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Beyond disaster aid to solidarity

People have all kinds of things to say about where Haiti should go from here, and how it should get there. It’s an old story, that of being sure what’s best for the Haitian people, trying to remake Haiti in one’s own image.

In this case, we don’t have to guess about what is best for Haitians; we have civil society itself to tell us their own priorities, needs, political demands. Now that many of the dead have been buried, a few groups are starting to brush the cement dust off of themselves and make their desiderata explicit. For example, here is what nineteen Haitian organizations from numerous sectors – from women to peasants, community media to economic policy advocates - have to say about reconstruction after the earthquake:

“The emergency aid effort we are involved in is alternative in character. We expect to advocate a method of work which will denounce the traditional practices in the field of humanitarian aid, which do not respect the dignity of the victims and which contribute to the reinforcement of dependency. We are advocating a humanitarian effort that is appropriate to our reality, respectful of our culture and our environment, and which does not undermine the forms of economic solidarity that have been put in place over the decades by the grassroots organizations with which we work.

“We would hope to see the emergence of international brigades working together with our organizations in the struggle to carry out agrarian reform and an integrated urban land reform program, the struggle against illiteracy and for reforestation, and for the construction of new modern, decentralized and universal systems of education and public health. (Statement by the coordinating committee of progressive organizations)

We have an excellent opportunity to help Haitians create a different type of disaster response and recovery, through our careful listening and horizontal solidarity. Here are a few suggestions:

  • “People-to-people solidarity, as states Camille Chalmers, director of the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), “not of that solidarity that states use in order to dominate the people. We call on the people to help us in the reconstruction tasks, but also to come out of our social crisis.” Our voices and energy will be important over the coming years to help Haitians get rid of the U.S. and U.N. military occupation that has just snuck into their country; to ensure full rights for all; to gain different trade policy that develops, not undermines, labor rights, environmental standards, and food sovereignty; to ensure that government policy privilege human need for all over profit for some; and to create space for women’s full participation and power.
    Be sure that any project you may launch or engage in reflects the agenda of the national progressive movement and grassroots communities. Has a Haitian organization expressed the need, or is it something you think they need? If the former, great. If the latter, your instincts or passions may not be aligned with their priorities. Though your heart may be super-sized, the offering may not be helpful.
  • Be patient. Unless you have been requested, or unless you are a medical team, now is likely not the time to fly in your group or try to make your project happen. We are gripped by the urgency of the suffering, but it does not follow that our urgent interventions can alleviate that suffering. Our sense of exigency and presence could actually contribute to their burden. If the project is going to work, it will require a lot of thoughtful discussion, and discussion of leadership by a community organization, first. Haitians say that anything that happens fast won’t last, and that has to be truer than ever now.
  • Be careful about assumptions that Haitians need our modernity. I salute Evan Hansen, editor of Wired.com who wrote: “A glance at [the Lambi Fund’s] project list was a wake up call for me in terms of recognizing my own ignorance and naïvite in tackling big issues of reconstruction in a place I know nothing about first hand. Perhaps naturally, as the editor of Wired.com, I've been consciously and unconsciously framing the reconstruction in terms of delivering telecom service over mesh networks, bootstrapping data mashups to bring a Web 3.0 layer to the relief, delivering green tech and so on. Sexy. Here's what the Lambi Fund wants: Electric grain mills for grinding corn and millet, a portable irrigation pump, ox ploughs, a goat breeding program, a fishing boat and reforestation. Bad aid starts with ignorance and condescension.”

I quote a former Haitian minister of culture who was speaking of U.S. aid: "The computers are not compatible."

What has befallen Haiti is as bad as it can get; we need to make sure that the rebuilding is as good as it can get. We have an excellent opportunity, following the Haitian grassroots’ lead, to engage in a different reconstruction for a different future.

Beverly Bell first went to Haiti as a teenager. Since then she has dedicated most of her life to working for democracy, women’s rights, and economic justice in that country. She founded or co-founded six organizations and networks dedicated exclusively to supporting the Haitian people, including the Lambi Fund of Haiti. She worked for both presidents Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Rene Preval and wrote Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance (Cornell University Press, 2001). Today she is associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and runs the economic justice group Other Worlds (www.otherworldsarepossible.org).

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