Helping Haiti: Stop the handouts

By Danielle Grace Warren
November 11, 2010

HAITI/

By Danielle Grace Warren
The opinions expressed are her own.

The people of Haiti have a name for the earthquake that rocked their country: Goudougoudou, an onomatopoetic creole nickname invented for the earthquake meant to emulate the sound of the earth rumbling, the buildings falling. There are numbers for it, too: 230,000 deaths, 59 aftershocks and 1.5 million people who remain displaced nearly a year later.

While over a billion dollars in US aid was promised was for rebuilding Haiti is tied up in the umbilicus of Washington, Port au Prince residents are settling between piles of debris — 98% of which still has not been removed. Haitians pick through the rubble for building scraps to reinforce torn tarpaulin.

Many who were displaced by the disaster and came to the Haitian capital for aid have tried to re-settle in the small towns and villages of their birth. But they have been forced to return to the capital yet again since it is still where most of the food and aid in the country can be found.

Before the earthquake happened there were already 3.5 million people living in Port au Prince — nearly 50% of the total country population. This number has doubled in recent years as people have flooded in from severely deforested and degraded agrarian areas in the hope of finding a job. Yet the vast majority of Port au Prince residents are unemployed or underemployed. Eighty percent of city dwellers live below the poverty line in slum and squatter settlements with unstable housing and poor sanitation.

If living in poverty in Port au Prince is the best thing going for Haitians because it means hope for the possibility of work then the international community’s focus on the area is sure to keep the majority of the people there in a perpetual state of waiting.

It is this waiting, despite their desperate circumstances, that is turning the Haitian people into beggars. Begging, an activity that has always been rare in Haiti, despite historical poverty, is just making the nation even more of a client-state and ever more dependent on foreign aid.

Much has been discussed about rebuilding a better Haiti. In rethinking our strategy for measuring aid, President Obama urged that, rather than just managing poverty, “we have to offer people a path out of poverty. We need to help countries help themselves, not offer aid that provides short-term relief without reforming societies. That’s not development; that’s dependence … And it’s a cycle we need to break.”

HAITI-STORM/

As part of the global 2015 Millennium Development Goals, the UN identified the following targets: to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, achieve decent work for all, integrate principles of sustainable development, and significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.

Whatever the amount of aid that arrives in Haiti in the near term, it will eventually run out. In order to provide much needed jobs and food, we need to be investing in sustainable agricultural education and development projects in partnership with leadership at all levels, especially local leadership in impoverished rural areas, that take both people and the environment into account like sustainable women’s farming cooperatives and mangrove reforestation initiatives in partnership with local fishers.

If environmental protection is ignored, the watersheds and coastal lowlands will be increasingly subject to erosion, inundation, and destruction. In turn, this will increase the likelihood of future disasters such as flash-floods.

If we do not decentralize aid, if we do not channel it to other distressed areas of the country as well, we will be marginalizing all Haitian people and ensuring that Port au Prince will become a ghetto once again.

This is not to ignore the fact that jobs can and should be created in the city itself nor that Port au Prince is home to a large population of people who have no desire to leave — and nor should they have to. But shouldn’t they have a choice?

Danielle Grace Warren is the president of the One Village Planet-Women’s Development Initiative and the treasurer of One Village Planet/Village Planète (Haiti), which has implemented the only successful mangrove coastal forestation project in Haiti.

Top Photo: A farmer tends to crops in Kensckoff, near Port-au-Prince November 6, 2010. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz

Second Photo: A Haitian earthquake survivor rests at Canan II camp about 19 miles (30 km) north of Port-au-Prince November 3, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

9 comments

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Fantastic Op-Ed, Ms. Warren! I’m so glad you bring a sustainable approach to the table. I’m going to check out One Village Planet right now.

I’m curious as to what percentage of aid has been tagged for loans to the Haitians? Also, how has the diaspora played a role?

