In The Controversial Struggle To Put Roofs Over Haitians' Heads, Is Smaller Better?

Jun 15, 2015

Earthquake-displaced Haitians help build transitional housing with the aid group TECHO outside Port-au-Prince.
Credit TECHO

In disaster relief circles, the report this month by NPR and ProPublica registered a good 8.0 on the Richter scale of wake-up calls.

Their investigation looked at what the American Red Cross had done with the half billion dollars it raised for Haiti after the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

And the findings were stunning: Contrary to its claims that it provided housing for 130,000 Haitians, the Red Cross in reality has built just six permanent homes there.

The same day the Red Cross story aired, meanwhile, the U.S. Congress’ General Accounting Office slammed the Obama Administration for its own modest housing construction results in Haiti.

RELATED: In Search Of The Red Cross' $500 Million In Haiti Relief

It’s been an all too common story in post-quake Haiti: Lavish foreign aid getting devoured by the flesh-eating bacteria of cost overruns, bureaucratic delays and all the other dysfunction large NGOs and government agencies are prone to.

But that doesn’t mean some organizations haven’t had at least relative success in Haiti. One of them is a Chilean-based anti-poverty NGO called TECHO.

TECHO, which means “roof” in Spanish, does housing construction and community development in urban and rural slums across Latin America and the Caribbean. Admittedly, it doesn’t operate on the same scale that the likes of the Red Cross or USAID do. But TECHO and a lot of other, smaller aid groups also don’t seem to suffer the same rate of failure the big ones have logged in Haiti, either.

So I spoke with Argentine-born Diego Firpo, TECHO’s U.S. C.E.O based here in Miami, about the organization’s approach and what might be learned from it.

Excerpts:

We involve the local people, because they have solutions that we don't. That makes our projects less expensive and less bureaucratic. -Diego Firpo

TECHO had never worked in Haiti before the earthquake. Yet soon after it happened, the Inter-American Development Bank gave you $2 million to build temporary housing, or T-shelters, there. What made them so confident in you?

The approach that TECHO has is different. We never bring solutions only from the outside – with what we only learn at college. We try from the very beginning to involve the local people, because they are the ones who live those problems every day. They have solutions that we don’t. So that makes TECHO’s projects less expensive and less bureaucratic.

And your first project in Haiti, I remember, was a community outside of Port-au-Prince called Canaan – which has since become an impressive but also controversial experiment in relocating earthquake-displaced Haitians out of the wrecked capital.

Yes. We told [the IDB] that we had to build transitional houses along with the families. And after that, build a community center where they would then identify their priorities and where they want to head. For example, when we want to build a school, we want to leave social capital in the communities.

But how have you been able to avoid the cost overruns and the bureaucratic delays that have plagued so many other aid organizations in Haiti?

I think perhaps because we are young…

You’re only 27 and you’re already the U.S. CEO.

Yeah. And we just go and start working. And we try to get in touch with local government and local municipalities to tell them which are our plans – and to ask which are their plans – so if we can work together and faster, we do it.

So in these past five years, what have been TECHO’s most significant accomplishments in Haiti?

We have built over 2,336 transitional houses. And – very, very important – we have mobilized over 7,000 youth Haitian volunteers. And now, the leaders of our team in Haiti are local Haitians, and that’s the most important part.

Can you describe the T-shelters?

The T-shelters are very basic pre-fab homes, 18 square meters [about 200 square feet], that can be built in two days. And also, as we have this goal of involving youth, these houses can be built by five to 10 people with no previous experience [working with experienced group leaders].

TECHO has had its critics, too. Some say your T-shelters are too small, for example. What has TECHO learned since 2010?

In Haiti, we have changed the foundations of the homes [compared to those in other Latin American countries]... .

They need to be sturdier there… .

Yeah. What we have learned also is that we are not experts in everything. So in the communities we have this attitude of hearing them.

Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.