MIT can help rebuild Haiti by sharing its expertise in engineering and urban planning, providing technical training in areas like database management and wireless technology and building relationships with universities in Haiti, Frantz Verella, Haiti's former minister of Public Works, Transport and Communications, told the MIT community at a presentation on Friday.
Joined by Patrick Delatour, Chairman of the Presidential Commission for Reconstruction and the Minister of Tourism, Verella spoke about actions taken by the Haitian government since January's devastating earthquake, as well as the government's vision for reconstruction over the next 20 years. Titled "Haiti: the Plan for Reconstruction," the presentation was the first of several forums to be sponsored by MIT's Committee on Race and Diversity over the next year.
"With issues of race and diversity, there is no better topic to begin with," said J. Phillip Thompson, co-chair of the committee and professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, explaining why the committee's first forum was focused on Haiti, where an estimated 300,000 people have died, and where 300,000 have been wounded and 1.3 million left homeless as a result of the earthquake.
Delatour said that although Port-au-Prince will remain the capital city, the reconstruction effort calls for decentralizing Haiti by populating smaller regional areas that will be connected by a national transportation network. The goal, Delatour explained, is for Haiti to emerge by 2030 "with an economy that is modern, dynamic and competitive." One way of doing that is to make tourism a top priority for economic recovery, he said. In the short term, the government plans to rebuild devastated zones and decongest settlement areas, and in the long term, it plans to provide resources like hospitals, schools and post offices in regional areas outside Port-au-Prince.
Verella, an economist, engineer and former dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Haiti, explained that Haiti's extreme vulnerability to natural disaster was compounded by a weak, corrupt state. He said that rebuilding efforts will focus specifically on areas that are less prone to natural disaster.
"We cannot in Haiti afford to go back to the status quo," said Verella, joining Delatour in stressing that for Haiti to truly rebuild itself, the reconstruction cannot be led by outsiders or NGOs, but must be carried out by a stronger, better Haitian government that is guided foremost by the interests of its citizens. Still, he welcomed outside guidance, noting that MIT could play a major role by establishing a center for excellence in infrastructure and urban planning.
Co-sponsored by MIT's Haiti Coordinating Committee, the presentation was part of MIT's ongoing effort to provide short- and long-term relief to the devastated country. As MIT News reported in March, two Media Lab students, Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman, have developed Konbit, a free interactive communication platform that helps communities rebuild after a crisis by indexing the skills of local residents so that NGOs can quickly find and employ them. Konbit allows Haitians, their diaspora and the international community to report their skills by phone, text message or web.
Since March, the beta version of the site has gone live, and Elliott and Zinman have partnered with telecommunications provider Digicel, have an agreement with Google, and are in talks with the U.N. Development Program to continue developing the social infrastructure for platform. They are currently searching for 100 volunteers to test Konbit, which is designed so that messages in native Creole can be translated by volunteer Haitians and then transcribed into a searchable database for NGOs. After the volunteer phase, Elliott and Zinman will conduct a short ethnographic study of Konbit involving Haitian students to examine interaction patterns and user experience before deploying the final system.