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Haiti One Year Later: Are We Any Better Prepared?

To check in on the reconstruction progress in Haiti, we sat down with scholar and architect Matt Jelacic, an expert in sustainable housing solutions.

To check in on the reconstruction progress in Haiti, we sat down with scholar and architect Matt Jelacic, an expert in sustainable housing solutions for displaced communities at University of Colorado-Boulder.

GOOD: How would you sum up the progress made in the last year?

MATT JELACIC: I think it's pretty clear that the government has been ineffective in establishing the protocols necessary to recover from the earthquake—which isn’t surprising when you consider what was in place to begin with, and how much was destroyed in the quake. Where you see real success is where smaller NGOs concentrate on smaller-scale projects: When individual NGOs recognize their mission, don't allow mission creep, and effect change in a modest way.

G: What are the most effective approaches you’ve seen?

MJ: I'm concentrating on looking for ways to train people in entrepreneurial skills. We should be putting money toward education. We recently won a Building Back Communities competition, proposing to train people to use rubble that resulted from the earthquake to make seismically safe new homes. That's not sending them stuff; it's sending them knowledge on how to do things better.

G: The term "natural disaster" is misleading as this was the result not simply of the earthquake, but of shoddy infrastructure. How do we prevent this in the future?

MJ: It comes down to education. It wasn't the lack of materials per se that caused so many deaths; it was the way those materials were thrown together. They took the handbook on how to do concrete construction and passed it down through oral tradition. Someone watches a Western engineer constructing a building, takes a mental snapshot, and translates that when they get home. By the end, you've got a steel-reinforcement bar inside a block of concrete. One of the disservices we've done Haiti is to plant the seed of Western sophistication, without providing the means to achieve that sophistication.

G: How can we prepare for the next disaster?

MJ: We need to fundamentally change our approach. You go some place like India that hasn't been bogged down by hardwire communication systems, and you discover the transformative power of mobile technology. What if we said the same for Haiti, only this time, “everyone is going to have plumbing.” What if every family had its own small-scale water filtration device? They have an enormous amount of rainfall in Haiti; there’s just no way to use it. But say every family were allotted the minimum square footage established by Oxfam’s humanitarian aid standards. If you just collect the water that falls on that surface area, you'd have more than enough water to keep people healthy for a year.

G: We’re seeing a resurgence of students committed to using their skills for good – whether in architecture, engineering, medicine, business, or other fields. Are we equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to make an impact?

MJ: A lot of well-intentioned young designers are looking for solutions in areas that have been exhaustively proven irrelevant. A lot of people are interested in constructing a cheap, sturdy, prefabricated hard structure to unveil in slums around the world: great idea in theory, only the shipping costs alone have proven it unreasonable. We’ve been looking for the mass-produced, manufactured silver bullet for a century, and instead we got the suburbs. We need to be looking to smaller-scale solutions that use locally available materials, and are ultimately far cheaper.

G: What’s the next big challenge for Haiti?

MJ: The nutrition question is huge: Finding ways of growing a sustainable diet in Haiti is the country’s single most important question. Partners in Agriculture, [which] sprung from Partners in Health, has an experimental farm where they've started to address this. Paul Farmer found that when you give supplemental food rations with AIDS drugs, people perform far better on the drugs. If the choice is “do I go to class or find food for my kids,” it's going to continue to be unsuccessful. The next big thing is how do we feed the people who are being trained as the next great leaders.

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