery.com (where we have some good connections via science writer John Horgan and the former Stevens Institute communications team):

Haiti: Toxic Waste Dump Site Before the Earthquake, Lucrative Cleanup Contract After – The story of Haiti cannot cease to amaze anyone who follows it – http://planetgreen.discovery.com/travel-outdoors/glimpse-history-toxic-waste.html?campaign=daylife-article

Rebuilding in Haiti: Cameron Sinclair on The 3 Rs – They are Response, Recovery and Reconstruction – http://planetgreen.discovery.com/travel-outdoors/rebuilding-haiti-cameron-sinclair.html?campaign=daylife-article

Given all this, how do we propose to contribute? Global Green recently launched a fundraising effort with SBE, “a Los Angeles based luxury hospitality and development company”:


Just keeping up with all of this will shortly become a full-time occupation, probably for more than one person.

I don’t think we want to get into the public fundraising business – we’re not a 501c3, and we don’t have the kind of megaphone others have already developed. At the same time, we do need to find a way to have our efforts supported. So that’s challenge number 1.

Challenge number 2 is articulating our role in fostering the conversation for a sustainable future for Haiti, and having it be more than just a conversation.

And Challenge number 3 is moving into action, along with these many other other groups, and making a genuine contribution.

I look forward to getting your thoughts on this, and ideas on how we should proceed. Thanks.

3 Comments so far...

jcloud Says:

14 February 2010 at 8:47 am.

Thomas A. Capone, who contacted us after my original posting and offered the services of his telecommunications company, wrote:

Jonathan, very good points. Observation: I have many people living and working in the Dominican Republic. They were born just a few miles from the devastation, and yet these people are thriving and they are earning a good living. Why can’t this success be duplicated in Haiti? I am sure that there are many reasons why Haiti is so different from the DR, but these points should to be aired. Maybe from this tragedy can come something wonderful for the future of everyone living in Haiti.

jcloud Says:

14 February 2010 at 9:09 am.

Some of the important environmental and cultural differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic were outlined in Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2004), and are reprinted publicly here: http://www.theglobalist.com/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=4776. A 2007 Gallup study of the differences is reported here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/26614/island-divide-haiti-vs-dominican-republic.aspx. A historical account by Jalisco Lancer (undated) is provided here: http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=conflict_haiti_dominican. Finally, with the sort of “instant analysis” the U.S. media are famous for, Time magazine published the following shortly after the earthquake: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1953959,00.html.

Bottom line: differences in environment, population, culture, and political history have led to violence, poverty, and oppression beyond what most of us can imagine; and these differences will no doubt continue to play out during the reconstruction, though it is possible that out of the devastation some significant breaks with the past can be encouraged.

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