Haiti ~ moving from observer to actor

Move over Brad Pitt, it’s my turn for the lime light. OK, maybe a bit of an overstatement, but it is somewhat of an odd situation, when you are not the glitzy type, to be trailed by a journalist day in and day out. This was my experience this week.

Before coming on my second trip to Haiti, I had taken the precaution to cast a wide net and to send an intro of CO2 Bambu to what is called the “shelter cluster” and the “education cluster”, both physical and on line meeting points for a zillion actors on the ground in Haiti trying to orchestrate a response to Haiti’s devastating January 12 earthquake. I received a couple of emails for meetings in Port au Prince to present CO2 Bambu’s ecological housing solutions, and I received a query by a PaP-based American journalist wanting to do a story depicting the travails of a small company trying to break into the shelter universe.
The facts have been broadly disseminated by the media as a result of reaching the 6 month “anniversary” of the earthquake and the results are deplorable. Over 125,000 shelters promised and planned, yet only 5000 deployed. Plastic tents EVERYWHERE. Stories about land holders losing their patience with homeless who were thought to have been temporary “parked” on their lands, but now behaving increasingly like a permanent tent culture. So, the story, as this reporter saw it, was to experience up close and personal what it might be like to drop in into the festering world of shelters.
I accepted, with of course the caveat that the people I would meet would need to approve and that she might be “invited out” of some meetings, so that her presence would not inhibit “business discussions”. It started rather early as Emily, said reporter, met me at the airport and before I even got my luggage, she started snapping her camera. I made a valiant attempt at sucking in my stomach, but try doing that for 2 hours while battling for your luggage amongst the throngs of travelers, and you’ll soon agree that vanity quickly fades in favor of luggage grabbing sportsmanship.
The week was, no surprise, chockful of meetings, both in Port au Prince and out into the provincial towns of Leogane, Petit Goave and Grand Goave. The purpose of this blog is not to account for every twist and turn of our business and impact opportunities, but rather to give the “flavor” of how this trip differs from the prior trip.
I feel like I am moving, at surprising speed from the outer layer of the onion, to the next or perhaps a couple of onion layers deeper. I have no illusion that I am still way, way out from the core, but it is both surprising and satisfying to me to see that I am gaining confidence and context. Some illustrative examples are in order.
First is the issue of “baby sitting”. Last trip, I imposed shamelessly on both Regine and Gilbert, my new found friends, business associates and “guides” into Haiti culture. They passed me around as a hot potato and managed to provide me with much needed support, logistical and interpretive, but also to introduce me to pertinent players etc. This time, I was pleased to be able to leave Regine’s house, which has since been converted into a Bed and Breakfast, in the morning – with Regine dropping me in town for my first appointment, and then making my way from one meeting to the other, like the big boy that I am. Both Regine and Gilbert are very busy with their own business activities, and frankly there was little need for me to ask them to sit in on yet more pitches on “this is why you should consider ecological shelters as part of your procurement mix”. So it was that I found myself meeting by myself a whole new crop of potential customers, mostly Non Governmental Organizations. First sign of “maturity”.
I met the journalist at many of the meetings, where she sat in “for background”, took some photos and when possible did side interviews. For her the theme may have been “why are you talking with CO2 Bambu? trying to get a sense of whether we are a “fringe player” or whether we might just be the next great thing in shelter construction for post disaster reconstruction.
The second issue, and a fairly daunting one at that, is the issue of logistics. It’s not exactly as though one can stay at a street corner and “hail a cab”. The car + driver option, if one is lucky enough to find one, has experienced the same hyper inflation as everything else, and it runs about $100/day. Given that this is one of my factory worker’s salary for ONE MONTH, I am not eager to squander this vast sum. So I am in a “go with the flow, let the universe come to your rescue mode” and remain cautiously optimistic that good things will happen and that this will materialize in the form of transport. Somehow. It must be said that I am not traveling light. I have my normal soft leather briefcase with computer, stash of presentations etc… It doesn’t quite rival a US teen-ager’s backpack, but it’s pretty heavy. But that’s not all. I am here to present an eco alternative, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a piece of bamboo is worth 2000, another covered with mesh might be worth 5000 and the centerpiece, a concrete covered sample, is worth an encyclopedia britannica. And it weighs about the same. So I have a large and heavy duffle bag to take along.
On day two of my stay, having had my first meeting, Regine has gone back to her architectural practice, Emily the journalist is off to meet the publicist of a Presidential candidate for the upcoming November elections and I realize that… I am late for a very important meeting. Thankfully, the NGO representatives are a forgiving bunch. My meeting is at 2pm, it is 1:30 when I come to my senses and start to ponder how exactly I’ll get there. I ask Emily if she can give me a ride, she laughs, she’s got no wheels. No cabs in the street. I call the would be customer, the Spanish Red Cross and tell the program manager that I might be a tad late, say 2:30. She is 1 hour away through a thick jungle of concrete and jammed traffic.
I walk around with my two bags…. no taxis. Half hour later, at 2, I call the customer and beg for forgiveness, I’ll be there at 3. Walk, walk, walk – shit! this is going to be harder than I had thought. No buses either. I see a couple of NGO cars and ask if by chance they are going to the airport, they are not. They say “good luck!” I call the customer again and say “it might be 3:30”. She says in her delicious Andalucian “th” ladden accent “if past 3:30, don’t bother, I am going out of town tomorrow for 2 weeks.” OK, so now that’s my hard time slot. 45mn to go, 1 hr traffic, it is starting to seem that my “go with the flow” approach is going to yield a disappointment. I see a parked police jeep, guys with guns in back. I go and ask if they happen to have a mission near the airport – the guy laughs and says in Creole ladden French something like ‘you’ve got to be kidding white boy’ (“Monsieur le blanc”). And then he says “wait, wait”. He commandeers a motorcycle, and says “voila” you can be there in 15 mn!. So, I strap my two heavy bags, like a South American bullet band criss cross over my chest, sit on the minuscule amount of space behind the motorcycle driver’s butt, and before I say where we are going, we’re off!
Well… I lived!
If driving in Nicaragua’s pot-hole strewn roads is like driving through a video game, this was like flying a Starwars ship of dubious mechanical health through a field of asteroids! The only logical place for a motorcycle driver is not weaving in and out of cars on HIS side of the road, that’s too dangerous as cars are as unpredictable as bats flying out of their caves. No, the PaP way of motorcycle driving is to negotiate the razor thin wedge between incoming traffic and your side. OMG! First I was trying not to fall off. Then I was trying to not smash passers by with my protruding concrete ladden bag. Then I was repositioning the bags so that I wouldn’t spend the dollars I had “saved” for a chiropractor, by not having a chauffeur. Come to think of it, I now understood why I hadn’t seen too many (any?!) “etrangers” (foreigners) riding on the back of bikes. Then I sought to “look out” for incoming meteorites, until I realized that since I wasn’t driving, there was no point. Finally, after a particularly hair raising downhill ride when the driver tried to “make good time”, I decided that my best strategy was to remove my glasses. As the expression says “What you don’t know…” I arrived, drenched, not from sun heat but from internal combustion, at 3:28 just in time, at the Red Cross compound.
Had a wonderful meeting with the customer, showed my stuff, discussed their needs, discovered a much larger opportunity than I had expected, but of course with larger comes more complexity, but that’s a different story.
Done with my meeting, I figure “if I can do it once, I can do it twice”. So I go back “home” by bike. And so the story goes, I am now a convert to routine motorcycle transport, I even keep my glasses on, enjoy the scenery (except when going downhill at Olympics downhill skiing speed), and have broken the code on PaP transport.
The third dimension of my acculturation is my understanding of the reconstruction “conundrum”. There is a great French expression “y a qu’a”, as in “one only needs to…” So, talk to any CNN or (gasp!) Fox News watcher in the US, and beyond the “oh it’s horrible, poor people”, you are likely to get a list of “y’a qu’a…” (which for typing purposes I’ll simplify as YAKA”. I hear frequently YAKA implement imminent domain and the government YAKA grab land from private parties; YAKA pass through all accumulating containers at customs without control and release the hordes of medicine, blankets, construction material and food, YAKA shoot on the public square any officials found to be corrupt, YAKA YAKA YAKA…
So while I did not fall in the YAKA trap during my first trip, I remained on the outer layer of the onion methaphor, which means I only got to a thin, thin appreciation for the magnitude of the problem, certainly not the cause of the problem, and even less a cogent solution for said problem. This time, I was able to get a tiny bit more insight on SOME of the causes, still no where near the solution universe. So here are my current favorites:
– WHy are there not more shelters deployed? In large part because of land title issues.
– Why are there land issues problems? Because Haiti inherited (during French Colonial times) the French system of equal distribution of land assets to inheritors. It doesn’t matter whether the parents feel this or that way about their third child, French law says and thus Haitian law says that the land properties get shared equally.
