The two islands of ever-struggling Haiti

In this series, students document their experiences during the internships in 2012. Scattered across the globe, they are reporting from places like Haiti, South America, Africa, Mongolia and Japan.

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Nazanin Mehregan reports from Haiti and her internship with Architecture for Humanity.

It’s called the monkey bird, at least this is what the people from the House call it. The creature emits eccentric sounds that cut short my already limited hours of sleep, in the hills of Petionville. Approximately twenty of us, mostly architects working for Architecture For Humanity, live in the house. Further downhill, close to the neighborhood center where AFH’s local office in Haiti–the Bati Byen office (meaning “Building Better” in Creole) is located, Port-au-Prince presents itself as the city of life and chaos, of street vendors and food; the city of slums and a splash of informality, of NGOs and their 4×4 cars.

The divided Island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic and Haiti have shared since 1697, reminds me of “The Comedian”, a 1967 film by Peter Glenville. Though Port-au-Prince looks very different nowadays, major similarities to that time are still apparent. Unfortunately the situation remains muddled, the recent earthquake, despite two years past, having revealed the most immediate of problems. The roots of Haiti’s struggles can only be traced through history.

This country of 9 million is the poorest of the American continent and about half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. It was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first black-led republic in the world, and the richest colony of France by the time of its independence in 1804, after which it became increasingly unstable and isolated by the international community, which devastated the country’s economy, primarily based on commodities export.

National Palace in Port-au-Prince that collapsed during the 2010 earthquake


Informal sales of fabric and cloths, mostly imported donations – Downtown Port-au-Prince, near the harbor

National decisions of individual leaders were supplementary to the case. Further back in time, when Dr. Francois Duvalier initiated an anticommunist strategy in 1957 to retain power, his policies promoted the migration wave from the rural areas to the cities, causing a “brain drain” of academics and skilled Haitian workers who fled to other countries. Now only half of the population remains literate. Since then, a number of military coups, revolts, constant short-term alterations and socio-economic and political instability has become the model based on which many Haitian leaders govern. As a result, the country sank further into poverty and violence. I experienced this instability first hand, on March 8th when President Martelly was scheduled for an announcement and the resulting political unrest in the streets entailed our evacuation from the office. During that day the presence of the UN Stabilization Mission, MINUSTAH–with more than 7,000 troops in the country–became evident. In addition to a minor earthquake the night before, it made for an eventful 24 hours. It is clear that natural disasters in places like this serve to expose all the fault lines that exist in the country’s institutions. In terms of corruption, Haiti ranks 177th out of 179 countries.

Experiencing the Haitian bidonvilles

In one of the densest countries in the Americas (310 p/km2), especially in its urban spaces, the slum incidence is dramatically high, reaching 85% of the total urban population. The capital city, Port-au-Prince, with a total urban population estimated at more than 2.2 million people in the metropolitan area, concentrates a large number of these bidonvilles, French for “can towns” or informal settlements.

Where municipalities are marginalized on a national level, there is no legally approved master plan even for metropolitan Port-au-Prince, and this lack of information extends further to the statistics and demographic data of the city. Absence of access to basic infrastructure and low service provision by the national and local governing institutions are common attributes of the capital city.

Villa Rosa is one of these bidonvilles, located on the hillsides above PAP, for which Architecture For Humanity aside many other partners is currently conducting an Upgrading-Recovery master plan. This neighborhood is where I spend my time enthusiastically, at least one day per week as the project team member. This informal settlement was strongly hit, by the earthquake on January 2010. It has been selected by the Government of Haiti as one of the 16 neighborhoods that are prioritized for redevelopment.

Camps in the informal settlement of Villa Rosa – southern Port-au-Prince

In the densely populated city of Port-au-Prince, characterized by what many Haitians call “urbanization sauvage” (wild urbanization), most houses lack appropriate technical practices and are poorly and illegally built. In Villa Rosa they cling along steep hills, next to ravines and gullies, without the existence of any building codes or technical supervision, in danger of being washed away by the next rainy season or by the torrent of a hurricane. Many of these unplanned houses collapsed during the earthquake and forced people to squat in farming lands located at the southern end of the neighborhood, where living conditions are extremely poor.

One of the key elements of this upgrading project is community engagement. Through community participation sessions, we strive to assess the needs, priorities, capacities and visions of the local people so that we can provide complementary technical feedback and designs for the process and final outcomes. Despite the dreadful living conditions, the eagerness of people to participate in the sessions and demonstrate their high interest in improving their own environment, reminds me that even the most severe conditions are repairable if the people are involved and a desire exists.Community participation session in the informal settlement of Villa Rosa

Working with the community in this multi-dimensional project reveals that for Haitians, housing represents wealth and plays an important role in gradual accumulation of economic resources. Haitians build their houses over time using available cash, taking 5 to 15 years to finish construction. The common practice–even among the affluent–is a result of the existing inappropriate tax regulations; a way of dodging tax payments on completed structures.

The Dotted Port-au-Prince

Port-au-Prince is now characterized by massive tent-covered camps, rubble and unpaved, littered streets. It is also the sight of people overflowing from tap-taps (the local buses) the sound of diesel generators mixed with Compa music, and the delicious smell of djon-djon, a local dish of dark rice with mushrooms.

