On the Ground in Haiti

I arrived in Haiti and settled in to Port-au-Prince. I remember the profound poverty of the country, its strong African-Caribbean feel, the streets filled with kids in different uniforms bustling to and from schools, thousands of small stalls selling one or two products, throngs of people stopping to talk with each other and the traffic. Streets and roads have deep pot holes from regular wear and tear, from serious storms and from municipal and national neglect. Over dinner with Pere Joseph Phillipe (Father Joe)—a former AJWS grantee—I learned about an amazing savings and credit program called the “Bank for the Organized Poor,” which exists throughout the country. I learned about Fondwa, a comprehensive rural development project which Father Joe established. He painted a superb picture of possibilities for change.

In the morning, the AJWS crew and I drove out to Jacmel—a small rural community at the top of the local mountain. We met Joe, the head of AJWS’s grantee, KONPAY. Joe is an extraordinary man who has a thorough analytical understanding of problems of poverty and environmental degradation. Joe provides help to small local organizations, builds strong connections in his community, and involves local government officials in his work. In addition to working locally, he is also shaping a national working group on the environment.

Together, we walked through fields, saw the irrigation and topsoil runoff problems literally underfoot, drank and ate fresh coconut and discussed future growth and development of the community. Much of our conversation centered upon food security. Most of the families in this region farm their own land, do not grow enough food for full family food sufficiency, and often have no other source of income. And this is a “well off” part of the country, less prone to severe drought than others. The land is not productive because of the extreme deforestation and the regular rain and loss of top soil. Last year, the area was devastated by a hurricane. KONPAY offered emergency food distribution to several villages where people were literally starving, had lost their crops and, often, the roofs of their homes. Most aid was US surplus, not the food people wanted and not given with any help or support for the community’s efforts to rebuild.

I learned some terrifying statistics: 56 percent of the Haitian population earns below $1 a day; 76 percent earns below $2. Thirteen percent of Haitian households in rural areas cannot meet basic food needs. Nationally, 80 percent of Haitian households can’t meet these basic food needs. Huge numbers of children die before the age of  5 and national food production is at an all time low. Twenty-five of 30 major watersheds have been stripped bare and farmers do not have water for irrigation.

KONPAY plans to address these issues with reforestation efforts, seed distribution and the use of new plants. Additionally, KONPAY plans to conduct farming trainings, provide alternatives to charcoal and provide special stoves to help people feed their families. KONPAY’s ability to encourage local participation and build connections with local political leaders is quite amazing. This is the kind of change the world needs more of.