In March, I traveled to Haiti with other international development leaders. There is no getting around the fact the country remains mired in poverty, earthquake destruction and political instability. But there are also enormously hopeful signs of progress, examples of community-led development that often escape the notice of foreign observers. We visited a half dozen communities. Two in particular provide insights into what is working in Haiti.
The first community we visited was Chemin Neuf, where we have worked with a partner since 2008. We were especially interested in the rainwater catchment and sand filtration system used to provide household drinking water and irrigation for the community’s crops. Haiti is in the midst of a serious drought. While our partner’s family farmers have not escaped its effects, those effects have been greatly mitigated through the application of low-cost, easy-to-build and maintain water technologies.
We also learned more about how savings and credit programs are essential given Haiti’s underdeveloped financial system. Haitian family farmers who seek to borrow to invest to expand output are often forced to rely on loan sharks who charge 40-50 percent interest per month. This can make expansion unprofitable, keeping Haitian smallholders caught in a low-productivity, low-income trap.
With their savings and credit program, Chemin Neuf families are able to purchase new trees as part of a soil conservation effort, buy goats to increase income, and invest in low-cost processing equipment that enables them to add value — and thus price and profit — to their output. Reasonably priced credit is essential to enabling Haiti’s family farmers to take the first steps up the agricultural “value chain” that is the basis of sustainable development.
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So is democratic governance. Chemin Neuf’s community organization is divided into groups governed by an 11-member executive committee elected through an annual general assembly. There is disagreement and even dissent. But democratic organization allows the community to manage diverse viewpoints and interests in a way that keeps members committed to a clear vision of self-sufficiency and steady improvement in living standards.
The second Haitian community that stood out demonstrates where years of environmental sustainability, appropriate technology and democratic governance can take Haitians. We visited Bayonne, where our NGO supported the Farmer's Movement of Bayonnais from 1995 to 2008. MPB was founded as a democratic alternative to the rule of the Duvaliers. MPB has 4,500 members organized into 350 groups and governed by a democratically elected committee, with an emphasis on women in leadership positions.
Its farmer field school trains smallholders in sustainable techniques, including solar power generation. The variety and quality of output is impressive: Plantains, peanuts, beans, carrots, papaya, cane, honey, mangoes and pineapples. Families also raise chickens, goats, cattle and tilapia.
MPB also runs a health center. The services provided have greatly reduced preventable illness and improved maternal health. For example, the community was prepared to effectively respond to the cholera outbreak. Hand-washing, filtered water and a system to report cases to the health center greatly reduced cholera’s spread and provided timely and effective treatment to those who were infected.
Perhaps most important: MPB receives no outside funding or other support, including from the Haitian government.
What lessons from these two thriving communities are applicable to Haiti as it yet again works to break free from a centurieslong cycle of poverty, political instability and outside intervention? Here are three key takeaways.
First, anyone hoping to assist Haitians must build on what is already there — agriculture, which provides livelihoods for the vast majority of Haiti’s people. Nearly every society that has achieved sustainable development did so by first increasing the quantity and value of its agricultural output. Haitians have proven they can do so.
Second, aid groups must patiently invest in appropriate technologies and processes to help communities reach sustainable growth. In Haiti, that means low-cost and environmentally sustainable innovations that will help communities methodically step up the “value chain” of more profitable agricultural output and processing.
Lastly, nongovernmental organizations must work with and appreciate the independent impulses that have developed as a result of Haiti’s turbulent politics. In our experience, Haitian community organizations that have what it takes to succeed welcome technical and other assistance. But they’re clear this assistance is in the service of their own vision and goals.
Of course, this is exactly as it should be. There is much talk in the international development sector of “community-led” development. In Haiti, this is the only kind of development that works. Billions of dollars spent on elaborate top-down projects will not lead to lasting change. Only small-scale, patient and innovative work with Haiti’s communities will.
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