Posted by scharpfie | Report as abusive

It is indeed time to get serious about the decentralization and democratization of aid. Unencumbered by the bureaucracy of larger international organizations, community-based groups responded immediately and organically to the emotional and physical needs of families following the earthquake. Yet the extent of their work is much too often under-recognized and always under-resourced.

These local organizations ensure the frayed network of care and support does not fall completely apart. If supported more widely, they would be better able to sustain Haiti’s families and communities in the long-term, as well as work toward effecting the social change that will make Haiti a more peaceful and democratic country.

To read more about the capacities of local, indigenous organizations, see:
http://www.how-matters.org/2010/11/08/mi ssing-from-diy-aid-debate/

Posted by HowMatters | Report as abusive

This is so enlightening and a unique and important perspective. What an excellent point that the health of the island’s ecology is tied to the health and condition of its people. Centralization is almost never the answer. As with healthy ecosystems, diversity and repetition make for stable systems. Mangrove reforestation – wonderful!

Posted by J6J9 | Report as abusive

in all this time we could have been putting our own citizens in towns like elkhart back to work building 1 room shelters for the Haitians. We then could have used some of the aid money hiring haitians to put them up,creating a new industry. With over a million people homeless this could last a very long time helping everyone. But it takes leadership and not promises or pledges, and that is sorely lacking.

Posted by dominickspez | Report as abusive

Danielle,
I completely agree with you, this is making an antibiotic to Haiti, This has made Haitians lazy, to some extent the Africans who left Africa and settled in France depend on government money to make a living, they are not even applying for jobs and trying to get work, they no longer work hard, this is become a trend in Europe with regular citizens as well.

Arvind Pereira
http://www.ArvindLeoPereira.co.nr

Posted by pereiraarvindin | Report as abusive

Bravo Danielle!
Thanks for enlightening us on the current situation in Haiti. More importantly, thank you for offering viable solutions instead of solely pointing out inefficiencies, inadequacies and inappropriate use of funds. Refreshing and well written. Thanks again.

Posted by doInVA | Report as abusive

Great editorial with a terrible headline that I’m sure Ms. Warren didn’t write–a headline that contradicts the gist of the piece. Ms. Warren NEVER says “Stop the handouts.” She does say, “We need to be investing in sustainable agricultural education and development projects…” She also suggests decentralizing aid away from Port-au-Prince and putting it into projects elsewhere in Haiti that will render long-term benefits. That’s refocusing “handouts,” not stopping them.

So that headline is worthy of, say, Fox News, but not Reuters. PLEASE, Reuters, don’t reach for a cheap headline just because it fits on one line.

Posted by MCH98110 | Report as abusive

It has been so encouraging reading these comments. Many thank to all of you for weighing in here.

Scharpfie asked about loans for Haitians. As far was we have been able to find, none of the funds have been specifically earmarked for individual loans to Haitians. On the macro level: in July the IMF did cancel Haiti’s $268 million debt to them and approved a new three year loan worth $60 million (with zero interest until the end of 2011) to boost international reserves–which could help to create small-loan programs.

There are also smaller organizations (like Zafen) that provide loans to local Haitian entrepreneurs.

As far as the diaspora (more than 80% of Haitian professionals) is concerned: The Haitian Diaspora Federation is an umbrella organization–including: Association des Medecins Haitiens a l’Etranger (AMHE), Haitian American Chamber of Commerce of Florida (HACCOF), Haitian-American Engineers and Scientists (HAES), National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians (NOAH), The Haitian League (THL)–is the largest single group, whose mission is to create a stronger and more prosperous and equitable Haiti by mobilizing the Haitian Diaspora resources to address the Reconstruction, and Sustained Economic Growth and Development of Haiti.

Also, the work of Haitian anthropologist, performance artist and Wesleyan professor Gina Athena Ulysee is extremely important.

Posted by dgw | Report as abusive

As are, of course, the Haitian mico-lending programs of Fonkoze, Finca and ACME. To whom I would encourage a significant amount of aid funds to be channeled.

Posted by dgw | Report as abusive