Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Earthquake in Consciousness

One week ago I was sitting on the sixth floor balcony in Providenciales , Turks and Caicos when waves mysteriously slowed in the bay to my north. Moments later, I felt the building shake and looked into the room to see my wife looking out at me. “Did you feel that?” Before I could respond, the earth moved again – this time with greater intention and for a bit longer duration. My mind raced across two oceans to last year when I was similarly confronted with a major quake – that time in the Kingdom of Tonga. Several seconds later, the earth calmed, the building stood silent and gradually, the waves regained their percussion. Armed with a fast internet connection, I went onto the United States Geological Survey website to see where the quake was. No information. So, I quickly filled out a “Did You Feel It” form and hit submit. When my browser confirmed the delivery of my report, I went back to the world map and there, in a bright red square, was the ominous news – 7.2.

We all know that the movement of the earth in Haiti has moved the world. People are pouring out much needed compassion on those who have lost what little they had. My dear friend and colleague, Chip Duncan – author of “Enough to go Around” and board member of Relief International – has been keeping many of us apprised of the devastation and human challenges confronting a part of humanity that has, for so long, been marginalized and forgotten. His encouragement, joining many others, is to do whatever you can to insure that much needed medical, food and shelter supplies are provided to attenuate the suffering that is so acute.

I am moved, however, to write about the earthquake from an entirely different point of view. While a 7.2 magnitude earthquake is quite powerful – a 7.2 magnitude quake does not kill 100,000 people. At least it didn’t have to. The earthquake showed the weakness of our callous indifference towards resource distribution and poverty. What killed so many and injured countless more was the inadequate or inappropriate building materials and methods which put tons of unreinforced concrete and bricks above the heads of those who sought shelter. What killed so many was a global market where excessive supplies lead to over-built mansions built to unimaginable codes while a deforested island is left with meager supplies to make do. The earthquake illuminated, in tragic clarity, the cost humanity pays for immoral imbalances in resource distribution – an imbalance that no emergency charity can absolve. As some of my dear friends who do considerable work in Haiti pointed out a few nights ago, this year the same number of people would have or been disabled due to grinding poverty, violence, and inhumane living conditions. In a country where the life expectancy for most people is less than 5 decades and where only a few hundred miles away, we complain of economic crisis that means many of our population must return to work in their 6th and 7th decade of life, can we not see we need to WAKE UP.

Last year, over 18 million children were displaced by war – many of them forced to engage in violence against their own people. Over 700,000 people were sold as slaves across international borders in 2009. Years after the earthquakes in the Indian Ocean, Pakistan, Iran, and India, thousands remain without adequate shelter. And consider this, 11 million earthquake and tropical storm survivable homes can be built for the same budget that the U.S. government spent on the C-130 aircraft that we use to shuttle relief onto landstrips after disasters. Sure, these arguments are often cited in terms of resource prioritization but, I’d like us to take a deeper look.

Our real challenge in Haiti requires a deeper examination of a fundamental system failure. As a result, if we have any genuine intention of honoring those who lost their lives due to imposed inadequacy, we need to consider as much civil and economic engineering as we consider emergency relief. Haiti is a beautiful country which shares a beautiful island with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Separated by an arbitrary, colonial and slavery imposed boundary, these countries are worlds apart. We need to consider, in this moment of memory, that genuine honor of the human loss one week ago involves a commitment to building not only a different condition for the future of Haiti but making our actions generalizable in places like Colombia, Uganda, Cambodia, and Sudan.

What is a new narrative and how will we recognize it? To answer that, we must begin by inquiring, in this moment , “What do we have in abundance in Haiti?”

Well, start with the images from Port-au-Prince. You cannot help but see the piles of broken buildings and the rubble left in the aftermath of the quakes. But can you see the over 800 open source technology options that exist for immediate deployment in recycling this building material into aggregate for paving and tiling? Do you see the ability to do land and water reclamation and filtration using aggregate from this recycled material.

Port-au-Prince is blessed with copious access to water. In a country where potable and irrigation water resources are scarce, which of the 12,447 low or no-combustion desalination technologies will be deployed for locally owned and empowered enterprises to create sustainable water and service utilities. Who will match these open source innovations – many of which are proprietary and restricted in the U.S. and Europe but were never patented or protected in Haiti – to local communities and entrepreneurs seeking to build enterprise, employment and engagement where the earthquake and poverty scarred the land and its people?

There is coastal and for the development of bio-diesel and nutritional algae farms. There is degraded land for the deployment and testing of soil reclamation technologies. Rather than exporting aid, a new narrative would recognize that enabling local engagement will not only rebuild a city but will, for the first time in two centuries, ignite the innovation of a culturally rich people. Can we not only ship aid but commit to the support and creation of businesses that build renewable and resilient habitations with locally manufactured products; create medical outposts equipped with locally produced medicines and devices? Is that too much to ask? Is it easier to watch thousands die and then rush to aid those left in devastation? And speaking of people, for those who remain to deal with the aftermath, how do we as a global community immediately collaborate to use this moment to align our creativity with that which is local to imagine a Haiti not surviving but thriving?

Long before the earth shook, our organization, in partnership with a few courageous civil servants at the World Bank’s infoDev program, deployed the Global Innovation Commons – a public resource for stimulating the use of open source technology to build ethical, commons-based market opportunities in the most marginalized countries on Earth. In our rush to show compassion, let us insure that we redouble our resolve to recognize that poverty and indifference created this catastrophe. And then let’s insure that every effort to “import” solutions is at least matched with an equal commitment to create local enterprise to engage Haiti (and countries in similar situations) in capacity enablement which can one day lead to safer houses, more engaged employment and industry, and a sense of collaborative participation in the global community. Let’s work to enable Haiti to join other Environmental Challenge Zones (like the volcanic region in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea) in being the experts in seismic technology and crisis response – building a new story out of the rubble of a scarcity laden past.


1 comment:

  1. "building a new story out of the rubble of a scarcity laden past" - Drives home the point or what! Thanks David, for such an eye opener.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave