Student Spotlight: Engineering 2 Empower

“The solution to the permanent housing crisis in Haiti, and in many parts of the developing world, cannot be imported, imposed, or donated.  Instead, it has to be one that empowers the people to become self-reliant.” -Engineering 2 Empower

A year after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, this group of undergraduates, graduates, and faculty at Notre Dame partnered with the community of Léogâne to implement a sustainable solution that will solve the problem of unsafe and temporary housing through engagement with locals. Caroline Bernardi, a senior IT Management major from Bloomington, IL, describes how E2E not only provides a road map for building seismically resilient housing, but it also promotes growth and development to help alleviate poverty.

On January 12, 2010 a devastating earthquake struck the republic of Haiti.  Despite measuring just a moderate 7.0 on the Richter scale, this earthquake is considered one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in history, exposing the vulnerabilities of established construction practices in a country plagued by poverty and political unrest.  An estimated 230,000 Haitians were killed and 1.5 million were left homeless, displaced within their own country. The earthquake left the country in ruins.  In the town of Léogâne, the effective epicenter of the earthquake, 93% of the buildings were damaged beyond repair.

Although this happened over 4 years ago, the effects still remain and the housing crisis continues to intensify poverty in Haiti. The internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Haiti are in need of safe, affordable and permanent housing.  As a coastal city in Haiti, Léogâne is susceptible to many natural disasters.  In addition to earthquakes, the city is also at risk for hurricanes, floods, and landslides. Affordability is another key issue that E2E seeks to resolve.  A modest home in Haiti costs about $4,000-$5,000.  A proper home, with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, electricity and plumbing would cost $30,000 to guarantee hazard resilience based on current construction practices. However, about 70% of Haitians make only $700 per year (less than $2 per day).

Immediately after the earthquake struck, millions of dollars were donated to Haiti.  NGO’s and church missions have continued to visit Haiti for years in an attempt to rebuild the dilapidated cities. Although these efforts are noble and somewhat necessary, they also have some drawbacks. The focus has been placed on temporary shelters and/or housing solutions relying on imported materials and craftsmanship. They aim to give direct aid to the Haitians, rather than teaching them and empowering them to take control of the situation.  The unintended effect is that no permanent changes have been established in residential home construction practices, and in absence of donor funds the Haitians are left to rebuild their country with the same practices that proved deadly in the January 2010 event.

Haitians Set up Tent City for Shelter

The training that E2E provides focuses on an idea called paraskilling.  This teaches an individual to be an expert in particular tasks necessary for construction.  Together these experts have the capacity to complete the structure quickly and efficiently, while achieving a high level of quality control. Another important aspect of the E2E solution is its focus on providing communal resources. This makes tools and materials that are necessary to build a house readily available for an entire Haitian community. Although this does take away some flexibility in the design of the house, it fulfills a much more necessary and basic need that the locals would otherwise not be able to fulfill: safety at an affordable price.

In implementing this solution, E2E holds strong to its core belief that the key to igniting change is to listen, innovate and empower. Lasting solutions to problems like infrastructure, which are fundamental to basic livelihood, can only be achieved with a bold and innovative approach. E2E would like to eliminate Haiti’s dependence on foreign aid by helping the communities to take ownership of the situation.

The first step in this process is to listen to the locals.  Although a foreigner can attempt to understand the needs and conditions of the developing world, it is always those who are closest to it that understand it best.  This is why E2E has taken the time to listen for four years, and keeps listening to those it seeks to empower.  E2E members in Haiti have been observing and interviewing the locals in order to fully understand their needs, desires and constraints.  This first step is often overlooked due to a misunderstanding that the developed world has a better perspective of the challenges the developing world is facing.

Once the problems have been properly identified and the constraints fully understood, the next phase can begin: innovation.  E2E ignites innovation by hosting forums and “innovation incubators” with the Haitians, while also challenging the undergraduate students at the University of Notre Dame to think critically about the problem and its possible solution. Through the latter process, the aforementioned basic housing model was formulated over the past four years. This model is now enhanced at the innovation incubators in Haiti. Community members are challenged, through the guidance of E2E members, to provide solutions to specific problems related to the housing model.  These solutions are then analyzed and evaluated against appropriate criteria that have been researched by the E2E team.  These ideas will be ultimately combined to create the final comprehensive solution.

By including those closest to the issue in identifying the problem and finding a solution the community, members feel well prepared and equipped to take ownership of the situation.  This is the final, and most essential phase of the E2E concept: empowerment.  By providing resources, training, and expertise, E2E gives locals an opportunity to build a safe house that they can afford.

As members of the developed world, we forget that others have not been given the chance to feel the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from being self-reliant.  By examining the housing crisis beyond the simple issue of infrastructure and extending the analysis to cultural norms and physical constraints, E2E has found a way to give these Haitians the opportunity to feel the independence we so often take for granted.

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