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MacGyvering in Haiti

Teaching engineering skills helps Haitians help themselves
October 27, 2010

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” one of the engineers said.

ReBuilding 101 Tom Hennessey ’05 (second from right) with fellow volunteer engineers and Hands Together staff in Haiti.

“Don’t worry about it,” the other replied. “We’ve done this before. Just hand me the matches and stand back.”

Dutifully, the first engineer handed over the matches while the second coated the end of the PVC pipe with diesel fuel. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be smart to light plastic pipes on fire. But in rural Haiti, when you need to join two incompatible pieces of PVC to complete an irrigation network, you do what you have to.

I’ve been drawn to the challenges of Third World engineering since taking 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes, my favorite class at MIT) in the fall of 2004. Not long after, I joined Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which partners with nongovernmental organizations on civil and mechanical engineering in developing communities. To me, humanitarian engineering offers an opportunity to distill engineering principles and processes into three steps: identify a problem, evaluate potential solutions, and design and produce one as quickly as possible, even if the available components are limited or less than ideal. The environment is ripe for “MacGyvering.”

Today, few places on earth need resourceful engineers more desperately than Haiti. As a member of the Los Angeles EWB chapter, I had been working since July 2009 with Hands Together, a nonprofit that supports education, sustainable development, and health services there. After January’s massive earthquake, relief organizations flooded to Port au Prince. Although EWB doesn’t do emergency response, I offered to round up engineers on my own to help Hands Together with structural analysis, demolition, and rebuilding.

Instead of doing the reconstruction ourselves, my team and I sought to help train the Haitian builders employed by Hands Together. With immediate emergency aid already given out, we focused on helping rebuild in Cité Soleil, a neighborhood that’s home to 200,000 to 300,000 of the world’s poorest people. Even before the earthquake, the International Committee of the Red Cross called it a microcosm of “all the ills that beset Haitian society: endemic unemployment, illiteracy, the collapse of public services, insalubrity, crime and violence.”

Hands Together, which operates schools on eight campuses, has become a leader in education and health services in Cité Soleil and one of its biggest employers. Its founder, Father Tom Hagan, and executive director, Doug Campbell, have always aimed to provide the resources that can bring about change from within. Rebuilding from an earthquake was no different.

Our team, composed of structural, water, and energy engineers loosely affiliated with EWB, has so far made three trips to teach reconstruction techniques and better masonry practices to local Hands Together staff. Although our structural team, led by civil engineer Tom Beaudette, conducted the most-technical building assessments, the actual rebuilding was left to Haitians; in the face of high unemployment, Hands Together wanted to put them back to work.

It was remarkable to see just how capable the Haitians were, given that they’d had minimal schooling and often no formal technical training. They picked up engineering techniques and procedures very quickly. For example, although unfamiliar with the process of reinforcing concrete with rebar to buttress a wall, they applied a lesson from an expansion-joint project and realized that the rebar and newly drilled holes in the concrete needed to be clean for a strong bond. Lacking wire scrubbing brushes, the men demonstrated typical Haitian resourcefulness by combing the ever-present trash piles, where they found discarded toothbrushes. They used the nylon bristles to clean the concrete dust from the holes.

Follow-up trips have confirmed that the sound engineering practices we taught are taking root in the reconstruction work. However, we still need more professionals to help train Haitian engineers; there is more to teach and many who want to learn.

The world is full of problems, and engineers are trained to solve them–something I find especially satisfying. What was re­inforced for me in Haiti, however, is that teaching engineering skills can be an extremely powerful force multiplier. If we had tried to complete the work ourselves, our impact would have been limited. Instead, the continued efforts of a trained Haitian team offer a path to sustainability.

Tom Hennessey ‘05 is a U.S. Navy lieutenant based in South Pasadena, California. Engineers who’d like more information about volunteering to help Hands Together should contact him at tvhennessey@gmail.com.

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