The writers created a competition, asking students, architects and businesses to compete to design the best prototype for a $300 house (their original sketch was of a one-room prefabricated shed, equipped with solar panels, water filters and a tablet computer). The winner will be announced this month. But one expert has been left out of the competition, even though her input would have saved much time and effort for those involved in conceiving the house: the person who is supposed to live in it [in Mumbai] We recently showed around a group of Dartmouth students involved in the project who are hoping to get a better grasp of their market. They had imagined a ready-made constituency of slum-dwellers eager to buy a cheap house that would necessarily be better than the shacks they’d built themselves. But the students found that the reality here is far more complex than their business plan suggested. To start with, space is scarce. There is almost no room for new construction or ready-made houses. Most residents are renters, paying $20 to $100 a month for small apartments. Those who own houses have far more equity in them than $300 — a typical home is worth at least $3,000. Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time. None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction. In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help. Worst of all, companies involved in producing the house may end up supporting the clearance and demolition of well-established neighborhoods to make room for it. The resulting resettlement colonies, which are multiplying at the edges of cities like Delhi and Bangalore, may at first glance look like ideal markets for the new houses, but the dislocation destroys businesses and communities.
A recent (PBS-affilliated POV) film, Good Fortune , expands further on the damage that can be done via good intentions when it comes to rehousing folks.
Many economists, journalists, physicians, and so forth have written extensively about the aid industry, and the White/Educated/Western/Elite-knows-best mentality. I certainly am no exception — I moved to Ghana with notions of making solar lights in my spare time, so that persons without grid-access could see at night, only to come to understand that this was a product that most people in the place I was living would have little interest in. It didn't matter that I'd spent months figuring out how to cram solar panels and LEDs into wire-bale jars, media blast them with garnet to diffuse the light better, and so on
For some more literature on this sort of thing, I'd recommend William Easterly's The White Man's Burden , or Linda Polman's various works. Also, Joan Baxter's Dust From Our Eyes was also pretty good.
So is there anything wrong with these projects at Harvard or MIT? I don't think there has to be. But it seems like in the MIT project the same criticism — that those behind the project never even bothered to ask those who would 'benefit' from it — is true. The first couple paragraphs of the first link from TFS make that clear:
[in India] "When I saw some shelters by the side of the road, the idea for the $1000 house jumped into my head." Ciochetti explained that soon after, he had met with his friend Yung Ho Chang, Professor of Architecture and Head of MIT's Department of Architecture. Ciochetti had asked if the idea were viable, and Chang enthusiastically embraced it. Chang proposed that his students explore the project as a studio intensive, and that he and Ciochetti teach the studio together. Thus was the 1K House Project born.
I have posted on slashdot previously about Paul Farmer and his NGO, Partners in Health, so I am wary of sounding like a cheerleader, but he is especially relevant here because he is head of Social Medicine at Harvard. He is also an anthropologist. So he understands that you need to consider others' needs, desires, and worldview, rather than telling them what you think is best for their situation.
And speaking of anthropology, I think maybe the biggest American downfall — at least when it comes to health, which is where I am more acquainted — is the belief that we can engineer ourselves out of every problem. I'm not saying the world's poor shouldn't get $300 houses, or tuberculosis medicine, indeed they should. But the underlying problem is the social and economic structures that would breed tuberculosis, that would mean someone can afford no more than a $300 house.
Ghana is not nearly as bad off as many other sub-Saharan African countries, and yet still there is much poverty. People living in the region (their equiv. of a state/county) where I used to reside are finding themselves pushed out of their houses as rents rise from $25-40/month to $100 or more per month due to an influx of oil contractors (now that Ghana has offshore oil pumping as of 2011). The problem is not $100 rents, or even $1000 rents; the problem is that some can afford such rents, and some cannot. In short, the problem is inequality. I am not so naïve as to expect the world will be perfectly fair, but surely we can strive for some basic assurances for all humans — adequate food, water, medical care, social productivity, and basic economic security.
Three-hundred dollar housing is a stopgap, much as some vaccinations are a stop gap. I am strongly in favor of vaccinating kids in poor countries against measles because it might kill one in ten that it infects, and that is truly tragic. I am, however, even more in favor of lifting these kids out of poverty, so that if they aren't vaccinated their mortality rate will be more like the one-in-two-thousand that the United States enjoys. It's just that solving the problems of poverty and inequality is a much bigger task. And we cannot even begin to approach this task until we attempt to understand, to find solidarity, with those we claim to want to help.