Seven Last Days in Port-au-Prince

(Students Rebuild)

Remember that time when Haiti was simultaneously an exotic gem and a disaster quagmire?

For months after their terrible 2010 earthquake, the whole world was captivated by a bizarre, overlooked culture, and seduced by the promise to rebuild the country as a flagship of sustainable, holistic reform of an impoverished nation.

Re-watching this Newshour/NPR clip brought me swiftly back to my own visit in Summer 2010 to cover progress on school construction there (or the partnerships forged, at least). Here, NPR’s Adam Davidson attempts to peel back the layers of economics driving the meticulously adorned private buses, the Tap-Taps.

Adam Davidson’s narration is tired (probably overwhelmed by the sensations, the diesel and the heat), he’s frustrated by the local rationale of (he seems to imply) boarding the brightest Tap Tap with no regard for the vehicle’s running condition, or really any concern for getting to one’s destination. Confused by the salesmanship that seems to move more air through the vendor’s lungs than through the passengers’ hair.

This is Haiti. I haven’t seen the entire world, but I’m pretty sure there’s no place remotely close to this one. After the earthquake Haiti had huge problems – tent camps that took years to clear out (many are still inhabited); an…uncooperative political system, with the occasional return of an exiled dictator; a complete mess of a property law system that precluded permanent reconstruction much more often than it green-lit it. After a couple years of that, much of the novelty was neutralized, and many of the nonprofits ran out of funding, or satisfied their relief missions, leaving only a handful to continue long-term reconstruction, and train local industries to accept this hefty baton before they themselves could safely call it a “day” and head home.

Under these circumstances we find Architecture for Humanity’s Haiti Rebuilding Center – now in its third year of operation and supporting a larger Haitian staff than the ex-pats who had launched it. The whole Center is spreading knowledge and leading practices for safe, sustainable construction in Haiti, manifest in a series of new buildings (mostly schools) (mostly schools, that is, initiated by a youth-driven challenge called Students Rebuild), community-led plans, and resources that are empowering residents to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

It’s been over a year since I last visited this crew – and indeed quite a bit has changed. The ex-pats have moved out of their giant common house in the suburbs and now live independently in apartments scattered around Petionville. Also I hear the airport now offers rental cars – that you can simply drive off the lot in, without any Haitian driver or anything! And the airport now has a baggage turnstile. And that several of the broken school sites I once visited now have completed (and happily occupied) projects on them.

I am honored and stoked to say that I will be joining former Design Fellow (and Students Rebuild correspondent) Stacey McMahan later this month on an epic RETURN TO HAITI. Our tickets are booked, our relative apartment hosts have been confirmed (meaning a couch for me, instead of a dorm bunk), and our itineraries are solidifying (the timing couldn’t be better – but I’ll save that for later).

Come October 14, we will be back in Port-au-Prince, and you can expect a Tohoku-style unrolling of reports, observations and stories from places and folks familiar and new, tracking where the flow of progress has deposited our colleagues and their work. Three and a half years on, and doubtless many more to go.

Stacey and I will spend a week checking in on progress, tracking it against some initial expectations, and drawing out, with help from our peers on the ground, what remains to deliver Haiti some of the promise that the international community so passionately suggested once upon a time, before reality sunk in.

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