Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Haiti: What Not To Do


I returned early yesterday morning (about 3 am) after a grueling day of travel. There was severe flooding in the South parts of Haiti on Saturday as a result of torrential rains. Baraderes was deluged and people fled for the mountains. When we drove out of Les Cayes early Sunday morning we could see the devastation: the road was passable but still full of mud and rocks in places, crops were destroyed, trees were down, and animals were dead. News reports said that some people were also killed. Then just after we finished driving through the flood-ravaged areas we got into the earthquake-ravaged areas.

Six weeks after the eathquake, many people are living in tents made of sticks and bedsheets.

A lot of people ask me why Haiti is so poor. There are no easy answers, and the history is complicated, but the question is worth reflecting on, especially now that we see that Chile has suffered an earthquake of a greater magnitude than Haiti's but with far fewer deaths, and with a greater ability to recover. What follows is my reflection on one aspect of Haiti's poverty: the role of charitable aid.

In the last 25 years or so, numerous international aid organizations, churches, and governments have sent vast amounts of aid to Haiti. However they have mostly been reluctant to funnel that money through the Haitian government. As a result, aid institutions operate mostly outside of the government, and this has led to a weak underfunded government that does not have the resources or capacity to build the infrastructure that Haiti needs. In many other countries, U.S. development assistance is funneled through governments.

I know that there are a lot of people reading this who do not care too much for government (and truthfully i think that i am one of them) but we need governments for some things, including roads, electricity, water treatment, public health concerns, enforcement of building codes, protection from the greed, violence and stupidity of others, etc.

The problem with outside aid institutions, whether governmental or non-governmental, is that they tend to have their own agendas, and those agendas are often what is best for the sending countries or institutions. For example, the USAID project I mentioned in my last post was bad for small farmers all over the world, but it was good for the United States, because it brought coffee prices way down.

Another problem with aid institutions is that they come and then they go. An example of that is the hospital located about an hour and a half from Baraderes. It was run by a U.S. Baptist group, but then about a year or so ago they pulled out. Now the hospital is there but barely functions. It was the only hospital in the area.

In general, I have lost all confidence in charitable aid as any kind of solution. It often is based on the agenda of the giver, rather than the receiver. It fosters a dependency that over time becomes hard to overcome, because people come to believe that their only recourse is getting things from others. This kind of mentality leads to corruption. Charity also does not recognize the human dignity of the receiver, because human dignity requires us to be able to take care of ourselves: to enjoy the fruits of our own labor, to pay for our own school fees and health care, to provide food, shelter and clothing for our families, and to form communities that develop the structures that sustain life.

What makes sense to me are capacity-building and income-producing projects that are led by and benefit the communities they are in, and the evidence for this would be that the comunities start to be able to take care of themselves. Income-producing projects benefit everyone, because if one group of people has more money, they then spend it at the local stores, and the local schools, and the local clinic. Then the doctors and nurses and teachers and shop-owners get paid, and then they spend their money...etc. What is required by outside organizations in this case is to invest in the income-producing projects of the community and to help them with capacity-building so that they are able to sustain those projects, and then to pull out when the community does not need them any more.

Capacity-building is a term that encompasses training and formation and the creating of structures that can sustain a project.

Is charity ever the answer? For example, what about supporting schools? I think this is a really hard question. I asked myself this question when I was responsible for the St. John the Baptist (SJB) sister parish project, which sustains a lot of schools. The secondary school we built in Baraderes is one of the best schools in the country, and the whole community is proud of it. But at the end I asked myself what we had accomplished. If SJB pulled out, that school would close. What if SJB got a new pastor, or the demographics changed and the parish could no longer sustain the project? We need the community to be able to sustain its own school (and orphanage, medical clinic, and nutrition programs). In other words, it does not make sense to build programs that over the long term communities cannot pay for by themselves.

But then you end up in going in circles, because you need educated people for successful income-producing projects, and you also need training and formation for those who lack formal education. I think the answer has to be that you need both together, and not to support a school without working with the community on how they will sustain it in the long run. Education, training, and income-producing projects go together.

In the U.S., public schools get paid for by taxes, and private schools get paid for by fees and endowments. Taxes, fees, and endowments all come from people who have income. It feels good to outside donors to build something for someone else, but it does not help the community if they cannot sustain it themselves.

The problem is that it is not so hard to find people willing to start up or support charitable aid projects, including schools (or orphanages, or feeding programs, or homeless shelters), but really hard to find a genuine community-led income-producing project that benefits the producers and the community they are in, as opposed to one that primarily benefits some multinational corporation and its stockholders in developed countries. Just Haiti is a lot of work and it will take a real investment in time and money before the growers are independent. But we are working for that day.