Amidst this chaotic landscape in downtown, where no one was willing to accompany me to visit due to the insecure environment, a series of ornate architectural jewels captured my attention. They are the Gingerbread houses, Haitian style, which flourished in Port-au-Prince at the turn of the 19th century. Many of these colored wooden structures, with witch-hat spires and carved cornices surprisingly survived the earthquake. As they deteriorate over time, there exists no systematic strategy to save and preserve this precious heritage.

Gingerbread house – city centre Port-au-Prince

Emerging Slums

Moving out of the hectic center, I make my way towards the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where another shocking backdrop appears and continues for kilometers. A phenomenon, which I define as “Emerging Slums”, by which randomly located tents are transforming into shelters, slowly being developed with more permanent materials. Slums for kilometers rise from dispersed arbitrary camps, with no attention or supervision provided to plan and organize this growth and sprawl of informal urbanization, as they fade into the outer city’s landscape.

It is worth noting here that while Haiti’s urbanization rate is rapidly increasing, it is still far behind other neighboring Caribbean countries. Two-thirds of the country’s population still lives in rural areas, meaning that the appearance of additional bidonvilles is likely to occur soon.

Emerging slums – outskirts of Port-au-Prince

Life in the “Republic of NGOs”

Since 1971 when the international community shifted its policy towards providing aid to NGOs rather than outsourcing it to the government in order to combat corruption, increasing numbers of NGOs and international organizations began working in the slums and poor areas of Port-au-Prince. Despite the recent efforts of the Interim Reconstruction Commission to coordinate the aid system, the government is still unaware of many of the activities of NGOs in the country. Nevertheless, the population holds the government accountable when a disaster or other tragic event occurs. Between 1984 and 2010, the number of NGOs in Haiti increased from 200 to over 10,000 and only 500 are officially registered with the government [The Economist, 2010]. Surely, the number of organizations has considerably increased since the earthquake.

Petionville, one of the wealthier neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, is where most of the NGOs are located. Living an NGO life is a very particular experience, since their presence is exceedingly obvious and their status a privileged one by local standards. There are particular activities, places, foods and bars, that only NGO staff can enjoy and afford. Even though they don’t live in completely segregated neighborhoods or work places, they live in a segregated society and network of people.

Montana swimming pool – Petionville, Port-au-Prince

Ironically, in contrast to many other developing countries that strive to attract tourists, the long-term presence of foreigners in the form of NGOs–as opposed to tourists–has brought with it upper-class homes instead of resorts, elaborate restaurants, bars and supermarkets instead of touristic venues. They serve a specific demand and a certain customer. Where most of the materials and goods are imported, inflated prices are imposed. It resembles living on an island within the island; the “western” places sticking out like a sore thumb among street vendors, mobile informal pharmacies, handmade liquors on the street and temporary informal fruit stands in the ravines.

While my interest and character draws me towards broader comprehension of local traditions and manners, I encounter the difficulties of integration, as I am still a foreigner from that other “island”. Observing and attentively reflecting on my position in between the two islands, I can’t help but become a skeptic participant who ponders ways of deeper integration and less dependency on both.

All photos by Nazanin Mehregan

6 Comments

  • Josie says:

    Really a wonderfully written and fascinating piece!! I can’t wait to talk to you more indepth about your project – i have so many questions about the planning process, the timeline, the organizational structure. You alluded well to life as an expat aid worker – a very strange and contorted world indeed… I’m pretty sure that the same experience of stark duality is replicated in all geographic locations with a high density of NGOs and such obvious imbalances in wealth and power, and it really is difficult to reconcile. Bon courage mon amie!

  • Arvin Nassim Yazd says:

    Nazanin,
    Text was really smooth and clear and provides an overall picture of Haiti.
    It is really interesting that you had a chance to experience living in Dominican Republic, and I remember your vision about that place was totally different.
    It is so disappointing that we are facing this significant class differences between two attached countries in an island.
    Perhaps we can find similar issue or condition in Persian Gulf coasts. In south coast of the gulf we are facing modern developed complexes while in northern part of that everything is totally different.
    By the way about Haiti, what do you think caused this situation rather than earthquake and do you have any idea as a solution for this crisis?

  • Dear Josie,

    The project is very interesting, since it tackles two problems at the same time. Integrating a post disaster reconstruction scenario and slum upgrading, requires a complex process in which a diverse range of disciplines and sectors are involved. My thesis will include a more in-depth investigation on it and I can talk to you about it for hours.
    The presence of this amount of international NGOs in Haiti fascinates me in particular, coming from a country where they are almost absent and this kind of duality is very different to the ones that I experienced before.

  • Dear Arvin,

    Your point is very interesting, that polarization exists in local, national and global levels. While here in Haiti this duality appears in the local level with completely different actors on each side, it is apparent globally when comparing even neighboring countries to each other.
    To answer your question, I would say that Haiti suffered from diverse occurrences, disasters and instabilities throughout its history and even though the disaster on Jan 2010 devastated the country’s conditions, it would be an oversimplification to trace all the problems back to the earthquake. For that reason, not only the solutions themselves but also the strategies towards appropriate solutions appear to be complex. However, in my opinion any suggested solution or strategy should preferably be local, in order to reduce dependency and increase sustainability.

  • […] full interview here and don’t miss her blog post in which she reported from Port-au-Prince, The two islands of ever-struggling Haiti. […]

  • […] same class, who is also working in Haiti with Architecture for Humanity, after having completed her internship with them during the masters […]

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