This morning’s report on the failure clear earthquake rubble from the streets of Haiti connects with something I’ve often thought about. Anyone who spends time in the urban agglomerations of the developing world is familiar with the rubble problem; it is just more extreme in Haiti. How big a deal is it? Not massive, but traffic moves much more slowly on torn-up streets, and in day to day life the stuff is ugly and just gets in the way.
Now flash back to 1945 and the end of the wars in Europe and the Pacific. In the great bombed-out cities like Berlin and Tokyo, ordinary citizens, mostly women, cleared the rubble with whatever tools they could find. No one paid them, but they worked with grim determination until the job was done. For a visual impression, see the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s classic “Marriage of Maria Braun”.
Why then and not now? It isn’t because Europeans and Japanese are intrinsically “harder-working”; you can see tremendous amounts of hard work taking place around piles of rubble in impoverished cities today. I suspect a correct answer to this question would take us a long way toward understanding how and why development takes place.
One element is that the “rubble women” knew what their cities had looked like before the war, and this gave them a vision of and confidence in the post-rubble city of the future. The task was brutal but it had a clear end-point.
Whatever its role in a more complete explanation, this observation is useless for development policy. It is like Robert Putnam’s implicit advice for the Mezzogiorno in Making Democracy Work: have the right twelfth century. Port-au-Prince does not have a rubble-free past its residents can draw on to guide their path to a rubble-free future. All the same, the resources needed to solve this problem are right there in full view. How can they be mobilized?