Creating a Cycle of Haitians Helping Haitians

Nearly a year ago, Meloed sat stunned as a doctor told her she was pregnant. For the second time in weeks, her world was collapsing around her.

The news should have been happy. But, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, changed everything for the new bride.

"I was in my house. I was cooking dinner for my husband when it just rocked," she told us. "I tried to run. But, the house, it just fell on me."

Meloed was trapped under the rubble for ten hours. Her husband never made it home from work.

For two days, the widow lived under a tarp before making the decision to leave Port-au-Prince for the rural city of Hinche. Most people she knew stayed in the city, closer to where aid distribution is concentrated. Meloed could have done the same. But, she made a promise to herself and her child.

"I vowed then I wouldn't live in a tent anymore," she says. "I vowed to live in a house."

We've heard this heart-wrenching sentiment numerous times across internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Port-au-Prince. A year later, that dream is unfilled for most. It's not helped by the fact that only $732 million of the $5.3 billion pledged for 2010-2011 at the March emergency donors' conference has actually been delivered to development projects.

Those numbers are overwhelmingly apparent in Port-au-Prince, where tattered tents have turned into permanent homes, latrines are overflowing and water systems are turned off.

But, when we travelled into the countryside, we found as close to an oasis as you can get in Haiti -- a group of Haitians rebuilding their country in a sustainable, scalable model through decentralization.

It's here Meloed has the best chance at a future. Unfortunately, the foreign aid community tends to overlook this sustainable development in favour of short-term, surface relief.

Last year, just days after the earthquake, a team from Free The Children and I travelled to Haiti to distribute emergency supplies to our partners and assess the needs of the communities we've worked in for the past decade.

In Port-au-Prince, we found people struggling for basic survival. At our car windows, children asked for a single drop of water to quench their thirst, while aid convoys were overwhelmed by hungry people grabbing anything they could carry.

A year later, we travelled back in a trip that coincided with the tumultuous election. The capital was shut-down as protesters took to the streets denouncing fraud and corruption. Once again, when Port-au-Prince was immobilized, so was the rest of the country.

With aid concentrated in the capital, a cholera treatment centre in Hinche, a city about four hours north, was left with only two weeks left of supplies and a year's worth of frustration.

But, where the government and aid partners have fallen short, we met someone who gave us hope.

"A lot of aid is purely cosmetic aid -- aid that just looks good," says Brother Franklin, the head of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Incarnation. "We need to change the perspective from short-term, to long-term. Don't shift the giving, shift the viewpoint."

Brother Franklin is a community leader in Hinche visible by a signature blue golf shirt and wooden cross around his neck. He's one of many quiet heroes we've met in the past 15 years working in development. But, his model of Haitians helping Haitians stands above the rest.

For 35 years, Brother Franklin has followed the doctrine of decentralization. In rural regions, he develops irrigation systems, constructs ponds to raise fish and builds greenhouses to sustain growing all year round.

After the earthquake, he set about showing IDPs like Meloed the lost art of agriculture.

Haiti's land has been virtually destroyed by years of abuse. In the 1980s, food dumping by the United States, Canada and other wealthy nations caused thousands of rural farmers to go bankrupt. Out of necessity, people chopped down trees to produce charcoal for sale, deforesting an astonishing 98 per cent of the country.

Of course, you'd never know there was a problem visiting Brother Franklin. His projects currently sustain about 5,000 people each day to earn their own livelihood, while passing on the skills to sustain thousands more into the future.

Unfortunately, aid is centralized in Port-au-Prince, a city in no position to establish any of these projects. About 70 per cent of buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed in the earthquake. A year later, only an estimated two per cent of the rubble has been cleared.

The aid is largely short-term relief. This is necessary in IDP camps, but unsustainable as it creates a perverse incentive for people like those Meloed left behind to remain reliant on handouts for survival.

Despite knowing this, Port-au-Prince remains the centre for virtually all private and public sector business in Haiti -- what little rebuilding that has started is perpetuating that reality.

"You want to go to university? You have to go to Port-au-Prince. You want a passport or an identity card? You have to go to Port-au-Prince," says Michel-Auge Desrosiers, the Adjunct-Mayor of Hinche. "Young people grow up with this idea that because you have to go to Port-au-Prince to get everything you need, you may as well go there."

Ophelia, who lives in Brother Franklin's refugee camp in Hinche, discovered just how centralized Haiti's services remain during the country's election. Her voter identification was registered in Port-au-Prince -- the city was the only place she could apply for a change of address.

"I can't go because I don't have the money," she says. "I don't have enough money to buy food for tomorrow."

"We have to start putting services here even if it's just passports or identity cards," says Desrosiers. "If they could just decentralize the country, it would be better off for everyone."

That's why Meloed ultimately decided to stay in Hinche.

A number of Port-au-Prince's hospitals collapsed during the earthquake and others sustained damage. But, in Hinche, Meloed received check-ups for her growing baby in a prenatal unit that's part of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters network.

One night as a fierce storm blew into the region, she gave birth to a baby girl.

"The water was coming in under the tent," she recalls. "I made my way to the clinic but they didn't have a mattress. They just put down a plastic sheet I could lay on."

Meloed named the baby Natchenly. More determined than ever, she set about finding a proper home. Within a month, thanks to the goodwill of a family in Hinche, she moved out of the IDP camp and into a house.

The potential of a city such as Hinche is undeniable. But, it can't develop on its own. As long as aid agencies continue focusing on short-term relief in Port-au-Prince, there will be no incentive leave the ruins of the capital city.

That leaves Haiti mired by unsustainable handouts while the potential for effective development goes to waste.

A year post-earthquake, we, like most others, are frustrated by the lack of progress in Haiti. Emotion drove millions to donate last January. Frustration needs to drive us to demand sustainability and efficiency a year later.

More than $4.5 billion has yet to be distributed from the March donor's conference. When it is, we need to look to locals for advice. By looking to people like Brother Franklin, we can break the cycle of dependency and empower a cycle of Haitians helping Haitians.