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Building a stronger Haiti

Haiticonstructionpermits Editor's Note: Frederic Meunier is a consultant working on the Doing Business "Dealing with Construction Permits" indicator.

Today, Canada is hosting the first conference on Haiti’s reconstruction. The conference aims at helping Haiti to meet its numerous challenges. More than 100,000 people have died following the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. The shocking collapse of most of Port-au-Prince’s buildings left an estimated 1.5 million people homeless.

Two key factors related to the state of construction regulations aggravated the devastation caused by the earthquake. First, the absence of a national building code meant that a significant majority of buildings in Port-au-Prince were constructed with poor building standards. A recent study by the OAS highlighted some of the problems with Haitian building standards – “slopes without proper foundations, insufficient steel or improper building practices, etc.” Second, cumbersome administrative requirements for construction approvals provided a disincentive for compliance and meant that most buildings were constructed without sufficient oversight by the authorities. 

As the reconstruction process begins, a set of different actions could be considered to improve the regulatory framework for construction. A new comprehensive building code that complies with international construction standards should be a priority, especially one that prescribes better safety standards to protect against natural disasters. But if previous earthquakes are any indication, having updated building codes is only part of the solution. When the tragedy of 1999 earthquake in Izmit occurred, Turkey had the appropriate regulations but lacked the means to enforce them. 

Implementing a streamlined process with simple procedures and fair costs would permit the authorities to ensure a more consistent regulatory enforcement. A disconnect between local municipalities and the Ministère des Travaux Publics created inconsistent enforcement, and applications were not adequately reviewed. In addition, many key inspections didn’t take place. More streamlined procedures should also come with affordable construction permit fees that reflect the cost of providing the service and not deter builders from submitting an application for a permit. In 2009, the cost of dealing with construction permits in Haiti was about 570% of income per capita. If any good can come from the Haiti’s disaster, it might be the opportunity to put in place regulations that will help ensure better and safer construction for all.

Comments

Haiti’s recovery process is not going to be easy to tackle and will require a lot of effort both from the international community and from local people. It is important not to forget lessons learned from the previous disaster responses and to integrate them into work in Haiti early on. The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) has prepared an interesting note on the World Bank Group Response to the Haiti Earthquake: Evaluative Lessons. The note points out that the situation in Haiti is especially overwhelming because of the breakdown of social order and a fragile security situation, the near-complete loss of governance structures, and the failure to impose even minimum quality standards on the construction industry. Some of the main lessons highlighted in IEG’s note are the following: • Temporary shelters need to preserve existing social relationships. For instance, the layout of temporary shelter structures can reduce crime and violence against women if care is taken during the relocation process to ensure that as many doors as possible face a common and well-lit area. • Providing survivors with employment and cash transfers early on has had good results. For instance, taking the time to ensure that all usable building materials are recovered and recycled is a way to ensure that the poor will be able to afford to rebuild. The general population can be helped to recover emotionally through this process with paid work. • Donor coordination has always proved to be vital. Ways must be found for involved donors to work together or in parallel – in the short term – on a clearly defined set of activities with the same eligibility requirements and benefits. • Design of disaster projects should be simple, based on local participation and taking into account local capacity. • Streamlined decision-making and procedures for contracting civil works will help avoid delays. For instance, either a high-powered unit developed for the purpose or existing institutions can provide continuity in planning, coordination, and monitoring. • Damage assessments need to be simple and tailored to local construction types, with damage awards closely tied to actual costs. • Post-disaster operations need to include measures to reduce long term vulnerability and deal with land ownership issues. Reaching agreement on mitigation measures with the government within the first three months is important, because it becomes harder to get politicians to focus on disaster once the memory of the emergency recedes. • Owner-driven housing construction can be more effective than the use of contractors. • Leveraging existing private sector capacity is critical for effective emergency response. The private sector can play a key role in infrastructure and logistics, local banking, and provision of physical capacity. To read the full version of IEG's note, please click on the following link: http://www.worldbank.org/ieg/haiti.html

Submitted by Kaname Inamoto on
Well, building codes rarely have much impact in shantytowns, now do they? And I think basic economics will tell you that poor countries build unsafe buildings mainly because it's cheaper, not because of inadequate regulations. In the unlikely event that the Haitian state were suddenly to develop the capacity to enact, let alone enforce, a sophisticated building code, not much would be built in Port-au-Prince anymore because few would be able to afford housing built to the highest safety standards. Such is the reality of life in poor countries and I doubt regulations can do much to change that.

Submitted by Valentine Joseph on
My dad just flew back to Haiti and is about to kickstart a project that would build new houses in PAP. Unfortunately, without the government to bid for project, he has to get in touch with people that would enable his project to get off ground. Any suggestions?

Transportation and street networks must be considered as multi-functional elements of a resilient infrastructure. This has been well described above. All sectors, investors, relief efforts and political entities must agree, that the only way to gain social, environmental, economic and physical returns on our investments will be to build now to withstand future catastrophic events. If the Haiti response remains pro-active, we will build systems that protect us from the future not simply repair our past. If this and future disasters are not seen as catalysts for permanent change from the first stages of response, the world will remain stuck in the ever recurring pattern of repairing what is already broken and urbanism will indefinately remain a funtion of emergency management - not the realization of our aspirations. Crisis by crisis, city by city, only infusing emergency response with resiliency will change the vulnerabilities of urban infrastructure for future populations. Whatever streets look like, whatever vehicles they accomodate the transportation infrastructure must be concieved to improve day to day quality of life for all Hatians today and everyday into the future. Most of all, if emergency infrastructure investments cannot withstand and respond to the next local crisis to a far greater degree, we are knowingly harming future victims of natural disasters in the cities we are trying to repair. Haiti will be a global catalyst toward a resilient mindset. Like in no other country, the international community, partnered with the spirited Hatian people, can build an identity for a Nation of common interests and mutually benificial relationships. This will reflect well on us as a common people unless we collectively fail to inspire confidence in the Nation and in one another. This is why the world has a stake in doing the right thing now - to change band-aid reconstruction patterns and set an example to then follow every time we are faced with these issues in our own countries.

Submitted by John Sieszycki on
"building codes rarely have much impact in shantytowns, now do they? And I think basic economics will tell you that poor countries build unsafe buildings mainly because it's cheaper, not because of inadequate regulations" It's true, but the main problem is that nearly nobody in Haiti right now knows how to build seismic-resistant homes. What is urgently needed are the basic guides about masonry constructions in seismic country. And do not rebuild on the fault line!

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