In Defense of the Haitian Structural Engineer

Engineers worldwide share a common bond.  An engineer’s primary professional responsibility is to the public.  Therefore, Engineering can be likened to a “calling”, much like nursing.  Engineers take on significant responsibilities and their associated liabilities, and many feel that they are not fairly compensated for the work that they do – yet they continue to work.

Major national disasters, that test the built environment, can be viewed as opportunities to significantly improve national building practices.  These opportunities exist in every country, regardless of its level of development. 

When major earthquakes occur in any country in this world, we normally observe significant damage to older masonry and concrete buildings, whether they are schools, libraries, offices, churches, or houses.  We also observe less damage to recently constructed commercial buildings that would have benefited directly or indirectly from structural engineering services.  That is exactly what we seem to observe in Haiti, and it is exactly what we would expect to observe in London, Paris, New York, Madrid, Toronto, or Bridgetown.

The following are relatively  recently constructed multi-storey buildings that survived. 



Th following are older masonry and reinforced concrete buildings, and houses that were severely damaged.



During my deployment, I was surprised by the frequent attempts to associate the Haitian engineers with the damaged buildings, rather than with the recently constructed commercial buildings that survived.  I have not read of any attempts to link engineers with any of the damaged structures from the earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida, floods in Europe, the tsunami in Indonesia, and even the recent earthquake in Chile.  Why this apparent double standard?

 Why is there this effort to link Haitian engineers to the failed buildings which were unlikely to have received their structural engineering services.  Why this effort to show them as less-than-competent before international funding agencies and aid agencies, despite the fact that most buildings that appeared to have been designed by structural engineers did survive?

A reasonable explanation of this evidence is greed.  With approximately US$9B in development aid expected, a strategy of discrediting Haitian, and by extension, Caribbean based Engineers can ensure that they are never trusted with any primary design role in the reconstruction phase.  If this is a strategy that is  being employed, then it can partially explain why the group of qualified Caribbean based volunteer structural engineers have yet to be deployed.

UNOPS had expressed their concerns about the competence of the engineers being deployed by the various agencies in Haiti.  This was not surprising, since most, if not all, of those deployed by these agencies were unlikely to have the relevant experience of ever designing a building for the multiplicity of hazards experienced in the Caribbean.  The problem for Caribbean based engineers is the false perception that a North American, European, or Asian based engineer is intrinsically more qualified.

Let me conclude with some recommendations.  Engineers should not be deployed to disaster regions to displace the local engineers, but rather, to assist them where necessary.  Since the local engineers are the principal stewards of their country’s built environment, those deployed should try to improve the level of local design and construction practices.  There is a time and place for everything.  There will come a time for competitively tendering for work, but the critical relief phase is not that time.

Let me endorse Jesus’ recommendation that we should always treat others the way that we would want to be treated.  Let me also recommend the following approach by Lao Tzu.

Go to the people.

Live among them.

Learn from them.

Love them.

Start with what they know.

Build on what they have.

But of the best leaders,

When their task is accomplished,

When their work is done,

The people all remark

“We have done this ourselves”. 




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