Survivors and the doomed were still moaning in the rubble when Hillary Clinton landed in Port-au-Prince and promised that the U.S. would be with Haiti “today, tomorrow, and for the time ahead.” Today is gone, tomorrow is now, and the implications of that “time ahead” are just beginning to sink in. Representatives of Big Aid (the usual wealthy nations, plus comparatively well-off Latin Americans) are meeting in Montreal to ask how, precisely, to heal a postapocalyptic land.
The world has an abundance of technical expertise acquired through mournful experience. Haiti’s cities were thrown together with whatever materials were at hand: palm thatch, corrugated tin, crumbly cinder block. In tropical climates, termites turn softwood into mush. There is no mystery about the country’s needs, or about how to meet them, given enough money and organization.
Rebuilding Haiti will mean untangling a knot of paradoxes and contradictions, beginning with the word rebuilding. On the pre-seismic morning of January 12, Port-au-Prince was the already-debilitated capital of a destitute nation, with much of its growing population jammed into slums and deprived of clean water, plumbing, and sewers. Rural Haitians flocked there anyway, fleeing muddy hillsides stripped of trees and drawn to the capital’s meager advantages. Nobody wants to put things back the way they were.
Making Port-au-Prince livable and safe might mean thinning its population, imposing a program of environmental conservation, and stifling corruption. The scale of destruction is so vast, the infrastructure needs so colossal, and the failures of public entities so complete that the country will require a program of social engineering to complement the mechanical and structural kinds.
And so Big Aid will lumber into action. Cargo planes will unload cement mixers, bulldozers, soldiers, and bureaucrats. To many Haitians, the prospect of a prolonged U.S. presence smacks of occupation, or at least neocolonialist arrogance: America showing Haitians how to save their country from themselves. Ultimately, Americans may not have the appetite for yet another decade-long sinkhole of good intentions.
The alternative to Big Aid and the military is an informal network of groups that nurture grassroots efforts rather than peddle macro-solutions. Champions of this approach arrive at disaster sites fired by the conviction that the most profound expertise is local tradition. Architecture for Humanity, for one, sends architects on house-to-house calls to assess each structure. Community centers offer workshops where amateur builders can learn how to frame a window or pour a foundation. But there are drawbacks to “Little Aid.” A report by the engineering firm Arup after the 2004 tsunami found that relief agencies initially helped families rebuild their own homes with local materials. Eventually, though, delays and shoddy workmanship forced them to hire national contractors.
If Big Aid and Little Aid can coexist and cancel out each other’s drawbacks, perhaps they can do more than paper over blight. Calamities offer opportunity. Some of the world’s great cities—London, Lisbon, San Francisco—were once obliterated before reaching their present state of loveliness. Wooden Chicago burned in 1871 and rose again as a masonry miracle. It might be too much to hope that one day Port-au-Prince will recall the earthquake of 2010 as its trauma of rebirth. But it’s still worth hoping for.