S&T Policy Fellows Aid Haitian Recovery

A few weeks after Haiti’s devastating January earthquake, Allegra da Silva was on the streets of Port-au-Prince, interviewing people about latrines. Jay Graham was helping assess water and sanitation needs in the camps of the newly homeless. Adam Reinhart was planning for the day when Haitian farmers could use their trucks to bring mangoes to market instead of ferrying food aid to the battered capital.

Urgent needs. AAAS S&T Policy Fellows interviewed Haitians about clean water and sanitation after the January quake.

The current and former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, all working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, are seasoned scientists and engineers whose technical skills and policy experience made them valuable both in Haiti’s initial relief efforts and as the country shifts toward long-term recovery.

Scientists can “bring rigor and data” to understanding Haiti’s needs, said Graham, in his second year as an S&T Fellow. “This is disaster response, but it’s also an issue of strategically moving forward, and connecting what’s done in disaster relief with something larger and longer in scope.”

Launched in 1973, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships have sent more than 2000 scientists and engineers to work in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments. The efforts of those working in Haiti “are indicative of the skills that Fellows can offer by applying their knowledge in real-world situations to address challenges and bring about positive change,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the Fellowships.

Da Silva, an S&T Fellow with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, came to Haiti as part of a USAID Rapid Environmental Assessment team. The team interviewed Haitians about urgent needs and ongoing challenges in coordinating relief efforts to provide clean water, garbage collection, and shelters.

She talked with people about everything from “flying latrines”—plastic bags used in lieu of toilets—to their congested tent cities made of wooden poles and bedsheets. “Lives come first,” said da Silva, “but we want to support ways in which the relief effort can mobilize resources with the least environmental impact and least negative impact on livelihoods.”

For Reinhart, Haiti is familiar territory; he visited twice before the earthquake to talk with farmers about roads, fertilizer, and soil erosion. The former S&T Fellow, now working on economic security issues with USAID’s Haiti Task Team, helped establish USAID’s WINNER program, which will invest $126 million over 5 years to strengthen Haitian agriculture.

In addition to the damage around Port-au-Prince, said Reinhart, “the earthquake has exacerbated existing infrastructure problems countrywide.” Refugees fleeing the capital have placed added strain on the infrastructure of rural areas and smaller cities.

Graham had one week to prepare after getting the call from his boss John Borrazzo—another former S&T Fellow—to join a USAID team planning water and sanitation solutions for burgeoning camps of displaced people in Port-au-Prince. Arriving a month after the quake, Graham found busy streets and markets—but the environmental health advisor also saw long-term water and sanitation needs that will require significant investments.

Scientists have much to offer in Haiti, but they have to conduct research in a way that doesn’t burden the relief effort, said Olga Cabello, a former S&T Fellow who now directs the International Development Seismology initiative at IRIS, a consortium of U.S. universities that supports the global collection and open exchange of seismological data.

IRIS is working with federal agencies, the United Nations, and universities on “recommendations that can be used to reconstruct the country and the community at every level,” said Cabello. “You do not want to reconstruct vulnerability—you’re rebuilding for resilience.”

Some of the researchers will return soon to Haiti to continue the job of recovery. “Everybody is working really long hours there—it was pretty intense,” said Graham, who put in 15-hour days during his first visit. “This work, I do believe in it. You can create the right incentives so people can organize themselves to solve problems.”