Haiti Rebuild: The Last Responders

Written by Cameron Sinclair, Co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and the Open Architecture Network

Live from Port au Prince

Tonight you’ll see every journalist report ‘live from Port-au-Prince’. They will review the devastation, highlight the heroes and question the rebuilding process, all in a six minute segment. Then we will be onto the oil spill, the terrorist attacks in Uganda, the last minute goal in the World Cup and other issues facing of the world. A number of reporters have been on the ground every day since the quake, they aren’t going anywhere. Truly dedicated individuals that continue to file reports, interview families and chase up government officials and aid agencies despite the appetite for this story growing weak. We will get a blip during the elections, especially if their is violence, but this may be it for major reporting. Remember Katrina? That was on US soil and how often we hear about that after the first year. Like Katrina, this is a five year process, one rife with hurdles and tough choices.

It’s time for the last responders
Six months ago this week I wrote an internal plan for long-term reconstruction for Haiti and, after some discussion, decided to make it public. Within days of posting it [on The Huffington Post] it was tweeted hundreds of times. This is the eighth time my organization has been a part of a post-disaster reconstruction program and, given that we had spent time in Haiti pre-quake, I felt it was important to set expectations. As we raised funds and began to initiate projects, I wanted donors, partners and community stakeholders to understand that we were not in for the “quick fix” or a “number of people served” response, we’re in for the long term.  We are the last responders.

In the plan I noted six months as the transition point from recovery to reconstruction. This is the time of the last responders, the motley crew of hundreds of building and water/sanitation professionals who work for years after the last major news outlet has left. As the thousands of NGOs will be whittled down to a few hundred, hopefully local groups, including social entrepreneurs, NGOs and small businesses, should feature as the predominant player in the reconstruction process. They don’t just need to, they have to. While the international community can add capacity and play an important support role to truly move out of the “aid culture” the ownership needs to be Haitian led. The fourth phase, economic development, will only work if the foundation of reconstruction is regionally based.

They were the first, they will also be the last
In the moments after the quake, long before the first convoy crossed the border of the Dominican Republic, the true first responders were the Haitian people. Those lucky enough to escape injury did not run to the hills, they ran to the screaming. They went into fallen structures and clawed out those trapped underneath the rubble, they consoled those who had lost their loved ones. Never, ever underestimate the resilience of a people struck by monumental disaster. The despair in their eyes was for the collective, not the individual.

As the world’s community responded, those affected were incredibly grateful. As shock gave way to need and need gave way to a a desire to return to normalcy, anger crept into the voices of those looking a way to get out of the tent cities. This anger is understandable. Imagine being a carpenter now living in a tent by the airport. Every day you sit with your family watching SUVs snarled in a traffic jam outside. Fumes from the idling cars fill the air. You keep hearing false expectations that everything will be back to normal in less than a year and all the solutions will be imported, from shipping container housing to modular solutions – no need for lots of carpenters or masons.

This carpenter is the key to rebuilding Haiti. We need to push, demand and fight to move into this last responder phase. One in which equal partnerships are formed with local architects, engineers and builders. One where we think pragmatically about what gets built, homes that are not only safe but support LOCAL jobs. We should be building vocational training facilities that utilize the reconstruction as a mechanism for sustainability. [in partnership with AIDG we assessed thousands of homes and trained hundreds of local masons] The underlying point here is jobs, jobs, jobs. Let’s put the work into working it out.

Next Generation Leadership
Beyond economic stability and safe housing, the most important structures that needs to be built are schools. This will be a sector that Architecture for Humanity, my organization, will focus on. I believe our greatest impact will come from building not only a school of the future but for the future of Haiti. Not only incorporating digital inclusion, off the grid technologies and new teaching methodologies but empowering and supporting existing vocations. Every school must be led by Haitian organizations and built in a sustainable manner (financially and architecturally). These schools are dawn to dusk buildings and will become centers in revitalized communities.

Over the last few months teams of probono designers on the ground have developed and revised prototypes and we’ve formed relationships with a number of existing schools and made dozens of site visits. However we may have funds available to build a few more of these community anchors. Primarily funded via Students Rebuild, a $500,000 match for schools that are fundraising for Haiti around the world, we’ve developed a Request for Proposal (rfp) process to ensure the building and rebuilding of Haitian led schools. (if you are looking to have your school funded, you can log onto our site. We have an open process)

No Ego, No Logo
One last point. In the last ten years we’ve never put our name on a building, we’ve never put one of our donors either. No, it’s not because we are cheap (fiscally responsible), it is much more important reason.

Working in community led reconstruction you rip away any local ownership by sticking a fancy logo on the building. As if you to say “This building is yours but just remember, we built it – and please remember it every day.” I know the reason why people do it but the community knows who donated it and the builders know who funded the building. If you’d like to donate, please don’t expect to see your name on the building. See your compassion in those who the building will serve.

To donate to Architecture for Humanity, click here.

Follow Cameron Sinclair on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. Thank you to Architecture for Humanity for allowing us to share it on SHELTER.


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