Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

  • January 6, 2011

Haiti camp class

In Duvale, an exhausting two-hour crawl by Toyota Land Cruiser from Port-au-Prince, the Caritas network is trying to pick up the pieces for local peasants.

Eighty per cent of the buildings in Duvale collapsed last Jan. 12, including the church. Port-au-Prince refugees from the earthquake wandered through the area in February and March and ate up all the seeds for the next crop. Even before the earthquake, farming in Duvale was far from profitable. The area’s poor soils yield pathetic crops.

With about $3.5 million in financing from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Caritas Port-au-Prince will provide Duvale and seven neighbouring villages with an agronomist and an agricultural technician to test soils, provide advice and teach more sustainable farming methods. Donors are providing new seed. New wells will make water available for irrigation and other uses. It will be a five-year program starting this month.

Farmers will learn to terrace the land and other soil conservation techniques essential to successful farming in a country that is 70-per-cent mountains and disastrously bare of its trees.

An existing microcredit program, focussed on women, is being expanded.

Duvale is a classic example of the kind of work Development and Peace has done around the world over the last 40 years. It’s led by a local partner, based on the priorities of peasant farmers themselves, concentrates on women — who are proven to yield the greatest return on a development dollar — and brings the community together in self-sustaining, co-operative structures.

The trouble is the road. There’s no way any crops will get to market over the pathetic excuse for a road that separates the village from Port-au-Prince. Neither Caritas nor Development and Peace can build roads for the government of Haiti. Donor money doesn’t add up to the price of a real road.

A good development project of this kind will organize peasant farmers and embolden them to demand services from their government, including a better road. But in more than 200 years of independence, Haiti has never really had a competent government capable of delivering services to its people, or politicians interested in anything of the sort.

On the other hand, for the last 30 years the people of rural Haiti have pursued another development program without help or encouragement from development agencies. They’ve been moving to Port-au-Prince and the provincial towns, living in dangerous, overcrowded slums, looking for work and wages.

It’s a high-stakes gamble, and many wind up trapped in poverty on the edge of the city. But many succeed. Or their children succeed. Between 1975 and 2005 Port-au-Prince’s population grew by 269 per cent to 3.5 million.

Why do Catholic development agencies (it’s not just Development and Peace) favour rural development projects and abandon the slums to their fate?

It’s not an entirely fair question. Development and Peace does have some urban projects, and it has an even greater commitment to the lives of the urban poor in post-earthquake Haiti. But the established peasant farmers of Duvale, even in the wake of a disaster that has erased their homes and farms, are not moving to the big city.

“This is our home. This is our land,” explained Fritz Ner-Sérénium. “We were born here. What we want to see is this area developed. In Port-au-Prince we would have to do work we don’t know how to do.”

Of course the situation for 40-year-old farmers is not the same as the situation for their children. Duvale’s school goes to Grade 6. High school requires a move to Port-au-Prince. A high school diploma doesn’t really qualify anyone for a job, but it does set a young person’s sights higher than goats, chickens and a field of tomatoes.

“It’s very good to run good rural development programs, but don’t assume that this will necessarily keep people in rural areas,” said David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Development and Peace finds itself engaged in programs very unlike the Duvale project and much more focussed on the urban aspirations of the next generation of Haitians. But executive director Michael Casey hesitates to say the $20.4-million program in Haiti represents a turning point.

“None of the regular rules, regular guidelines necessarily apply in a case like this,” he said.

The irregular, even novel efforts of Development and Peace in Haiti this past year have included posting a Canadian employee in Port-au-Prince to support, monitor and guide post-earthquake spending, funding religious communities rather than conventional NGOs and funding education.

Community development aimed at righting the scales of often brutal economies has been the core reason for Development and Peace’s existence. Education and social work are a responsibility of government. But ground rules that have applied in Haiti since Development and Peace was founded in 1967 crumbled with the earthquake.

“You try to respond where you best can. We had a network of religious communities that were actively involved in the types of things the society needs to get back on its feet,” said Casey. “We have a Caritas network in place that was very focussed at the community level.”

Casey foresees the exception of a huge disaster such as Haiti becoming the rule.   

“We can’t just say we won’t get involved in emergency work because it’s not part of our development approach,” Casey said. “You can’t do long-term sustainable development of civil society organizations like we do if you don’t have roads and people are sick and buildings are destroyed.”

Development and Peace isn’t alone among NGOs in terms of having to rethink its role, said University of Toronto expert in NGOs Wendy Wong.

“It’s a moment of crisis for service providing NGOs in terms of rethinking their role in international politics,” she said.

Responding to the new reality may involve new ways of doing the job, including Canadian staff on site and in the field. Finding well established, well-run partners in urban slums to lead and manage projects may simply be impossible.

In Haiti the decision to break with tradition and place a Development and Peace staffer in Port-au-Prince was difficult.

“Will the presence of one of our northern staff, or expertise from Canada, add enough value to the process to be a benefit? We have to look at that,” said Casey. “These questions are on the table.”

The earthquake has changed Haiti. It may be that Haiti will change Development and Peace.

a Catholic Register special report

Haiti's churches need healing [slideshow]

What now in Haiti?

Post-traumatic stress proves difficult

Catholic aid organizations fly under the radar

Canadian engineer to oversee Haiti’s Church rebuild

Haiti must take this opportunity to change

Crisis makes D&P rethink how it operates

Bold education plan held up by a lack of funds

Church holds community together

D&P-funded program provides pro-life solution to Haiti's sexual violence

Haitians must look to themselves to rebuild their nation

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