But now the conversation gets even more complicated. Those multinational corporations and their stockholders are providing the income that enables the high standard of living in developed countries. One of the ways that they do that is to pay producers and laborers in underdeveloped countries wages that do not provide a sustainable living. In other words, they keep them poor. So actually those income-producing projects that benefit producers in underdeveloped countries that we are talking about are not in the interest of wealthy people in developed countries if they want to maintain their current standard of living.

Hmmm. So now we begin to understand why there is so much more charity than justice. Charity keeps people poor and dependent, and poverty makes people willing to accept substandard wages, and then they take more charity, and the cycle continues. And because of Haiti’s history (which I have not gone into) Haiti has been on the receiving end of charity in the extreme. As such, Haiti becomes a case study in what not to do.

My deep frustration (to the point of sarcasm) with this lies in the fact that so many of the charities providing aid are church-based, including the vast network of sister parishes in Haiti. The people involved usually do not understand the difference between charity and justice, and have not been educated to understand the difference or how it connects to their faith. Many church people want to be heroes, swooping into Haiti to save the day. I think that this feeling is fine and normal, but needs to be channeled in a more productive way.

Many people, including church people, are suspicious of income-producing projects as somehow threatening to our capitalist culture. And it is true: if everyone did as i am suggesting, the incomes of those who profit from the labor of others would go down, or prices would go up (which amounts to the same thing). This is what gets people really upset: my view is that would be fine. People in the U.S. are not accustomed to paying the full value of the goods they consume, because they get them from cheap labor that does not sustain life. And just how many houses and cars do people need?

Catastrophes are the one time that institutional charity makes sense to me. People need help to pick up the pieces (and to pay school fees) after everything has been destroyed. But it should not end there, and ususally it does. And there is something seriously wrong with our system of disaster relief: why are there so many relief workers driving around in new jeeps, while Haitians are still living in tents made of sticks and bedsheets?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Baraderes and Coffee

Celebrating the bank account with a beer and a lobster dinner on the beach.

Baraderes, a town located in the southern part of Haiti, received 10,000 refugees from Port-au-Prince, about a 25% increase in population. The schools and medical clinic have been inundated, and many families are housing extra people. We were treking through the mountains visiting coffee fields and stopped at a home that was taking care of two sick babies from Port-au-Prince. The main problem there is food. Baraderes has no food security in normal times...people often do not eat regular meals. The additional people have turned it into a crisis for some families.

Sr. Denise, the superior of the local community of Catholic sisters, was in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake. Hers is an indigenous Haitian congregation, called the Little Sisters of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus. Like many survivors of trauma, she wanted to talk about it. She was on the third floor of the convent when the house came down. She was buried, but survived because she was on the top floor and not the bottom floor. One of their employees came looking later to see if there was anybody in the rubble, and they found her and got her out. She emerged with her prayer book and the clothes on her back, and that was all she had for more than a week. Later some people went to the rubble to dig out her personal items, and they found most of it. I wonder if many of the stories about looting we saw on the news were really just people trying to retrieve their own stuff.

Their congregation's school collapsed, and they lost many students and four nuns. Six of the students from that school have been moved to Baraderes. They are also moving their entire noviate to Baraderes. The Catholic seminary in Port-au-Prince collapsed, and they moved four students to the school in Baraderes. This is happening all over the country..everybody has to figure out how to absorb more people.

And now on to my favorite topic: coffee! I had some great meetings with the coffee growers' association (called KDB) and feel optimistic about what is happening there. I brought them their first check of profits from coffee sales. The way the project works is that they get a fair trade price for their coffee, and then after taking out expenses from the sale of it, they also receive the profits. The profit they made was higher than the original price we paid for the coffee, and the origial price was much higher than market price. It just goes to show that somebody is making a lot of money in the coffee business, and it is not the growers.

I went with them to open their bank account, where they decided that three people should be signatories, and at least two have to sign before money could be removed. They were so proud...it is the first time for any of them that they have money to open an account!

The growers are working to expand the association to include more people. During a meeting, one of the growers said to the people that we are not only just growing coffee in this project: we are regenerating the coffee business in Baraderes. Until the mid-1980s, coffee was the main industry in Baraderes. It was destroyed when the coffee market crashed all over the world. It is a long story about why it collapsed, but basically it was because of an ill-conceived USAID project that funded large plantations of poor quality coffee in Vietnam and Brazil, thereby lowering the prices all over the world and thus putting small farmers out of business and exascerbating poverty in some of the poorest places in the world, including Haiti. We are regenerating the coffee industry in Baraderes, but in a way that benefits small producers, and not planatation owners or large multinational coffee companies.

Another person talked about how the association was not just about coffee: it is also about forming community and becoming like family for each other. With their profits, one thing they have done is to create a fund that will provide money for health care if people get sick, and they are also talking about ways to provide an advance to growers on their coffee sales so that they can pay their childrens' school fees. They are also using part of their money to provide food to needy families after the earthquake (Just Haiti is also helping with that). I am proud to be a part of this, and I know that many of you are supporters in one way or another, and you should all be proud, too.