Will concrete improvements in Haiti remain just words?
We understand that people use the word ‘concrete’ in a sentence to suggest something that should be solid, firm or dependable. But mere words carry no real meaning for those who remain within Haitian tent cities after 2-years. These people live among the rubble piles waiting for some “concrete action”, a “concrete solution” and the “concrete evidence” that life will be different in two more years.
In a reality the Haitian people see “concrete” as both a building material and the object of destructive force and death. In the 2010 earthquake it was concrete blocks, walls and floors that fell down and made them homeless and broken. But even with their fear-filled memories they will still chose that same concrete to rebuild their lives.
We cannot change the fact that concrete is the most widely used material for construction on the planet, but we can change the way Haiti produces this popular product.
Concrete in Haiti has proven to be nether solid, firm or dependable. Before 2010 Haiti had a broken concrete supply system and it has not been fixed during the past 24-months. Regardless of this fact, concrete will still be used to rebuild and support Haiti’s infrastructure and its homes. Without good concrete and the supply chains that feed it the rubble piles, rescue efforts and sadness will come again and again.
In a way, the word “concrete” in Haiti represents the difference between good intentions and real action. Some work to use “concrete” within sentences, but what is really needed in Haiti is work on concrete – the product.
Professor Alex Dupuy of Wesleyan University and the author of Haiti in the World Economy was asked to comment on the progress in Haiti after 2-years: “Other than putting a government in place … I haven’t seen any concrete evidence of recovery under way.”
We all recognize that the professor was using the word “concrete” to describe strong or solid evidence that recovery is working in Haiti after a two-year effort. We understand that Mr. Dupuy is not a “concrete geek” like us, but his word selection highlights the desire that we all have to see recovery completed in stronger way.
The professor has shared many of his insights (see video below) on the history of Haiti and has suggested several times that Haiti needs a strong infrastructure in order to compete in world markets. He realizes that focuses on cheap labor enterprises and export opportunities have helped in the past, but that dependable infrastructure is a missing link in economic success.
Infrastructure is built using concrete. Sustainable infrastructure uses quality concrete.
When we hear commentators suggesting that we need to “understand the building blocks that will be needed to rebuild Haiti“, we hear just words being strung together. The action that is required is to build the concrete blocks strong enough to support Haiti’s infrastructure. Until this work is accomplished there will be no chance for a solid infrastructure and Haiti will again be left with just more weak words.
If you want a vivid example of the importance of a good concrete supply chain, compare the rebuilding activities after the Haiti Earthquake with Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. By most estimates, within less than 9 months of the Tsunami in Japan, a large percentage of the damaged structures have been repaired. By contrast, in Haiti, after two years few permanent replacements have been built. These two events highlight the supply system disparity between industrialized Japan and a broken country like Haiti.
Why the huge difference? It could be argued that Japan’s excellent supply chain for concrete is the most significant reason. First, buildings, roads, dams, port structures and bridges were built with quality concrete, the product of a functional and well-dispersed supply system. Japan’s lesser damaged structures were easier to repair than in Haiti where their poorly supplied concrete structures require complete removal and replacement.
Second, it took little time to get the concrete supply chain up and running again to produce the materials needed to repair the infrastructure of Japan. This functioning concrete system provides a burgeoning job market, business opportunities, rising wages and supports a middle-class.
In Haiti, with only a couple of functioning concrete production companies, finding quality concrete and a job are major problems. The lack of capacity is exacerbated by poor sand and gravel resources, a lack of quality control procedures, transportation restrictions and inadequate engineering. Without access to the appropriate concrete technology and supply systems, Haiti will continue to build haphazardly. The poor will continue to lose the three benefits of a working concrete supply chain – wages, homes and personal safety.
We don’t see concrete evidence that would suggest that the government of Haiti is moving to improve the quality of their concrete infrastructure. It is our hope that the words solid, firm and dependable may someday be used to describe Haiti’s concrete.