Recovery in Haiti starts at the community level

Haitians, whether in Haiti or the diaspora, will always remember where they were on January 12, 2010, when tragedy shook us to our core. Devastating images emerged from Port-au-Prince after the earthquake that brought to mind cinematic depictions of the aftermath of a blitzkrieg. I had to constantly remind myself that an earthquake did this, not indiscriminate bombing. In the days that followed my heart wanted a seat on the next airplane to Haiti, but my mind grounded me on a simple fact: I had no medical training and my presence could not give the kind of help that was immediately needed. But I wanted to do something…

Many others shared my desire and chose to make financial contributions to Grassroots International or to aid agencies in the days immediately after the earthquake. The feeling I have to “do something” continues, as do the needs on the ground in my homeland.

As I struggled with how to help Haiti in the aftermath, Grassroots International’s Haitian partners were already busy with the relief effort. Grassroots reached out to its partners to see how it could assist their efforts, and responded to requests to: purchase tents for internally displaced persons (IDPs), host refugees fleeing the capitol, and buy emergency seeds for farmers.

Once IDPs were temporarily sheltered, Grassroots’ partner the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) launched a new human rights education and monitoring project in the camps. The project works to hold both international NGOs and the government of Haiti accountable for conditions in the camps.

Away from the capitol Grassroots supported our partner in the central plateau, Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), and our grantee in the south, Tet Kole Ti Peyizan (Tet Kole). Each group not only housed refugees from Port-au-Prince, but they also taught them how to farm and raise small livestock—new skills that will lead to self-sufficiency. With their longstanding connection to the community and commitment to sustainability, Grassroots’ partners were among the first to realize that agricultural production must be intensified to avert a food crisis following the earthquake. Therefore, they encouraged farmers not to miss the planting season and distributed local seeds.

But these peasant movements also work on other issues that affect rural life. For example, in July 2011 MPP rehabilitated the drinking water system in Marmont, located in the central department. The project, which was funded by Grassroots International, employed displaced refugees from Port-au-Prince and their local hosts. The project created a reservoir, two water catchments to increase the system’s capacity, 12 public fountains, 356 private water pipes, and a water trough for animals. In addition, MPP trained two local plumbers to maintain the system. Now, 100% of the population in Marmont has access to potable water.  

Grassroots’ partners in Haiti responded quickly and effectively after the earthquake. However, their work is not crisis driven; they are in it for the long haul. With a long-term vision for the country’s recovery, the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA) calls for a transparent reconstruction effort that will promote decentralization. PAPDA, along with our other partners, argue that if Haiti’s resources are decentralized, rather than concentrated in the Republic of Port-au-Prince, it will decrease overpopulation in the capitol. Overpopulation is one of the main reasons why so many people perished in the earthquake.

Grassroots’ Haiti partners urge Haitians and the government of Haiti to use reconstruction as an opportunity to rebuild Haiti on a sustainable, alternative development model based on respect for human rights, sustainable livelihoods, and food sovereignty. Towards that end, they also encourage relief agencies to purchase food, goods, and services in-country whenever possible.

But our partners’ alternative development advocacy predates the earthquake. For decades, Grassroots International and our partners have advocated for a comprehensive national agricultural investment strategy that incorporates local knowledge along with environmental stewardship. As part of their advocacy, our partners’ have created agricultural demonstrations projects as proof that when given the right training and tools, peasant farmers can feed their communities in an ecologically sound manner. Groups like the MPP, PAPDA and the National Congress of the Papaye Peasant Movement train as well as mobilize their beneficiaries around the issues of sustainable livelihoods and food sovereignty.

As we mark the two-year anniversary of the earthquake, Haiti’s reconstruction remains suspended. In light of the deplorable conditions in the camps, and the fact that over 600,000 people still live in those camps, it’s unclear when reconstruction will begin in earnest. We do know that the reconstruction has been on hold—waiting for the presidential elections to take place, waiting for the new administration to appoint its team, and still waiting for the government to muster enough political will to permanently house people living in camps and construct a holistic development plan.

We do know that international NGOs that swooped into Haiti following the earthquake have done very little. We also know international financial institutions have disbursed only a small fraction of approved post-earthquake grants.

But here at Grassroots International, we also know the achievements of our Haitian partners since the earthquake proves that our model of partnership with local, grassroots organizations does work. Grassroots’ partners are in the fields planting, distributing goats and pigs, building cisterns to catch rainwater, hosting refugees, monitoring human rights conditions in the camps, and promoting alternative development strategies. Imagine what they could do with more. . .