The Presidents’ Dreams

From Chapter Six of Unnatural Disasters
Gonzalo Lizarralde

“If we do this housing properly,” said former U.S. president Bill Clinton in 2011, “it will lead to whole new industries being started in Haiti, creating thousands and thousands of new jobs and permanent housing.”1 Clinton was speaking from Zoranjé, a mostly inhabited flood plain about 7 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince. At his side was Michel Martelly, the musician-turned-politician and newly elected president of Haiti.

Bill Clinton was busy in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. He had been appointed as the United Nations’ special envoy for Haiti after serving as UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. In the wake of disaster, the Clintons joined forces with former president George W. Bush to create the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. The Clinton Foundation led efforts to persuade private companies to invest in Haiti through the Clinton Global Initiative and also mobilized a series of partners to create a reconstruction program called Building Back Better.2
The Building Back Better program focused on creating an international design competition for the selection of innovative sheltering solutions for housing reconstruction in Port-au-Prince. Malcolm Reading Consultants, a London-based company, was in charge of running the competition. Partners in this initiative included the World Bank, John McAslan + Partners (an architecture practice based in the UK), Arup (a multinational construction company), and two charities: Architecture for Humanity and Habitat for Humanity International. The Clinton Foundation chose Zoranjé as the location for the Building Back Better exhibition, which involved a display of selected housing prototypes. The exhibition cost more than US$2 million, including US$500,000 from the Clinton Foundation and other contributions made by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Deutsche Bank.3

Housing solutions to build back better in Haiti were expected to be adaptive, resilient, innovative, and sustainable.

Housing solutions to build back better in Haiti were expected to be adaptive, resilient, innovative, and sustainable. About sixteen projects were chosen, with a prototype unit for each of them built in Zoranjé. The idea was that developers and citizens would visit innovative prototypes in the area and select the units that they wanted to purchase. The houses, which ranged from US$21,000 to US$70,000, were all single-story detached units. In Zoranjé, these prototype houses were made of metallic containers, prefab cement boards, recycled materials, and even plastic panels (see figure 6.1).4 The majority were ill-adapted to vernacular ways of living, with strange forms and distributions. Some were downright funny. It was in the opening of the Building Back Better exhibition that Clinton and Martelly had promised thousands and thousands of jobs and housing.

Universities played a fundamental role in the Building Back Better plan. In 2011, about six of the most well-known professors from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning gathered to develop a master plan and housing solution for Zoranjé. The project, called the Exemplar Community Pilot Project, was mostly funded by the Clinton Foundation and the Deutsche Bank, but it also received support from Digicel, a Haitian cell phone provider.

After months of work, the group of American scholars produced a lengthy record that, for the most part, shows a thorough understanding of the problem. Overall, the report contains an extensive analysis of the territory, an examination of local materials, primary needs, and several photos and long descriptions of participatory meetings held with members of “the community.” Additionally, it devotes several pages to the risks that could result from building in a flood-plain area.

These professors of architecture, urban planning, and design suddenly forget about the risks of building in a flood-prone region.

But, by the end, the tone and message of the program shift. These professors of architecture, urban planning, and design suddenly forget about the risks of building in a flood-prone region. And they have a somewhat counterintuitive suggestion: to create a “fab-lab” in Zoranjé! Yes, a high-tech construction laboratory in the middle of a largely inhabited, Haitian flood-plain. According to the report, both MIT and Harvard professors would have a set of “digital fabrication machines located within the community” thanks to their Caribbean fab-lab. This would allow them to “create anything from nick-nacks and toys to furniture, up to full-scale building constructions.”

On one of the very last pages of the document, as if nearly forgotten, appears a final recommendation: “A public-private partnership for a sustainable community.” This recommendation entails:

  • A strategy of private sector involvement and economic development
  • Strategic partnerships with Haitian banks for servicing, ownership; assistance and promotion of financial literacy
  • Deutsche Bank–designed mortgage finance instruments to allow for an economically integrated community with various housing product options.” 5

After pages and pages of analysis, that show real vulnerabilities in Haiti, emerges what appears to be the real purpose of the study: a proposal to create the innovation lab, predicated on a partnership between financial companies. Underlying this initiative was likely a deal to sell consulting services with the reconstruction money.

The Building Back Better program was a major failure.

Years later, my colleagues and I conducted research in Zoranjé and encountered a striking reality. The thousands of new jobs and permanent housing projects that Clinton had promised were never created. The Building Back Better program was a major failure. One reason for this was that the houses were too expensive, and Zoranjé lacked basic services and transportation. Another was that very few Haitians were interested in commuting to see the housing exhibition in Zoranjé. Almost no one bought the homes that were promoted.

Zoranjé—a very low density neighborhood in a flood plain—never attracted local businesses or residents. As I explained in chapter 3, the Clinton Foundation left Haiti three years after the housing exhibition’s construction. The master plan designed by specialists at MIT and Harvard was never implemented. In fact, these Ivy League professors reduced their travel to Haiti altogether. Over time, most prototype houses in Zoranjé were squatted or donated to low-income Haitians. A few were later vandalized. In all the years I visited Zoranjé, the place consistently looked like a ghost town (see figure 6.2).

This is a good example of how the postdisaster innovation machine works in the Global South. The Building Back Better initiative had all the ingredients of an innovative, sustainable plan: politicians seeking to improve their image and enlarge their business network, foreign consultants selling expensive services, design and construction companies interested in making money fast (often by cutting corners), scholars creating or endorsing innovative ideas, and communities being manipulated through participation exercises and meetings to legitimize the whole thing. As this chapter demonstrates, overconfidence in technological innovation is a key component of the sustainability and resilience fallacies.

Gonzalo Lizarralde is a professor of architecture at the Université de Montréal, where he holds the Fayolle-Magil Construction Chair in Architecture, Built Environment, and Sustainability. He is the author of Unnatural Disasters: Why Most Responses to Risk and Climate Change Fail but Some Succeed.

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