How to rebuild quake-struck Haiti, one computer at a time

by Adele Waugaman
Thursday, 20 March 2014 10:33 GMT

Children work in the computer lab at the Thomas Food Project in the town of Thomas, Haiti. Photo by Mike DuBose

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Technology-based development projects should focus first on people, not on the technology

Warren McGuffin, a retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was on a volunteer mission to Haiti shortly after the devastating January 2010 earthquake when he saw hungry children in the town of Thomas eating mud pies.

"It tore us apart," says the Californian. "I decided to feed them, and on the way home, I realized those kids were not going to have anything to eat the next day.” 

This was the impetus for the creation of the Thomas Food Project, an innovative program that aims to nourish both bodies and minds by weaving together technology, education and school meals in a sustainable program. 

The Thomas School, where the project is based, now boasts a solar powered computer center that caters to students during the day and the wider community in the evening. It also provides hot lunches to schoolchildren each day.

Initial funding has come from McGuffin and other members of The United Methodist Church which supports aid and development projects in many parts of the world. But the Thomas Food Project team hopes the project will soon be able to generate income to purchase food for the school meals program by charging for community use of the computer center.

James Lazarre, program manager for the Thomas Food Project, explains how sustainability has been built into the technological aspects of the project.

“We’re using a solar system so that we don’t have to buy fuel every day to run a generator. This powers the entire school, including the computer center,” he says. “We’re also using low power computers. This means we can keep the computer center open and work all day. It also saves us money, which means we can offer more and more services to the community.”

The Haiti project is highlighted in a new report, Using Technology for Social Good, which gives tips on the sustainable use of technologies to support development projects.

The report by United Methodist Communications, the communications agency of The United Methodist Church, gives a run down on best practice in the use of mobile phones, computers, and low-cost communications technologies. 

It encourages humanitarian actors to remember that technology-based development projects should focus first on people, not on the technology. 

Before undertaking a new project, the report recommends aid agencies set aside the time and budget to carry out a thorough assessment of the people they aim to benefit in order to understand their needs and the environment.

Thomas, which sits on Haiti’s northern peninsula, suffered loss of life and infrastructure damage in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake,  the largest recorded in Haiti's history.

Ninety percent of the community in Thomas owned a mobile phone, but many had never used computers before.

“When we identified that we wanted to install a computer lab, I made a survey and talked to the community about our plan,” Lazarre says. “Only about 20 percent of the teachers in Thomas knew how to use a computer. So we trained the teachers to be able to use computers as part of their teaching.”

The report also urges aid and development groups to design projects using appropriate tools.

"Too many development projects fail because they do not have the support of the local community,” says the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications.

“Best practices involve learning what the community truly needs, determining if a technology can improve the circumstances and introducing it in a way that fits into the local context, as the Thomas Project has done.

"In my travels, I've see everything from tractors to computers in disrepair or abandoned because they were introduced without community engagement, proper training, and adequate maintenance. When this happens the community is left skeptical about real change and the natural environment is made worse by toxic waste." 

Lazarre, Hollon and other experts interviewed in the report will talk about sustainable design in the use of technology for development at the Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tennessee in September.

As for the future of the Thomas project, Lazarre talks about expanding its benefits beyond the school’s walls.

“We’d like to use the computer center to help the community build professional skills that they can use to develop into economic opportunities. We believe this basic computer literacy will have a big impact on the community,” he says.

Adele Waugaman is managing director of Catalyst Advisory, a consultancy providing strategic, technical and operational support to clients using communications technologies to strengthen global development projects. Follow her on Twitter @Tech4Dev.