Saturday, March 27, 2010

Effective recovery for Haiti ... people or machinery?

Dear Colleagues

In almost any conversation with an American contractor about the debris in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the earthquake there is an observation that there are not enough heavy pieces of construction equipment. The point is usually made that several thousand additional pieces of equipment are needed to get the debris cleaned up.

I am not sure this is the issue. My understanding is that the trans-continental railroads in the USA and Canada were built in the 19th century a long time before heavy construction equipment was available ... lots of people with pick-axes and sledge-hammers did the work ... and this included a lot of tunneling through the rocks of the Rockies. As a summer-student in 1960 I worked on a construction site in Montreal and was given a wheel-barrow to move gravel and concrete around the site ... hard work, but I got a pay-check.

The biggest priority in Haiti in the post earthquake rescue, relief and recovery has to be:
(1) ... saving life
(2) ... immediate access to basic needs: food, water, shelter, sanitation, health services ... and associated support logistics
(3) ... setting up a path to recovery: establishing economic activities based on what needs to be done.

It was an urgent matter to make the transport infrastructure functional because without this it would have been impossible to give access to basic needs. Clearing debris from roads was an urgent matter ... but clearing debris from what will be building lots is not as urgent. In fact the work to be done should be considered for what it contributes to local wages more than anything else.

If there can be 100,000 people put to work breaking concrete so that there can be movement to a debris processing site ... then there will be a substantial wage payroll and families will be able to start purchasing what they need for the family. This buying power can be the driver of recovery.

The official relief and development assistance (ORDA) community operates with a "welfare" mindset. This requires ongoing injection of money to support everything. A recovery plan that is based on getting wages into the economy does not need as much external funding. In fact the difference between the welfare based approach and the wage based approach can be as much as a factor of 10.

Where speed is of the essence ... machinery is the way to go. Where the goal is optimum socio-economic development progress, then the focus on people and their remuneration is the way to go.

I have asked a number of people who work in the private sector whether this makes sense to them ... and everyone has agreed that it is the way to go. Nevertheless, I do not expect the big contractors and the high-profile leaders of the Haiti rebuilding initiative to embrace these ideas. It has not been a popular strategy going back to the early 1960s when I first worked on a World Bank construction project that planned on using a huge quantity of imported equipment and almost no labor in a developing country with abundant unskilled labor. The World Bank got it wrong then ... and the Haiti experts look like they will get it wrong now!

Peter Burgess
Community Analytics (CA)

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