In Haiti Small Projects Are a Big Hit [Opinion]

PHOTO:  Brightly colored shantytown in the Jalousie neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty
Brightly colored shantytown in the Jalousie neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

These days there seems to be a huge importance placed on "big ideas" and "mega projects" but I was reminded on a recent trip to Haiti that bigger is not always better.

I have been travelling to Haiti regularly in the past decade and in the years since the 2010 earthquake things there have been pretty bleak. The disorganization, broken promises, and wastefulness that has characterized the reconstruction efforts to date has been depressing, frustrating and in some cases even deadly.

Two weeks ago I made my way to Port-au-Prince to help launch a new course for Haitian entrepreneurs, and for the first time in years I witnessed some pockets of real progress. This progress did not come from the large hospital, hotel or port projects that you might have read about in the international press but rather from simple, "small" initiatives that are having an impact on people's daily lives and routines.

Anyone who has travelled to Port-au-Prince has spent time bouncing around a vehicle as it navigates over and around gigantic potholes on its way through the capitol's bustling streets and hilly suburbs. This time however my rides were surprisingly smooth. Instead of cursing the potholes, my Haitian colleagues were proudly pointing out newly paved roads and those currently under construction. One recently constructed road cut the travel time from Port-au-Prince to Kenscoff, a town in the mountains, from 45 minutes to 15.

Another common topic of conversation was the solar-powered street lamps that have cropped up on Port-au-Prince's busiest streets and neighborhoods. In the evenings the lamps are lighting up the city like I've never seen and improving all aspects of public safety.

I was especially surprised when we passed Place Boyer, a park in Petionville, that became an infamous refugee camp and tent village after the earthquake. Its newest reincarnation is as a beautiful public space with colorful wall and bench mosaics, a basketball court, amphitheater and even free wifi. On a Saturday night the well-lit park was filled with people from all walks of life chatting, listening to music, and playing sports.

While these initiatives have received at least some foreign support they have been completed with local input and oversight and with the local environment and community in mind. These "small" initiatives are manageable, measurable and adaptable—plus they are having an impact.

Of course, frustration with the reconstruction process remains very prevalent but much of this frustration is a result of the focus on hyped up mega projects. Even if they are completed they will never live up to their lofty expectations.

My trip was also filled with the stories of these "big" disappointments. There is the modern $17 million, 300-bed teaching hospital in Mirebalais, a remote town in central Haiti that is completed but appears to be too large to fully operate. The hospital was funded by Partners In Health, a Boston-based NGO, and was supposed to be a small community-based hospital but after the earthquake more money was raised to make it a "top tier teaching hospital." That sounds great but it is in the middle of nowhere and has not been able to attract the doctors and staff needed to run it. No one in Mirebalais asked for a state of the art, top tier teaching hospital. Partners in Health plans to eventually turn the hospital over to the state—it may end up passing on a costly liability.

There is also the Caracol Industrial Park in Northern Haiti that has been heavily promoted by Bill Clinton and the U.S. State Department, which allocated $170.3 million (the largest portion of U.S. financial aid to Haiti) to build a power plant and port in the area. The results have been mixed. The park is expected to create 20,000 direct jobs in the next few years but the project was hastily planned and there are serious worries about the environmental and social impact. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the port, which is crucial to the industrial park's long-term success and sustainability, is two years behind schedule "due in part to a lack of USAID expertise in port planning in Haiti."

My latest experience in Haiti reinforced the idea that "small is beautiful". The British economist E. F. Schumacher who authored the influential book of that title argued that small, appropriate technologies that empower people are better than those that are of a massive scale. This appears to be true in Haiti.

The truth is no one knows what the impact of these mega reconstruction projects will be but given their track record I am not very optimistic. In Haiti, and places like it, small often turns out to not only be beautiful but better.