In Haiti, it would seem progress moves at a snail’s pace, especially construction. A look into the mentality surrounding standards of construction and maintenance can offer an interesting perspective into local culture. In a place like Haiti, where the majority of people live from day to day, it’s understandable that reaching the same standards of completion as the neighboring U.S. is unlikely. In the U.S., building projects don’t begin without the expectation that completion is feasible. In the case of most residential building projects in Haiti, once enough money is earned to begin excavation for a foundation, it is executed and progress continues piece-meal from there. This is a fundamental difference in view between our two societies with regard to construction and development. In America, it is a discrete, linear process with widely understood standards. Here in Haiti, pretty much anything goes.
Once walls and a roof have been erected, Haitian families will move into the building and begin focusing on the interior. Very often houses look completely unfinished from the outside, yet when you enter the house it is a totally different picture: walls are stuccoed and painted, and decorations are hung. There is more importance placed on what you yourself see than what is viewed from the outside world. There isn’t the same climate of community judgment that would accompany a similar project in the U.S. Even on buildings that are technically complete: structurally sound, roofed, stuccoed and painted, most still have the tops of rebar extruding from the roof. I’ve asked several Haitians about this and the answer is always the same – in case down the road they or their children decide to build another story, it will be easy to scab onto the rebar and proceed higher. Because families don’t tend to move away from their home town, houses will stay within the same family for many generations. People don’t want to limit their possibilities in the future, so rebar stays exposed and options stay open.
These differences between our two cultures are not just imposed by societal standards, but by government enforcement. In America, building departments keep strict rules regarding construction process, and in order to achieve a certificate of occupancy (a requirement to inhabit a structure), a tight ship must be presented to the building inspector. In Haiti, a building permit is purchased when the construction process commences: this is a fee that loosely correlates to the actual size of the proposed building (but factors like international funding or personal connections within the city government greatly affect the fee multiplier). After the building permit is issued, there is no further incentive or requirement to reach any set standard of completion. In fact, completion (which is considered achieved when a building is painted) comes at a price. Only once a building is “complete,” is a homeowner obligated to pay real estate taxes. It seems a re-evaluation of this process is needed, using fees to encourage rather than to dissuade homeowners from adding to the aesthetic value of a community. Given enough time and enforcement, such rules and incentives could drastically change the built environment.
When we travel to a new place, the things that stand out the most are the differences between where we came from and where we find ourselves. When traveling from a developed country to a developing one, the differences can overwhelm our senses and our judgment: trying to process everything we encounter can be difficult. These perceptible distinctions are typically development-based: poor basic infrastructure, an inadequate educational system, and a low standard of living. Most foreigners who visit Haiti, myself included, spend a significant amount of time brainstorming ways to make things “better.” First and foremost, we need to understand the local mentalities that contribute to these problems we find so troubling. We will likely find that some problems have deeper roots than we imagined, and creative solutions are only possible when we know the correct angle of approach.
-Alison McKelvie; Haiti Project Manager