Haiti: Still devastated, still in need

img_3824.jpgIn June, a group of architects from ZGF and I travelled to Haiti to “feel out” a potential ongoing relationship with a foundation dedicated to bettering the circumstances of economically underprivileged women and children in Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, a fact that is blatantly visible on every street. Even prior to the earthquake in 2010 that devastated an already suffering country, Haiti and its people were in a poor situation economically and politically. Some progress has been made in rebuilding the country following the earthquake, but many organizations that landed in the country in the immediate aftermath of the event have left, and there have been numerous scandals related to where donated money and resources have or have not gone.

ZGF Reaches out to KPFF

Tim Williams, the managing partner of the Washington, DC ZGF office, contacted KPFF in May to see if we were interested in engaging in a long-term relationship with organizations in Haiti. KPFF has a history of involvement in the country, having sent engineers to do structural assessment work immediately following the earthquake and engaging in programs with Architects Without Borders (AWB) and other organizations in an ongoing way since those efforts. Tim is connected with the Andrew Grene Foundation (AGF), formed in honor of Andrew Grene, a UN worker who was killed in the collapse of the UN building during the 2010 earthquake. This was the largest loss of life in a single event the UN has seen in its history, and Andrew Grene was a well-known figure throughout the capital of Port au Prince due to his firm commitment to improving the quality of life of Haitians.

The Andrew Grene Foundation (AGF)

The AGF purchased land in the slum of Cité Soleil on the outskirts reduced-img_3640.jpgof Port au Prince in the months following January 2010 and committed itself to building and running a high school for students in the area. The school system in Haiti, both public and private, is sparsely located, and the cost for attendance, on the order of $150 US per year, is out of reach for the millions of people that live on $4 US per day or less. As we learned on the trip, less than 1/3 of the Haitian population is employed in the formal economy, with the remainder of the population living on money earned by selling goods in the street or on subsistence farms. The AGF is one of the few organizations in the country that has remained and grown since 2010, approximately 250 students attend the school, many of whom have subsidized admission fees. The quality of education is high, and many students who graduate have a comprehension of math, physics, literature, English, and other subjects equivalent to US high school students, allowing them to attend college in Haiti, the US, or anywhere internationally, provided they can afford tuition.

The purpose of our visit was to talk to the headmaster and students at the Andrew Grene High School (AGHS) to determine how we, as architects and engineers in the US, could contribute to the school’s education program. Haiti is still desperately in need of infrastructure redevelopment, and one idea from the US contingent was to develop a program similar to the ACE (Architecture Construction and Engineering) program here in the States, giving students exposure to the AEC industry as a potential career path. While job opportunities in Haiti following high school school are limited by financial investment in the country (i.e., how much is actually getting built, and are there opportunities for Haitians to actually design buildings, roads, and other infrastructure in their own country?), providing a broad educational base that expands opportunities in any way is seen as helpful. As often happens in countries following natural disasters, many young people understand the need for engineering and sound buildings, but do not necessarily understand how they would go down that road to become and engineer, architect, or contractor.

Collaborating to Design Thoughtful Spaces

reduced-img_3642.jpgThe school also recently acquired a walled-in lot across the street that they plan to turn into a play area with sports courts and a showering area. There are few locations were children can play in protected areas, and this project will be a huge benefit to AGHS students. It is likely that the courts will be used for sports matches with other schools and by the children that live in the community surrounding the school. ZGF undertook a design charrette with the students to learn about what sports they like to play, what amenities they want in the sports area, and generally what their vision of what is currently a vacant lot is. This conversation was facilitated by students who spoke French, Haitian Creole, and English, and by a member of our delegation who spoke French. There was some initial hesitation at speaking to a group of strangers from another country, but the students eventually warmed up to the team and threw out many ideas, making clear that they had a desire to play soccer, basketball, and volleyball, and that they wanted some shade and a place to shower. ZGF will be providing a proposed plan of the sports court, and KPFF will help with a detail to finish the half-completed exterior walls, which are unreinforced masonry.

Lessons Learned While Building Relationships

We learned a lot while on the trip about living and working conditions in Haiti, about rural conditions, about the huge divide between the wealthy Haitian elite and the bulk of the population that lives under tents or in small shacks. We talked to officials from the UN, to a factory owner, to people running NGO’s focused on organic gardening, sustainable tree-planting, and microfinance. We drove around in a van with a security detail, typically unable to walk around on the streets. We discovered that distance is measured in time on the road and that 3 miles can take 30 minutes to drive; saw trash-laden streets and beaches; and attended a community meeting of poor women in a rural area. Ultimately, we learned that a small number of Haitians have hope for their future, mostly the youth, and that many Haitians are committed to staying in the country and attempting to make people’s lives there better.

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The relationship between ZGF, the AGF, and KPFF is still developing, and we will provide updates in the future as to our progress. In the meantime, you can learn more about the organization and what it is doing here:  https://andrewgrene.org/

Thanks to Tim and our friends at ZGF for inviting us along. It was an amazing experience, and we look forward to continuing to develop a lasting relationship with the Andrew Grene Foundation.

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