Out of the Ruins, A More Sustainable Haiti?

haiti earthquake collapsed building photo

Photo credit: Getty Images.

With over a million left homeless and its capital city all but destroyed, Haiti is set to become the focus of an enormous rebuilding effort. Internationally, many are calling for a full-fledged "Marshall Plan" to rebuild the country, lasting at least a decade and costing billions of dollars. Moves this weekend to cancel its debts, while funding rebuilding efforts with grants, instead of more loans, are a positive step in this direction.

But what of sustainability? How can the island, which has for so long existed on the edge of disaster, be put back together in a way that is at once socially, environmentally and economically sustainable?

Fortunately, several organizations are thinking about this very question. One of them is Global Green USA, an environmental nonprofit that has taken a leading role in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This week I asked Global Green President and CEO Matt Petersen about the chances for a sustainably rebuilt Haiti. Here's what he told me...JF: Can you give us a window into the thinking going on right now at Global Green regarding Haiti?

MP: We are in an assessment mode, talking to fellow NGOs, offices of US Senators, UN staff, and others to determine our best course of action. The challenge is that temporary settlements - much like in any post-disaster - are likely to become permanent.

JF: What kind of rebuilding plans are being drawn up right now for Haiti, and how does Global Green intend to integrate its perspective into these?

MP: I think the consensus is that building codes and standards are critical. Officially, people are being told that if they rebuild now before standards are provided, their home will be torn down. A more likely scenario, sadly, is that the threat of bribes or graft will thwart efforts to rebuild disaster resistant homes.

For Global Green, our goals, still formative, are fourfold at this point:

  • 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.
JF: 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?

MP: We have conversations daily with different types of groups from different places, but I think this is an accurate read. In our experience, no 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.

JF: With so much money at stake, how can Haiti avoid a situation in which reconstruction is seen as a vacuum to be filled by 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.

JF: Speaking of New Orleans, what kind of lessons has Global Green learned from its work after Hurricane 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.

JF: In a place like Haiti, where urban settlements tend to happen spontaneously, can a long, centrally-planned reconstruction process even work - or will the people simply rebuild their houses by themselves, without long-term planning and building codes?

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.

Out of the Ruins, A More Sustainable Haiti?
With over a million left homeless and its capital city all but destroyed, Haiti is set to become the focus of an enormous rebuilding effort. Internationally, many are calling for a full-fledged "Marshall Plan" to rebuild the

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