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Rebuilding Haiti, with A Rwandan Twist

February 2010

Today marks the first of many anniversaries in this new phase of Haiti’s history. It has been a month. The earthquake—known simply as “the incident” to Haitians—changed everything, instantly dividing their experience into a before and after. Many large NGOs, international institutions and donor countries are jockeying to get a seat at the table in rebuilding Haiti. Some of their core prescriptions involve the same policies that have kept Haiti near the top of the “Failed State Index” in the first place. Former president Clinton recently pointed out in a meeting with organizations working in Haiti that there are now 10,000 NGOs there, the largest number in the world per capita, with the exception of India.   The government of Haiti and networks of local-led organizations and movements recognize that this kind of intervention can be dangerous. That’s not to say that the Haitian people and government are in any position to (or have any desire to) shun offers of genuine friendship in their darkest hour. It simply means that they need to be controlling the process.   Grassroots International has worked in Haiti for over 20 years, partnering with Haitian-led community organizations. Since the public sector has been severely starved of resources and the international agenda has favored privatization strategies, these local groups have filled a longstanding gap in providing services to their people.   Grassroots International’s partners in Haiti issued the following statement in a letter sent to their international supporters.

Despite our pain, it is important that we all pause to reflect on what has happened and to draw from this tragic experience the lessons and the guidance that will allow us to continue our tireless dedication to building a different country, one that is capable of overcoming the cycle of dependency and destruction and rising to the level of the dreams of universal emancipation of its founders and of all the people of Haiti.

In the new context, Haitian organizers see their work on four levels right now: emergency relief, rebuilding of social movements, long-term reconstruction, and consolidation of Haitian sovereignty. Jean-Pierre Ricot, Program Director at Grassroots International’s partner the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development stressed that these strategies must be rooted in sustainable agriculture for food sovereignty and a strong decentralized public sector that supports rural/urban links. “Another Haiti is possible,” he said, “not through militarization and humanitarian aid but with Haitian people’s involvement in the development process.”  One example of post-disaster rebuilding where this kind of community-led rebuilding has worked is Rwanda. The tiny African nation was flooded with international organizations on the heels of the genocide that claimed the lives of nearly 25% of the population. Like in Haiti, many of them demanded that the incapacitated government cooperate with their agendas, including privatization and centralization of services in the more urban areas.   Not so fast. Shortly thereafter, the Rwandan government consulted with civil society groups all over the country and unveiled Rwanda Vision 2020, a development strategy intended to rid Rwanda of international aid by 2020 through sustainable development. This initiative came as a result of Rwandan desires to define the future of their country in the wake of tragedy. Now, in order for international NGOs to be registered and work there, they have to be part of this locally-driven plan to rebuild. At first, some NGOs accused authorities of abusing their rights, but eventually cooperated with the government and community organizations.   A key part of Rwanda’s initiative is centered on some of the same principles that Haitians are advocating for today in their desire to move from humanitarian assistance to sustainable development through land use management and rural agriculture in the frame of a global development strategy. Rwanda Vision 2020 is far from perfect, but the participatory process and decentralized focus contributed to a better Rwanda.    The figures speak for themselves. Over the last decade, Rwanda’s GDP growth rate has ranged from 3% to 9% annually. The government provides low-cost health care and universal primary education. There is broad access to clean water and Rwanda has the largest percentage of women in parliament in the world. “It’s the poster child,” said Jean Tong, a development professional who has worked with local groups in Rwanda. “What’s different there is that rural villages are the centerpiece of the development strategy for the entire country,” she added.   Haiti’s development plan shouldn’t be identical to Rwanda, just as Rwanda’s post-conflict development experience had not been replicated elsewhere. What the two countries do have in common are local solutions to unthinkable problems. They also share a clear understanding that until the international institutions and donor countries work through local channels, any efforts will only weaken their own sovereignty. Haitians have asked the international community to listen and stand by their side. How will we respond?   First published by Huffington Post on February 11, 2010  

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