Thursday, January 20, 2005

Humanitarianism on the cheap

In case you missed that story filed under "Property Report" in the WSJ yesterday, this is the story of yet another "lesson" from El Salvador to the world. (WSJ is subscription only, but I've posted a copy.) In fairness, it's actually about USAID, which appears to have spent millions of taxpayers' dollars to rebuild homes in El Salvador after the 2001 earthquakes on on the construction of substandard houses -- ones that two American experts say might well not survive the next earthquake in "one of the most seismically active countries in the world." "El Salvador Is a Lesson in How Not to Rebuild," the title of the story, gets into this as a way of warning about future humanitarian reconstruction efforts post-Tsunami and elsewhere.

One of the reasons (excuses) given by US officials for this flaw is that, well, the houses do meet Salvadoran housing standards. No doubt, and no doubt the recipients of the house are quite happy to receive them. But 10 or 15 years from now when their house collapses in a new earthquake, they may not be quite so thrilled. This also reminds me of the CAFTA argument, in which we would simply accept the status quo in terms of labor rights in Central America, when every one knows the labor code is outdated and unevenly enforced. Tim's El Salvador blog notes the Europeans have adopted a different approach, refusing to award preferential trading privileges until El Salvador adopts two key ILO conventions on freedom of association.

But this story is also important because the earthquake damage (about $2 billion) has been used by the Bush administration to justify a new TPS program for Salvadorans back in 2001, and recently extended it through September 2006. And then here in San Salvador, the ARENA government has used the earthquake as a major excuse for explaining why El Salvador, which ten years ago rivaled Chile in terms of high economic growth, now rivals Haiti for the privilege of one of the lowest growth rates in Latin America. Carlos Acevedo, the deputy coordinator of UNDP El Salvador's Human Development Report, noted the other day in a television interview that this is hardly an excuse because 1) this earthquake didn't really affect the productive infrastructure and 2) the influx of post-earthquake aid or government spending should have stimulated the economy, as it has in other countries following natural disasters.

Here's a slightly condensed version:

Four years ago, a pair of powerful earthquakes crumbled whole villages of small brick homes in this lush river valley. Millions of dollars in U.S.-government aid poured in to handle the initial crisis, followed by many more millions to help rebuild.

The result is more than 25,000 homes, 53 schools and dozens of clinics and other facilities. But in some cases, the design and construction of the buildings are flawed, making them potentially dangerous in the event of another disaster in this earthquake-prone region.

In some homes, the ceilings are improperly attached to the walls. In others, concrete blocks are too small and the reinforcing metal rods used to add strength are too thin....

Mr. Rivard is part of a small group of volunteer building experts who traveled to El Salvador two weeks ago to inspect the construction paid for with U.S. aid money. The building experts, some of whom had already seen the substandard construction in the country, are part of an ad hoc group called Casa Corps, whose goal is to improve the quality of construction in developing countries.

"Our buildings reflect who we are as a society," says Stephen Forneris, an architect from New York who organized the trip. "What do these poorly constructed buildings say about us?" The experts want the U.S. to impose stronger building standards for the hundreds of millions of dollars it will spend on reconstruction around the world, including the parts of Asia ravaged by the tsunami. Their hope is that the U.S. can set an example for local builders to follow.

The rebuilding needs in Southeast Asia dwarf El Salvador's. The United Nations estimates that at least two million people were made homeless by the tsunami. While touring damage in Sri Lanka, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said 150,000 homes would need to be built there in the next year and a half.

But comparisons can't minimize the pervasive damage wrought by natural forces in El Salvador. On Jan. 13, 2001, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast. Exactly one month later, a second quake, magnitude 6.6, hit 20 miles east of the capital, San Salvador. In a country of 6.6 million people with an area smaller than Massachusetts, the quakes killed 1,159 people and caused $1.7 billion in damage. Around 167,000 houses were destroyed, along with 1,200 schools.

Tucked between a mountain range of towering volcanoes and the same giant fault system that runs north to California, El Salvador is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. Temblors have devastated the nation repeatedly, including ones in 1968, 1986 and the pair in 2001. Hurricanes and floods are common.

After the earthquakes, the U.S. led the way with immediate aid. But the bulk of the U.S.'s commitment, $109 million, went to long-term reconstruction. Now, four years later, almost all of the projects have been completed, but not without problems. Simply fashioned metal "seismic" hooks that would keep the rebar in place during a quake are missing. One of the visiting experts, David E. Saunders, manager of building and fire safety in Yakima County, Wash., says the U.S.-funded houses could collapse in an earthquake.

"The main problem is the ceiling won't be attached to the walls properly," he says. "We probably wouldn't pass [such a] house in the U.S."

Casa Corps is named after a little-known law passed by Congress in 2002 called the Code and Safety for the Americas Act, or Casa, which encourages the teaching of U.S. building codes in El Salvador and Ecuador. The impetus to pass the law came from people like Messrs. Rivard and Forneris, who were in El Salvador during one of the 2001 quakes, and from groups that benefit from building-code improvements including the International Code Council and the National Fire Protection Association. Congress never authorized any funding for it, so the legislation turned out to be largely symbolic.

The recent trip was inspired by earlier visits to El Salvador by the two Americans, who had seen the shoddy construction, including at the International Airport, which was rebuilt with U.S. funds. While many work in the building industry, they could not directly benefit from any improvements in building codes overseas. The group made a similar trip to Ecuador in 2003.

The U.S.-funded buildings inspected by the American experts were designed by Salvadoran builders and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while charities or state-owned development foundations hired local contractors to do the work.

U.S. government officials say the new buildings meet Salvadoran codes for earthquake resistance and are far better than what was there before. Speaking of the approximate cost to build one house, Mark Silverman, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in El Salvador, says, "At $3,500 a pop, there's only so much you can do." But he says USAID, which is leading the U.S. rebuilding effort in Asia, did enough to ensure the buildings were safe. It hired the U.S. Geological Survey to create risk maps that identify safe areas to build. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviewed plans for every project. A team of 13 Salvadoran engineers and architects supervised the projects and in some instances shut them down for improper construction practices.

Despite USAID's best efforts, however, Mr. Forneris says there were systemic problems. He cites USAID's own guidelines to contractors, which specify concrete blocks and metal rebar that the inspectors deem too weak for an earthquake-prone region. Regarding the Salvadoran codes, which USAID adheres to, he says they're out of date and inconsistently applied....

Casa Corps will submit its El Salvador findings in a report to USAID and Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, ranking member of the House International Affairs Committee. Mr. Lantos, who sent a staffer on the trip with the building experts, intends to introduce legislation on the subject, possibly requiring USAID to create a set of sample building plans that adhere to stringent building codes....

P.S. USAID has adopted a new logo that stresses the beneficence of the U.S. people, but should also raise awareness that U.S. citizens need to hold their government accountable for how taxpayers' dollars are spent. Here it is:

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