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January 2014 Feature Story

A View from the Outside (Well, sort of…) 

Jon Interviews

E2E started the New Year with a special visitor from the ND undergraduate team. Jon Schommer, a senior civil engineering major, has been working with E2E for 8 months now. As part of his senior thesis project, Jon was able to make the trip down to Léogâne and spend 10 days interviewing the population to understand the structure of NGOs in Haiti, as well as the way that E2E has interacted with the community. He can explain it much better than I, and as such I’ve asked Jon to write the bulk of this update. Below you will find his reflections on the interviews, as well as his view of the work of E2E as a first time visitor to Haiti.

This summer I worked with E2E researching how business incubators have been used in developing countries. My goal was to gain insight into how experiences in places like Brazil can shed light on solutions for the housing crisis in the Haitian context. I won’t go too much into the E2E incubator since that was the subject of Dustin’s last post, but after the research this summer I decided to write my thesis arguing why the E2E incubator is an ideal tool for international, community-led development. I knew that community engagement was central to the E2E philosophy and the project would only succeed if it was embraced and empowered by the community members of Léogâne. But it wasn’t until I actually talked with the community members that I began to see more clearly how the E2E style of community engagement is so different from the methods of other foreign groups.

While I was in Haiti I interviewed 51 people who had some experience with E2E over the course of their time in Léogâne. My questions looked into how NGOs and other foreign groups compare with E2E in their involvement with the Léogâne community and in the sustainability of their solutions. The conversations I had about these topics with local homebuilders, homeowners, and engineers were very enlightening for me to understand the perspectives in the community of foreign aid.

On the plane ride over to Haiti I noticed a heavy trend of list usage in the seatback pocket magazines. So in the spirit of modernity and to accommodate your short attention span here:

 7 Things I Learned about Foreign Aid in Haiti from the Aid Recipients:

1) Haitian involvement with foreign groups is way more complex than just give and receive.

When asked about what kind of involvement they had with NGOs, the majority of people responded with a list of the ways they worked with foreign groups after the earthquake to build shelters, take surveys, distribute hygiene kits, or clean the streets. Many people also received shelters and food from the groups and/or were employed by the aid groups while they were in Léogâne. The way people were chosen to work with the groups seemed somewhat erratic; sometimes heavily depending on an individual’s relation to the leaders of the various community zones. Overall, I began to get a picture of the void that was left after most of the NGOs went home and many were left unemployed with substandard housing. However, many of the work groups formed by the NGOs have stuck together and some are doing a lot of community organizing in Léogâne to improve their city.

2) Haitians especially appreciate gaining new knowledge.

One of the most common themes in the interviews was for the individual to talk about things they learned from foreign groups. Many people were eager to learn more about good construction techniques and are sharing and practicing construction principles learned in training sessions by NGOs. While I was there, many community members were also attending finance seminars held by one of the community organizations, Resilience Haiti. I was inspired to see how hard many are working to gain the knowledge and skills to find solutions to problems in the community.

3) There are varying opinions of whose ideas are more important in aid projects: Haitians or Foreigners.

The answers to this question were pretty evenly split. Most people said that both opinions were necessary for success. Some thought that since the foreign groups were coming to the country with the idea, their opinion was most important. Others believed that the foreign groups would be lost without the guidance of the Haitians to give important knowledge about issues specific to the Haitian context, like areas historically prone to flooding. One man said that although NGOs will take Haitian ideas, Haitians are only ever able to guide foreign groups in the projects they were already doing; the Haitian can’t make any significant changes in the project as a whole.

4)  Many people believe foreign groups should take longer on projects.

When I asked how long foreign groups should stay for a project I was thinking about the large-scale picture. I wanted to see opinions about whether people would rather Haitians do the work for themselves. But the answers I got thought about the question on a more local scale. Many people wished NGOs would stay longer because that means they are spending time getting to know the community’s problems and trying to come up with a long-lasting solution. Others saw that there were jobs when the NGOs were present and now there aren’t many jobs; so the longer a foreign group stays, the more opportunity someone has to make money to feed their family.

5) Most Haitians have a generally good idea of what were the causes of collapse in the 2010 Earthquake

Although people went into a varying degree of detail when asked the specifics of the causes of collapse, most people generally believed that the main cause of collapse was not following the rules of construction. This was done because nobody expected an earthquake and cutting corners was done in order to accommodate a lack of resources. Many people highlighted the foundations, heavy roof and floor slabs, and undersized columns as being important factors in the collapse. One construction worker even talked about the differences between the types of sand used in the concrete mixture.

6) Sustainability is incredibly important to Haitians…but not in the way you may think.

In the United States sustainability and being “green” is an increasingly trendy thing, but it seems like the Haitians are ahead of the trend since every person interviewed said that sustainability was important to them. But the reasons people gave were less concerned with global warming and polluted oceans and more concerned with conserving personal resources. A few people gave the example of their cellphone: if their phone is sustainable, it will last a long time and, in turn, they won’t have to spend money to replace it, meaning they will have resources to take care of other necessities. From a practical sense it seemed like the interviewees didn’t understand why someone would want to use something that didn’t last for a long time, whether it was a phone or a house.

7)  The E2E method is different and people like that.

The majority of people interviewed said that the way E2E is going about development is different from other groups. Many especially appreciate the fact that E2E talks extensively with the community to get an idea of the problems specific to the Haitian context. Others are attracted by the long-term nature of the E2E house and are eager to get out of the deteriorating transitional homes that have now become their permanent residence. There were some, however, that said they won’t know if E2E is really different until they see the house in real life and see Haitians living in it.

Although I’ve been working on the E2E project for a while, I learned a lot from these interviews about just how important the Haitian perspective is to the success of the project. It is encouraging to see that the way E2E engages the community is noticed and appreciated by the community members. Just walking down the street with Lamarre, Edson, and Dustin I could see how important building relationships in the community is to the E2E staff in Haiti as they frequently stopped to talk with people about the project and answer questions they had.

I think based on the knowledge of the population and their eagerness to learn from others, the E2E incubators will work incredibly well for the community members. There is already so much work being done by the community to improve Léogâne and it seems like the resources provided by the incubators will be perfect for facilitating the population to innovate solutions to the housing problem in their community. I’m excited to hear about the response once the incubators start up in the next few months and the model house goes up. Overall, I am incredibly grateful to be a part of this project and to have the opportunity to see community engagement in action on my visit.

Jon Schommer, ND ‘13