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Housing reconstruction: boxes to sleep in or Lakou houses to live in the Haitian way in rural environments two years after the earthquake
Béatrice BOYER and Cassandre MEHU _ april 2012

“A house is four walls and a roof - not very complicated!” Such a limited view of housing, which was expressed during an evaluation of a housing reconstruction programme, is the cause of many errors observed during evaluations. The difficulties involved in rehousing are far from having been resolved in urban environments. Repairing and rebuilding houses in rural environments might seem less complicated in comparison. But the reconstruction of rural housing raises other questions related to local identity. Two years after the earthquake of January 12 2010, many questions remain about the challenges of housing reconstruction in rural environments.

Do emergency needs justify the brutal and massive importation of minimal housing models without any local cultural characteristics? A rural house in Haiti is more than a roof and four walls. It is part of a socio-cultural space, imbued with history and often used for religious (vaudou) rituals. This space, around which several houses are sometimes situated, has an identity, the “lakou”, which is found throughout the Antilles in one form or another and which is linked to the history of the Caribbean. The existence of the lakou – or the combination of house and adjacent space – raises questions about the responsibility of housing programme decision-makers vis-à-vis both the local culture (including ways of living and building) and people’s desire for modernity? How can programmes be effective, respectful of local ways of living and encourage inhabitants to build better? What adaptation, transformation and appropriation capacities are transferred?

The status of the beneficiary as seen by the inhabitants and by international bodies

Do the various processes (of identifying future beneficiaries, targeting international aid via repeated surveys of the inhabitants, marking houses and announcing criteria) not lead to a wait-and-see attitude during which the inhabitants, as potential beneficiaries, do not express themselves (or make any repairs for that matter)? What level of responsibility do international actors have in all these processes, which the population feels are so many promises and which they try to negotiate in their favour? Many people look for ways to appear more like victims than they actually are so that they can become beneficiaries, asking themselves, “How can we get onto the list?” This system has many perverse results and poses other questions. Is the concept of the household not too restrictive in terms of beneficiary family identity in relation to the realities of the wider family structures in rural Haiti? Is there not a risk that the Haitian way of living in rural areas with several family houses around a courtyard – lakou – with a certain form of solidarity and a specific kind of spatial organization will be destroyed with this type of household-based targeting?