So say I own a beautiful hillside property of 1 acre and it’s the year 1850. I die and my 3 children inherit one third. By 1900, my children have gone forth and multiplied and they have 3 children each (of course Haitian statistics point to many more children per family, but humor me). When they die, of course not all simultaneously, my said grandchildren would each inherit 1/9th of the same beautiful hillside property. Fast forward to 1950, past the American occupation of Haiti, and my grandchildren have also had children and let’s say they also each have 3 children, they now each own 1/27th of the property, to close the gap, let’s be kind and say that they each have 2 children by January 12 2011 when Haiti faces its devastating earthquake and 2 MILLION people out of 9 million find themselves homeless. Per the inheritance model, whatever population of the 52 eligible great grand children have a right to refuse THEIR parcel to be sold. So even if 3/4 of them are no longer there, just to be clear, there is ALWAYS going to be someone associated with ownership who will contest and seek to protect “his” assets — which 1/52nd of the original plot is it exactly that he is entitled to block? You get the point…
– OK, how about the port bottleneck? Why exactly is there a three month wait to get containers out of the port and customs? Well, first, all the cranes present pre January 12 went down. Every one of them. They were eventually replaced by US floating rigs with cranes to provide a substitute. Think about how much port traffic came “routinely” into Haiti and now think about how much is trying to get in. We are talking orders of magnitude difference. Stuff piling up EVERYWHERE. Now think of the poor customs clerk, who is REQUIRED to have paperwork that matches. Or should they just open up the flood gates and whatever comes in, comes in? Problem is, as a totally import-based economy, imports are the PRINCIPAL source of governmental revenue to pay for government workers. Those teachers survived the earthquake, how exactly do they keep the wheels on and help return children to schools (90% destroyed by the quake) if they haven’t been paid for months (current case)? You can extrapolate this case of government paid workers to all other segments – police, customs officers, health workers, public works employees etc… SO, imports are in fact the only source of revenue for the government.
– But what about the massive international aid movement, all those BILLIONS of dollars pledged at a donor conference in the aftermath of the quake? Ah well the operating word is “pledged”. Of all these billions a tiny, tiny fraction has actually be disbursed. All for “good reasons”, to be sure, such as the pesky US requirement that Congress holds the purse string of the nation, and regardless of what the Executive Branch may have committed, Congress hasn’t yet approved that package. The US is by no means alone, and this pledge and hold strategy is a shameful reality on a global scale. Only Brazil, Norway and a couple of other small nations have made their contributions in cashable form. One might say “ah yes, but what do you expect, these are OUR laws? well of course, but that’s the point isn’t it? Each country has laws, such as the Haitian law about how to process customs, and each has valid reasons for saying “the check is in the mail”. Bill Clinton, who co-chairs a reconstruction Commission at the highest level of the Haiti government is on a “shame tour” to pressure governments to deliver on their commitments OR, failing that, to at least get a SCHEDULE of when the funds will be disbursed. Very little transcends national logjams. One concrete thing that has happened is that Haiti debt has been forgiven, which is an important and good thing, but that gives zero operating cash to the country.
I could go on and on… but there it is. An organizational, logistical, physical, financial logjam of epic proportion. This will be a generation long struggle. In many streets of PaP, it feels and looks like January 13. Nothing has changed. Regine’s 15 year old son will reach his 40th birthday and only remember the Haiti of rubbles, traffic jams, untold suffering and sense of intense competition for scarce resources. Haiti was built for 300,000 people, it now houses 3,000,000. The water system, the electricity system etc… all totally inadequate, all with no prospect of magical expansion.
And yet, the Haitian enterpreneurial spirit appears to be lifting. There is music in the street. Vendors of all sorts of goods scratch a living with make shift stalls. Haiti WILL survive, WILL endure its approaching punishing hurricane season, WILL accustom itself to its new concrete-ladden landscape. And of course, bamboo will play a tiny, tiny, tiny role – but for those with no roof over their heads, the comfort of a light weight structure that is hurricane resistant and seismic resistance will be a first step toward a more dignified future than squalid camp sites ridden with disease, conflict and rape.
As I close the week with my new found journalist friend, it is not clear whether my journey this week has informed her prior views that the shelter conundrum is unsolved and is perhaps unsolvable. And whether she thinks that CO2 Bambu’s ecological shelter solutions are indeed a critical part of the solution, due to the enormously stupid prospect of removing untold billion cubic meters of crushed concrete (and put it where??) with freshly imported billions of cubic meters of MORE concrete to replace the prior multi-generational build up of concrete infrastructure. Or perhaps she is amused at the naive, oh so quaint but unrealizable hope of a bike-riding entrepreneur to introduce anything more than anecdotal evidence of what might have been. One more motivation for me to keep plugging at it. Her last question “so what do you expect the ROI (Return On Investment) for CO2 Bambu to be out of your Haiti initiative? I pause. Hmmmm Return on Investment – ok, fair enough.
How about, I expect to provide SOME housing relief (1000 shelters will be better than 500, 500 will better than 100, 100 better than 2, and 2 is 2 more who won’t live in camps). A valid Return on Investment is if we reduce, however slightly, the amount of carbon emissions due to the largest concentrated reconstruction program in human history. A Return on Investment will be if CO2 Bambu sells bamboo housing and lives another day, to plant yet more bamboo, manufacture more bamboo structures and demonstrates that reconstruction CAN be green. A personal Return on Investment will be if I look back on my life options and can reflect with some sense of accomplishment, that upon seeing devastation on a scale I had never seen before, instead of clicking the remote control on my TV set to watch Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie leverage their celebrity status to appeal for positive, forward movement in Haiti, I opted to take action to move from passive observer to engaged actor in Haiti’s reconstruction.

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