Our Neighbor's Keeper? Restoring individual economic self-sufficiency should be the goal of reconstruction efforts in Haiti

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In Haiti, we
are torn between the natural instinct to help our fellow humans,
and the knowledge that conventional aid seldom delivers long-term
solutions. Once people are pulled from the rubble and fed, the immediate
question becomes whither now for Haiti?

Haiti has a
mixed history. Their own revolution and establishment of a republic
followed close behind the American revolution, but their nation
was beset by the colonial powers from its beginning until the modern
day. The French demanded war reparations at gunpoint in 1825, which
Haiti continued to pay until the end of the second world war. More
recently, Aristide was elected and deposed twice by factions in
his own military, with the standard allegations of American involvement
behind the scenes. Government in Haiti has often fallen to almost
unimaginable lows – the Tonton Macoute of the Duvalier era
are a candidate for the world’s nastiest death squad. In short,
government both foreign and domestic has done the people of Haiti
no favors at all, and now nature and lousy building have leveled
their capitol, killing some 2% of the population.

The phrase
on many lips is state failure. Can Haiti rebuild effective
central government with aid from the intentional community, or will
it slide into some form of violent anarchy winding up as a US or
UN protectorate? A US exit strategy from Haiti may turn out to be
hard to find as an exit from Iraq or Afghanistan: at 10 million
people, Haiti is half the size of Iraq and likely no easier to govern
or leave if central government does not return swiftly and surely.

Given the risk
of state failure, extended governmental crisis, or long-term ambiguity
about the status of the state in Haiti, a conscious push to substantially
free people from dependence on central government for essential
services seems wise. Success would mean that however the political
process plays out, ordinary Haitians can continue to feed themselves
and enjoy good health. Within certain limits, this is entirely realistic.

The most important
constraint we must face is money. Haiti has an average income around
$2 or $3 per day, and a substantial fraction of the population regularly
suffer from hunger. About half the population is under 20, many
with little access to education. The life expectancy is around 60.
There are something like one million homeless in Haiti right now
and most of their big buildings in the capitol are simply gone.

If the post-earthquake
international aid war chest reaches $500 million, a very high estimate,
that is still only $50 per Haitian. There is no way, given the severe
immediate needs, and the limited funds available, that $50 per head
will make Haiti look like it did before the disaster. Even if that
was done, the living conditions would still be terrible for many
people. The aid money needs to help the people of Haiti simply survive
unreliable access to government services, poor infrastructure, and
simple grinding poverty. We need to help people stand on their own
feet, because there is nobody else they can count on.

There are six
ways to die
: too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, illness and
injury. Infrastructure like water treatment plants and natural gas
terminals provide the vital services which reduce the risk of dying
from these basic risks. Haiti is not Minneapolis, where a massive
centralized infrastructure is required for sheer survival lest one
freeze to death in winter. Rather, it is a hot, damp, potentially
fertile land, substantially suitable for life. Just getting people
fed and provided with drinking water should not be too expensive
to do, if it is made a direct and explicit goal rather than a
side-effect of a less focused and more conventional reconstruction
effort.

So let’s think
about how the international community could best help the ordinary
Haitian in the long run. Something like two
thirds
of Haitians are farmers, and they tend to use fairly
unsophisticated techniques. The land reforms following the revolution
gave most people land ownership, and two hundred years later Haiti
is still largely characterized by small holdings – hundreds
of thousands of tiny farms. The people are incredibly poor, but
they generally speaking have better access to land than most of
their peers in other countries. Maximizing the effectiveness of
the assets that ordinary Haitians own is the first step in real
help for the people of Haiti.

What can be
done?

One
Acre Fund
is a farming modernization group operating in Africa.
They charge farmers for agricultural tools and training, with a
loan to the farmer to get them started. Their results are astonishing:
doubled
agricultural output and halved infant mortality
, which usually
leads greatly reduced long-term population growth. It happens to
be a charity, but it is a charity with a business model: farmers
pay back the loans with the profits from better harvests. One Acre
Fund is operating in Africa, but Cubans have extremely sophisticated
farming methods, developed after they lost support from the USSR
at its collapse to feed themselves. Cuba is close to Haiti in both
miles and climate. Scaling agricultural training for smallholders
from existing pools of expertise is manageable on the available
budgets, but only if it is made a priority over wasteful reconstruction
of building shells that feed no-one. The One Acre Fund program costs
about $100 per family, which is paid back in a year or two. Improving
local agriculture and therefore financial self-sufficiency and food
security should be the core of the reconstruction program in Haiti.

Drinking water
and sanitation are similarly amenable to a bottom-up individually-led
approaches. Even before the earthquake most Haitians lacked
access
to drinking water and sanitation. There are excellent
technologies which can be built on the budgets of even the very
poorest which provide these basic services, and the improvements
in health and longevity that they bring. The Sulabh
toilet
from India is basically two brick-lined pits, but has
an excellent service record. It is incredibly cheap to build and
can be made locally from common materials. The biosand
filter
is basically a concrete bucket filled with layers of
gravel and sand, but it produces good quality drinking water from
contaminated sources and has years of rigorous scientific testing
behind it. AMURT Haiti has microenterprise
factories in Haiti
that produce them. The Potters for Peace
Filtron
has similar properties, but is made from clay. It can be made by
hand or pressed out in large factories with equal ease. All of these
technologies can be mastered locally, becoming businesses and skilled
trades which keep people safe for generations to come.

We do not know
what will happen in Haiti in the future. If large, centralized sewage
plants and water systems are built another earthquake, economic
collapse or violent change in government may destroy them. Simply
enabling Haitians to maintain essential services on a household
level to insulate them from any problems in governance that Haiti
may experience in the future would be an enormous step forwards
for the people of Haiti.

The Hexayurt
Project Haiti Reconstruction Plan
faces all of these risks squarely.
By working with the ordinary people to transfer the skills and technologies
they need to shelter and feed themselves, and rapidly provide themselves
with essential infrastructures for water and sanitation, the world
could genuinely help individual Haitians stand on their own two
feet. What more can we do for each other?

February
4, 2010

Vinay Gupta
[send him mail]
is the founder of the Hexayurt
Project
, an open source initiative working on housing, simple
infrastructure, and economic and technical self-sufficiency in the
developing world.

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