By Scott Sabin
Flourish Magazine, Winter 2010
The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12th was unimaginably devastating, killing as many as 200,000 people, utterly destroying Haiti’s fragile infrastructure, and demolishing some of its most important symbols of national identity and pride. The blow has been so complete and so demoralizing that more than one Haitian has said “Haiti is done.”
In my role as Executive Director of Plant With Purpose (formerly Floresta), a Christian development agency with long-term work in Haiti, this has been particularly difficult to watch. I have visited Haiti perhaps 30 times in the past 15 years. Though I work from San Diego, we have a local staff of 42 amazingly dedicated Haitians. Thankfully, all are accounted for and well, although one of our workers lost his wife and ten-day old son when their house collapsed on them.
Helping Hands vs. Handouts
Fifteen years ago I wasn’t all that excited about working in a nation sometimes referred to as “the graveyard of good intentions.”
My first impression of Port-au-Prince was that the tide had come in and stranded garbage and rubble everywhere. Rotting fruit and raw sewage smells combined with the smell of frying meat and exhaust. People spilled out on to the broken streets in every sort of dress imaginable, filling alleys and turning the sidewalks into an impromptu market. In the countryside, a constant parade of pedestrians streamed down either side of the road: old women leading donkeys, men carrying machetes, and groups of schoolchildren in ragged yellow uniforms. High above the road, every slope was cultivated with struggling cornfields.
Pere Jean-Wilfrid Albert, an almost superhuman Haitian Episcopal priest who worked in the mountains not far from the epicenter of January’s quake, sparked my special love for Haiti. Banished to a remote rural parish, with virtually nothing, he had, on his own initiative, founded over 30 schools and was responsible for the education of over 13,000 children. (Although Pere Albert died far too young, a victim of cancer, his work is carried on today by the Haitian Education Foundation.)
It was Pere Albert who first showed me what the farmers who make up the bulk of Haiti’s population are up against. Yet in spite of the odds against them, their singing rings through the hills each morning as they work together to cultivate hillsides that you and I would find difficult to walk on. Too often portrayed as victims, they are the ultimate survivors.
I remember my first visit to one of those mountain communities. About 40 farmers, men and women, waited for us in a tin-roofed shelter. As I surveyed the spectacular setting—from the top of the ridge, the Caribbean was clearly visible to the south, Haiti’s tallest mountain, Pic La Selle was in the clouds to the east, and the brilliant blue water of the Bay of Port au Prince sparkled to the north—several people sidled up to me holding out their hands and rubbing their stomachs.
As we met, a woman stood up and, in a confrontational tone, told me about the other humanitarian and aid agencies that had worked in the area. “Agency X was here, they gave us food—they are gone,” she said, listing them. “How is Floresta going to be any different?”
Although I was a bit taken aback, after giving it some consideration, I responded, “Well first of all we are not going to give anything away, and secondly we are not going to leave until you ask us to.”
It was her turn to be taken aback.
After that first meeting, our local staff began meeting with the farmers’ group on a regular basis. They facilitated planning, provided training, and organized a loan group.
Three years later, I again made the trek up the stony ridges to that little village, and was met by a very different group. No one asked me for money. They were eager to tell me all that had been accomplished in the community. A credit group had been formed and was making loans. Many farmers had bought the land they had been renting. Trees had been planted. Rainwater harvesting systems and cisterns had been constructed. Fruit trees had been grafted. But the highlight of the meeting occurred when one of women stood up and proudly told me: “What you have given us is the knowledge that we are not helpless, but that God has given us talents that we can use to change our community.”
The Limits of Aid
Working together we have accomplished small but remarkable things, but they represent the accomplishments of the poor themselves. More than 420,000 trees have been planted by farmers who are practicing a whole new type of agriculture, suited for steep hillsides and far more productive. Because it makes sense for them economically, these farmers will go on planting trees long after we are gone. Thousands of small business loans have been made. Fruit production has been improved. Hundreds of miles of soil erosion control measures—often living barriers of trees—have been installed, and hundreds of rainwater harvesting systems have been built. Dozens of Bible studies have been held.
But Plant With Purpose, and our Haitian staff, have merely been a catalyst for this success. The loans we have made (with a repayment rate of 98%) and the training we have provided have helped to uncover the talents of the people themselves.
Too often aid fails because it is applied without understanding the needs of the people who receive it and without involving them in the planning. Furthermore, nothing is required of them. Aid is done to them, by outsiders. In time it robs them of dignity, self confidence, and initiative.
If the post-earthquake relief and recovery effort in Haiti is to succeed, Haitians need to participate in its planning and execution. Our Haitian director, Guy Paraison, has met with relief committees and mayors in several towns and cities in our region to talk about their plans and needs for recovery.
After the hurricanes of 2008 he did a similar thing. The local people came up with a plan for supplying seed to those who had been forced to eat their seed after the storms. Two thousand families received new seed and had an abundant harvest, from which they repaid us. Today—by the grace of God—we have several tons of beans stored, not originally intended for an emergency such as this, but suddenly available. Through this experience, we saw leaders gain confidence, and experienced a blossoming of enthusiasm for the rest of our program, as all were energized by the success. That’s because we never gave away food, clothing or shelter; we worked to equip people, and gave away love and hope.
However, today, as the international community descends on Haiti like a mighty army, I am hearing stories of local officials being excluded from meetings. I am reading discussions of plans to fix Haiti that involve no Haitian voices. The Haitian government is continually discounted. Granted it was weak before the disaster and has been decimated. However, for Haiti to move forward, Haitian leaders must be at the head of the table. Leaders, at all levels, must be given the opportunity to lead.
We must also be careful of the labels we apply. Labels have a tendency to be self-fulfilling. As Haitian national symbols have crumbled, repeating fictitious stories of a pact with the devil does nothing to build up those who mourn, and worse, casts doubt on the very character of God. Similarly, I have yet to read a news report that does not mention that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. While this is undoubtedly true, it is certainly not the whole story, or even the most important part of the story.
Working Alongside Haitians to Rebuild
I think I understand why Haiti has been the graveyard of good intentions—too many well-intentioned people want to do for the Haitians what they so desperately want to do for themselves. Today they may need us to do much for them, but as quickly as possible our role should become one of empowerment and support—alongside them.
Those roads, villages, and people who had seemed so ominous in the spring of 1995 are as familiar as family to me now. We have yet to determine the full impact of the earthquake’s impact on the 67 villages where Plant With Purpose works, but we are confident that the villagers will rebuild. They are not “done.”
Dreadfully misunderstood and overcoming impossible odds, Haitians still manage to face life with a smile, pulling themselves together each morning to toil under the blazing sun. They face their depleted hillside farms with a song. It is not a burden, but an honor, to work alongside them.
Scott Sabin, MA, is executive director of Plant With Purpose, a nonprofit Christian environmental organization with operations in seven countries. Sabin has been published in The New York Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and Christianity Today. He is a contributing editor with Creation Care magazine, a national speaker in the creation care movement, and author of the book Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People.
This article was originally published in To The Source on January 21, 2010.