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Ground Up, Rethinking Haiti

BU team brings expertise to short-term and long-term plans

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Haitian President René Préval (far right) with MET lecturer Anuradha Mukherji (from left), a Haitian government advisor, MET prof Enrique Silva, and Elisabeth Coicou (MET’10).

On the last Sunday of January, his nation’s capital in rubble, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive boarded a plane for Montreal. His mission: present his government’s overview of how Haiti should resurrect to a group of international donors and other crucial supporters.

Bellerive carried with him a four-page document that formed the core of his presentation, crafted in large part by a team of advisors from Boston University. The team, engineer Jean Lucien Ligondé (MET’09), Enrique Silva, a Metropolitan College assistant professor and faculty coordinator for city planning and urban affairs, Anuradha Mukherji, a MET lecturer in city planning and urban affairs, and Elisabeth Coicou (MET’10), a master’s candidate in urban planning, had worked until three a.m. the night before, pacing around the living room of the small home in Port-au-Prince where they were camped out, honing language and concepts, then translating into French. They then handed their work to a representative of the prime minister, who had been working beside them, to deliver in time for Bellerive’s morning flight.

The BU contingent was an unlikely troupe, unofficial but able to connect to the highest levels of Haitian government. They did not wait for approval or funding to go, flying into Santo Domingo, traveling overland across the rugged border, taking advantage of relationships created years earlier by Haitian-born Ligondé.

Here’s Ligondé, talking about the genesis of the mission.

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Silva realized that the opportunity to offer insight and help so soon after a massive disaster might never come again.

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Mukherji, whose Ph.D. thesis focuses on earthquake aftermath and disaster relief in two cities in her native India, hoped to inform Haitians about how others have tackled similar crises, offering options that might lead to better decisions.

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Coicou, Ligondé’s wife and a Haitian graduate student working under Silva at BU, rounded out the delegation. The relevance of her thesis, begun many months ago, is uncanny: how disaster relief and politics intersect in Haiti.

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The group arrived in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday night, January 20, barely a week after the huge quake, and just hours after a massive aftershock had rocked the capital. The stunning destruction that greeted them by morning light created both urgency and a surreal context: amid so much death, catastrophe, and immediate need, is it really appropriate to talk about long-term planning?

One answer to that difficult question soon emerged: rebuilding Port-au-Prince as it was, re-creating slums and squalor, inviting yet another disaster when the earth shifts again (as surely it will) is nothing short of dishonoring the dead.

But the group had little time for rumination, or mourning. By Thursday noon they were meeting with key ministers of the Haitian government, including Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé, minister of the interior, one of the most respected members of the national cabinet. Bien-Aimé had met with several members of the team when he was in Boston months earlier and had invited them in part because he was impressed with what he had heard then.

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The group brought with them an unusual calling card: detailed, large-scale maps, satellite imagery recorded soon after the earthquake hit, assembled and printed by teams from BU and Harvard. The next morning, taped together and spread on the floor of the government’s makeshift meeting room in a former police station (almost all major office buildings had been destroyed), the maps intrigued everyone who saw them, creating a focal point and an entrée.

In several meetings, the team emphasized their key points: Haitians, not foreign aid donors, should define the priorities of the cleanup; quickly re-creating squalid slums and dangerous buildings is not a solution, but planners should preserve existing neighborhoods; “green” reconstruction is an opportunity that need not slow progress; try to decentralize, and think nationally, not only about Port-au-Prince.

Some of these ideas seemed to resonate with different audiences, others not. In the hallway between meetings, critiquing and strategizing, the group focused on tactics as much as content.

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By Friday morning, they were ushered into President René Préval’s makeshift office for what turned into a 40-minute presentation. The president was cordial and paid close attention, but he made it clear that an impromptu university group was not going to define national reconstruction.

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Préval’s comments reflected a growing concern within Haiti: that the earthquake relief effort could create (or strengthen) what amounts to a shadow government, run by international agencies and U.S. interests, which would control not just disaster relief, but long-term policy. The Haitian government’s reputation for corruption and ineptitude, so pervasive that many aid organizations have promised donors their support will not move into Haitian hands, creates moral cover for this parallel structure.

After yet more meetings with cabinet-level advisors, the disaster relief’s multiple tracks became more obvious. Silva shared his perspective, followed by Mukherji and Ligondé, reflecting on what they accomplished, and what might come next.

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Ligondé is working on a memorandum of understanding with the government that would define an ongoing role. The hope is that an independent university team could buttress and define the Haitian government’s position, even as international aid, expertise, and manpower pour in.

Whether that will happen, and what it would mean given the realpolitik of disaster relief, is as uncertain as Haiti’s fate.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu.

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