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While comparisons of the devastation in Haiti to New Orleans may seem obvious at this point, serious reflection is still needed. As the world mobilizes to help reconstruct Haiti, we must analyze carefully how today’s actions will impact the long-term survival of Haitian institutions, its future growth and its ultimate positioning on the world stage.

With world attention focused on them now, Haitians may have only one chance to rebuild sensibly. This country, already on the brink of disaster even before the quake, is vulnerable to more earthquakes and potential disasters.

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From MIT’s New Orleans experience, where students and faculty worked with community groups, the city and labor unions in a myriad of projects, we learned a few lessons that should apply to Haiti:

  • Well-meaning outsiders cannot be allowed to strip the country of its local capacity or ignore local knowledge.
  • Local assets must be preserved, and
  • Paternalistic foreign donor attitudes are best left at home.

Many responding to the Katrina crisis were determined to work “on” New Orleans rather than to work “for” New Orleans. To avoid this in Haiti, we must look closely at the motivation of aid efforts and those who fund them.

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Let’s start with attitudes. Following Katrina, some public commentary suggested that poor neighborhoods in New Orleans were not worth restoring, and that poor blacks in the city were culturally dysfunctional and better off dispersed elsewhere. There is a close parallel to Haiti. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last Friday that, “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” Brooks does not mention the role of U.S. trade policy in decimating Haiti’s once prosperous agricultural economy. He does not mention that foreign aid from rich countries to poorer countries goes largely to foreign-based NGO intermediaries rather than to strengthening domestic institutions. Nor does he examine Haiti’s complex relationship to its neighbors, or consider the stark racial discrimination Haitians face in business, employment and education. Haitians don’t lack drive, ideas or high expectations of progress. They lack partners willing and capable of investing in their country’s considerable indigenous capacity.

So what is a program for success, given that outside aid is essential to Haiti’s recovery?

Strengthen the Capacity of Government: The government of New Orleans was in worse shape than the levees before the Katrina disaster. City government was simply unable to lead the recovery effort. To avoid this problem, the Haitian government has requested an immediate investment in its basic infrastructure. This may be an unpopular move given the immediate needs in the streets, but quickly building this capacity, and making outside support accountable to a national authority, is key to long-term success.

Build Civic Capacity from the Neighborhoods Up: The most successful rebuilding in New Orleans occurred almost entirely at neighborhood levels. This will likely be true in Haiti, too. It takes a great deal of face-to-face coordination and staging to distribute aid effectively and to rebuild communities. Helping residents organize and plan at neighborhood levels is as important as helping government coordinate at the national level. Existing community leaders—who know their neighbors and understand their concerns—will be essential partners with outside funders.

Prohibit Elite Land Grabs: Immediately following Katrina, a group of developers proposed turning the Lower Ninth Ward into a golf course. Another proposal was to tear down public housing projects to make room for “high-end” residences or businesses. Following the tsunami in Asia, there were similar proposals to confiscate land from fishing communities to build luxury hotels. Such hasty attempts at land-grabbing, promoted in the name of recovery, must be resisted.

Rethink Infrastructure; Make Use of 21st-Century Technology: Just as cell phone technology replaces the need to string telephone wires in a reconstructed Haiti, it is not necessary for Haiti to replicate 19th-century building methods. This means looking beyond the established infrastructure contractors to rebuild homes and buildings. Instead look to Haitian social entrepreneurs, universities and regional development banks for the latest technologies that can be scaled up rapidly. The innovative use of the Internet, mobile phone and satellite technology in coordinating relief efforts points to possible opportunities. With 1.5 million people now homeless in Haiti, let’s apply the same type of ingenuous use of technology to plan physical infrastructure very differently.

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At MIT, two labs are working on user-designed, low-cost housing. Others are working on small-scale decentralized water and sanitation, solid waste management, and household energy technologies suitable for poorer countries. In its rebuilding, Haiti must access the most modern technologies available and cannot sit around waiting for the big contractors to arrive.

Establish Innovative Financing Mechanisms So Haitians Can Invest: Nearly $2 billion in remittances flow into Haiti annually; 31 percent of Haitians receive remittances regularly, primarily from the United States. Through collaboration with a financial intermediary, a “Haitian social investment fund” should be created to channel remittance flows into innovative businesses working in housing, health and life insurance, to name a few. There are also new technologies entering the market (such as Prosper and Kiva) that enable Haitian workers to easily make small loans to each other. Such innovative technologies democratize finance, making it easy and safe for Haitians across the globe to invest in rebuilding their country; investments that can quickly accumulate in scale.

New partnerships: Many Haitians in the United States are churchgoers. Their churches will play an active role in Haiti’s relief and recovery. But labor unions, not often thought of as partners in global development, can also be engaged. We saw a glimpse of how labor unions can further development in New Orleans following Katrina. The AFL-CIO Investment Trust Corp. financed a manufactured housing plant and created a job training facility in the city. Tens of thousands of U.S. labor union members are of Haitian heritage; their leadership is crucial to Haiti’s reconstruction.

J. Phil Thompson teaches in MIT's Urban Studies and Planning Department.