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From Charity to Solidarity in Haiti: Lessons for the Policy Makers (Part III)

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Humanitarian aid initiatives organized by Haitian communities offer respectful, democratic contrasts to the multi-billion dollar aid effort of the international community, much of which is wasted at best and destructive at worst. "Embedded in the local humanitarian responses is the model of a society premised on generosity and dignity," says a report released today by Other Worlds, "From Disaster Aid to Solidarity: Best Practices in Meeting the Needs of Haiti's Earthquake Survivors."

The report examines the problems of the U.S.- and U.N.-dominated aid operation in Haiti and documents ten effective alternatives created by Haitian community and peasant groups and by ally organizations throughout the world. The cases are just a sampling of many more. The report then offers ten recommendations for how international allies can be most effective and respectful in supporting Haitian-led recovery and reconstruction.

One core problem of the international aid operation is that it strips away national sovereignty, since the already weak Haitian government has been effectively sidelined. Other problems, as discussed in the report, are that it robs people of their dignity and leaves them no say-so in how they get the food they need. In the worst case scenario, the operation could turn people from agents of self-recovery and change into mere victims. Perhaps worst of all is that, at a time when Haitians must have confidence and social organization to reconstruct their lives and their country with equity and justice, the aid operation risks substituting their power for bags of imported rice and a tent.

Aid does not need to be given according to that model. In fact, most of it is not. Though their efforts have not been recognized, everyday Haitian citizens, acting on their own, have comprised by far the largest force of first responders, relief workers, and aid providers. Their labors are based on the long tradition of solidarity, or mutual aid, that has kept this people alive for centuries. The organized survivor assistance projects of grassroots groups are run on the same principles.

The outpouring of support from the community is a reminder of the collective resilience and resourcefulness that undergird the Haitian culture. As foreign powers, international agencies, and the national government marginalize the people from decision-making about aid and reconstruction policies, the initiatives are a living testament that people are neither passive nor victims.

The operations are run by diverse entities, from student groups to the Cuban government. Each provides at least one of the following: shelter, medical care, community mental health, food, water, children's activities, leisure activities, security, or support for growing much-needed food. Some of the efforts also offer education and a platform for organizing and advocacy to shape the country's future.

Together they serve as a guide through which Haiti can rebuild with a more mutual aid, people-before-profit economy and society. All the guiding principles toward a new, just, and equitable nation exist here, in practice.

Five of the programs have already been covered in this series. See "Putting 'Humanitarian' Back into Humanitarian Aid," "Country Hospitality," "Where Solidarity Means Survival Part I and Part II," and "Healing Body and Heart, Cuban Style."

Below are three more innovative programs. Each meets needs of survivors while contributing to - not undermining - the resilience, autonomy, and dignity of individuals and the community.

  • Coordination to Rebuild the Nation (KORE N, meaning in Creole 'support us'): The contribution of this Port-au-Prince-based activist group is medical care, based on a model of 24/7 accompaniment of the community's health needs, located in their own neighborhoods. KORE N opposes the idea of mobile clinics which show up at camps once or twice a week, staffed by doctors who do not know the community - or often even Haiti - and leave people sitting in long lines in the heat. As an alternative, KORE N has created four centers based on the idea of permanent accompaniment. KORE N sought out neighborhoods where there are shelters or camps and where KORE N members have influence. It located people in those neighborhoods with basic medical knowledge, like nurses and auxiliaries - ten in all - and gave them training. It set up shop either in a tent or in the medical staff's home. Next, it solicited medicines from citizens' groups, and identified doctors who serve as an information resource to the primary team. According to KORE N member and doctor Rudy Prudent, community members know and trust the health workers, both as neighbors and as committed social activists. The ten workers go out each day for their jobs and their personal needs, but are otherwise generally available at any time of the day or night. "These are not just people who come do consultations and then run," says Prudent. KORE N says that what's important for them is not to accompany many people, using the logic of many NGOs who need to show that they are servicing large numbers of clients in order to justify their funding or win new grants. The quality of the solidarity, not the quantity of patients, is what counts.
  • School of Social Sciences, State University of Haiti: In the post-earthquake context, the School of Social Sciences relies on its faculty, students, and knowledge base, plus minimal funding, to educate the community, provide social psychology to survivors, and help the population respond to today's political challenges. It also uses social psychology to 'rebuild the house,' meaning to help Haitian people rebuild themselves, their homes, and their country in ways which reinforce their strength and capacity, as individuals and as a people. Thirty-five students from the school are offering social psychology to about 350 people in roughly ten shelters in metropolitan Port-au-Prince. The team calls its support 'promotion of collective resilience.' "We're building off of what we have that is positive, to encourage people to reclaim control of their lives, to reconnect their ties with others, to find their confidence so they can resolve their problems," says psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois. The philosophy uses a five-step process to draw out in survivors the strong cultural values of resourcefulness and dignity. The school also hosts discussions in camps and shelters to mobilize community members, help them organize, and help them understand the risks in the current context. All the school's work carries the implicit and explicit message that to succeed, Haitians must have control over their lives and their environment. Reliance on aid, they insist, will only cause Haitians to lose their belief in their abilities.
  • Lambi Fund of Haiti: Like so many institutions around the world which has raised money for Haiti's earthquake survivors, the Lambi Fund has been inundated with donations. Unlike most of those institutions, though, the Lambi Fund's response is based on reinforcing the strength and autonomy of Haitian community organizations. Based in both Haiti and the U.S., the Lambi Fund shows how the international community can give urgent assistance in a way that allows the peasant and women's group to strengthen their production or commerce, their advocacy, and their organizations themselves. Lambi's post-earthquake work is based on its long-standing philosophy of providing financial resources, training, and technical assistance to peasant-led and/or women-led community organizations to strengthen people's social and economic power. Its current collaborations build off of relationships of trust and respect. Within days after the earthquake, Lambi staff convened regional assemblies of local peasants to define immediate needs and prioritize rebuilding. Lambi's post-catastrophe work is to meet its partner communities' self-defined needs for the immediate, while helping them rebuild and expand sustainable rural development and agricultural production for the mid- to long-term. The urgent aid involves cash disbursements to 43 grassroots groups in areas where large numbers of internally displaced people have relocated. The money helps the community groups organize themselves; provide clothes, food, medicine, tents, and other essentials; and fortify the local economy.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.