Are We Listening to the Haitian People?

Rev. Diane Ford Dessables, Bread for the World

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the most fragile. More than half of the population (10.4 million people) is living under the national poverty line of $2.42 per day, and one-fourth is under the national extreme-poverty line of $1.23 per day. As in many low-income countries, agriculture is critical to the livelihood of families. Sixty percent of the population depends on agriculture for food security and livelihoods. Not only is the country poor, it is one of the hungriest and most malnourished countries in the world, 10th from the bottom on the Global Food Security Index.

In March 2016, a small team of Bread for the World and Bread for the World Institute staff went to Haiti to learn more about the country’s current humanitarian and development challenges. We spoke with several community leaders involved in local organizations who are intimately familiar with the country’s development challenges and work closely with Haiti’s most impoverished communities. We heard from most of them that the United States is not a trusted partner in development.

The United States and Haiti have had an uneasy relationship for as long as the two countries have existed. In 1804, Haiti gained its independence—and the United States refused to recognize it. France had controlled the territory since the early seventeenth century, building an agricultural colony on the backs of African slaves. Haiti emerged as a free nation out of what began as a slave rebellion in 1791, when slavery was still a legal institution in the United States. It would not be until slavery was abolished during the Civil War that the United States would finally recognize Haitian sovereignty.

Camille Chalmers, a professor who directs the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), believes the distrust also dates back to the U.S. military occupation of the country from 1915-1934. In modern jargon, we’d call this a land grab. Whereas land ownership had been restricted to Haitians only, the United States, he says, drafted a new Constitution for Haiti and suspended the legislature when they refused to ratify it. By the 1920s, American firms were buying land from the Haitian government to establish agricultural enterprises. Thousands of smallholder farmers were displaced as vast tracks of land were deforested to make way for production of sugar and other export crops.

Another person we spoke with was Jean Gardy Marius, a doctor and the director of Oganizasyon Santé Popile/Popular Health Organization (OSAPO). We met with him at the OSAPO Health Center in Rousseau, a rural community about a half day’s drive north of Port-au-Prince. People walk to this health center from as far as 50 miles away.

Gardy co-founded OSAPO in 2008 after more than a decade of frustration working with several international aid organizations in Haiti. He was frustrated by their top-down approaches to programming, rigid guidelines, and how little interest they demonstrated in understanding the real needs of the people they were trying to help. To illustrate, he shared a recent episode. OSAPO was awarded a grant to conduct a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Program (WASH). By the end of 2014, more than 1 in 20 Haitians were infected with cholera. Since the initial outbreak, OSAPO has treated thousands of Haitians who became infected by drinking contaminated water.

OSAPO conducted the program according to the rigid protocols required by the donor. When the program ended, the donor offered OSAPO a second grant to conduct the same program for a much larger population in another part of the country. The program would present the same material as the first WASH program. This time OSAPO turned it down. The program covered sanitation, but offered no support for building latrines; it covered good hygiene practices, such as hand washing, but the population the program was serving was far too poor to afford soap; and it also instructed beneficiaries not to drink water from the rivers, but they had no alternative. Gardy proposed rewriting the second grant to use a share of the funding to provide latrines. It would mean serving a smaller population, but would have more impact on the population served. The donor rejected his proposal, so OSAPO turned down the grant. So much development assistance, he explained, seems more intent in racking up numbers of people served than providing services that would actually make a difference.

History and current experience result in skepticism and contempt in Haiti of American aid and business interests. Against this reality, this Hunger Report argues that fragile countries cannot end hunger and poverty by 2030 without international assistance. The U.S. government provides more development assistance to Haiti than any other donor, and the State Department has designated Haiti a priority country. The voices of Haitian leaders beg many questions about how best to provide assistance. And while we don’t have all the answers, we can begin a conversation.

How can the needs of Haitians take precedence over American interests? Can Haiti be strengthened through local institutions, which are prized for prioritizing local voices as key development actors and increasing access to social protection programs? In what ways might the United States ensure that Haitians’ efforts to fight hunger and poverty aren’t undercut by other areas of U.S. policy, such as trade? Do U.S. development partners invest in Haitian community-led programs that could stimulate domestic markets and economic growth? Might development agencies work more closely with both the Haitian government and Haitians in local communities to determine priorities and prioritize food security and nutrition? Might the United States consider adapting its policies to protect the legitimate land tenure rights of Haiti’s rural majority? Might U.S. NGOs work in partnership with Haitians to develop a more transparent way of sharing the details of program activities and funds disbursed?

Only by looking at these questions through the lens of the priorities and needs of Haiti’s people will it be possible for the relationship between the United States and Haiti to be transformed into one that emphasizes healthy, just, and mutually beneficial policies. Cantave Jean-Baptiste, executive director of Partenariat pour le Développement Local/Partnership for Local Development, expressed this very clearly: “People from other countries come to Haiti and ask me what can they do to help Haitians escape poverty, and my answer is to tell your governments to stop making decisions for us and listen instead,” and to respect the will of the Haitian people.

Photo credit: EU / ECHO / Evelyn Hockstein

Rev. Diane Ford Dessables is the senior associate for denominational relations in the church relations department of Bread for the World.