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Taking direction from the grassroots

Jenny Petrow


Photo: Jenny Petrow
A farmer shows off a yam from MP3K’s experimental plot in Camp-Perrin in October 2009.

The first waves of humanitarian aid to reach Haiti after the earthquake were, rightly, directed toward easing the suffering of those directly hit. However, the international focus on Haiti’s population centre of Port-au-Prince has had the unintended consequence of masking the suffering of the rural poor and widening the aid gap between the capital and the rest of the country. To close this gap and promote more equitable development, donors, international NGOs and the Haitian government will need to engage rural grassroots organizations.

Decades of rural neglect has led to crumbling infrastructure, severe environmental degradation, deficient education and health care, and levels of economic and social inequality unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere. This hardship is compounded by almost half a million Haitians seeking shelter with close family or distant relatives in the sections communales, or rural areas, after the earthquake.

Rural residents in the Central Plateau report that household sizes have doubled and food prices have spiked 150 per cent. Many of the displaced live a nomadic existence, shuttling back and forth between town and country due to the concentration of aid in the capital. Rural residents cite the absence of government officials and international NGOs who have joined the relief effort in Port-au-Prince, leaving them to care for the displaced with their meager resources.

Donors will need to rethink their work in Haiti, beginning with a firmer commitment to the rural poor. Although more than half of all Haitians engage in agriculture, statistics show that between 1990 and 2006, foreign aid directed toward small farmers did not surpass 7 per cent. Simply shifting aid from urban to rural projects or sectors is insufficient. Donors need to promote a model of engagement in which they take cues from the grassroots to determine how the country will rebuild. Haitian farmer movements, women’s associations and local NGOs that support them already have decades of experience dealing with food and water scarcity, deforestation, and lack of educational and health facilities. These groups embody the types of existing social networks that disaster-recovery experts recommend aid agencies tap into to reach those most in need. They understand context, they are trusted in their communities and can mobilize people quickly. Well-versed in self-help, they are ideally positioned to partner with donors and the Haitian government as they set to rebuild.

The Inter-American Foundation (IAF), an independent foreign-assistance agency of the U.S. government, has been financing such self-help efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean since the early 1970s. In the Sud region, the IAF grantee Mouvement Paysan 3ème Section Camp-Perrin (MP3K) has begun integrating displaced people into the local economy. MP3K leaders estimate that at least 1,000 refugees have settled in the third section communale of Camp-Perrin, expanding households by at least three inhabitants per home.

Before the earthquake, the association had been experimenting with a new technique for growing yams, which resulted in more seedlings and larger yields than ever before. A month after the earthquake, with the rainy season upon them, the farmers are ready to plant again, despite overwhelming grief. This time, MP3K has brought displaced families into planting activities and plans to make seedlings, agricultural training and credit available to them in the future. Although incorporating more farmers means stretching thin resources and slowing the pace of expansion to neighbouring sections communales, MP3K hopes to produce a lasting food supply and give a source of income to these families in need.

Large, organized farmer groups such as MP3K —which has also received funding from Canada and the European Union— are able to reserve seeds for future planting seasons through seed banks and communal plots. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, however, many rural families hosting earthquake victims have employed what they refer to as “unsustainable coping strategies,” spending their savings to feed displaced relatives, and consuming or selling seeds that were meant for the upcoming planting season. Given the proper resources and a voice, farmer associations such as MP3K can help fend off the impending food crisis by integrating new residents into rural livelihoods.

Rezo Fanm Frontyè Ba Plato (Rezo Fanm), also an IAF grantee, is a network of women’s groups in the lower Central Plateau near the Dominican border, uniting women dealing with issues such as education, income generation and women’s rights. The earthquake has no doubt increased the burden on rural women since, as a Rezo Fanm member from the border town of Boucan Carré notes, “we have more responsibilities on our shoulders, because every day we have to think about how we are going to feed everyone.” While men may often provide the income, Haitian women are traditionally responsible for stretching that income to feed the family. In addition to the reported increase in food prices and larger households, many families no longer have income from relatives in the capital on which they had previously depended.

In the border town of Belladère, Rezo Fanm has been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross to survey residents and the displaced. According to Delmond Enaëlle of Rezo Fanm, “dozens of pregnant women are trying to cross to the Dominican Republic every day to get medical care.” The health infrastructure is thus taxed by scores of pregnant women and new mothers. Rezo Fanm is trying to connect these mothers with midwives who can provide care. The number of young children living in the area has also multiplied and as many cannot attend school, they are more vulnerable to traffickers. Thus, Rezo Famn is looking to raise awareness about child trafficking and engage displaced children in educational activities.

However, due to limited budgets and geographic isolation, many of these community organizations simply do not have the means to implement their ideas. Engaging the rural grassroots is not a silver bullet, but it is a necessary component of Haiti’s development. Yet, working with grassroots groups as equal partners involves significant investments in time and energy. Local NGOs and community-based organizations in Haiti suffer from many of the same weaknesses as the government; they may require training, financial resources and technical assistance. Nonetheless, only when donors, international NGOs and the Haitian government respect these groups for their knowledge and engage them as decision-makers, and not merely as recipients, will Haitians be able to (re)build a more equitable society.blue square

Jenny Petrow is the Inter-American Foundation’s Representative for Haiti, Dominican Republic and the English-Speaking Caribbean.

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