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Rethinking Aid… Again: Responding to the Earthquake in Haiti

January 2010

Over the years, Grassroots International has had an opportunity to talk about rethinking emergency aid with our partners, including those in Haiti. Now, in the wake of a devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince, those conversations and our funding principles continue to guide relief efforts.

  “We can’t prevent hurricanes in the future,” said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), after Haiti experience four successive hurricanes in 2008. “What we can do,” he added, “is mitigate their damage.” Gonaives, for example, has a drainage canal that has not been cleaned in 50 years. Everyone present agreed that it was up to them to push the Haitian government to follow through with their responsibilities, thus reducing the impact of natural catastrophes, which sadly continue to challenge the hemisphere’s poorest nation.   Organizations like MPP are proving that even during these times, it’s possible to “think outside the box” and make rebuilding an integral part of sustainable development.   Since news of the earthquake hit, Grassroots International picked up the phones to speak with Haitian partners like Chavannes. Like Haitian families in the U.S. and around the world trying to find their loved ones, we quickly discovered that all lines of communication are either broken or overtaxed. In Chavannes’ case, we were able to reach his brother in New York who confirmed that he is still alive, for that we give thanks. But in truth, we are working with very little direct information.   Given the magnitude of the quake, we are preparing for high fatalities and tremendous need on the part of survivors. We wanted to let Grassroots supporters know that we are doing all we can to provide as much help as we can. All of our partners have offices in Port-au-Prince and will no doubt be deeply affected.   We know from over 26 years of experience that the best aid strategy – be it in Haiti or elsewhere – is to work directly with the people most affected. Emergency relief, like all aid, needs to be led by the communities themselves and move from the bottom up, not from the top down. We know from past history that Haiti has not been well served by the aid industry – Haiti’s reliance on food aid has only grown over the years. To the extent possible, we will provide cash to our partners to make local purchases of the items they most need and to obtain food from farmers not hit by the disaster.   We remain hopeful that we will be able to make contact with our partners in the next couple of days, and we will keep you updated on their status. Thank you so much for your concern and for your contributions to our Earthquake Relief Fund for Haiti.   Grassroots International works with four partners in Haiti:

  At this point, we anticipate providing emergency support to all of them, although the specific shape of that support will depend upon on-the-ground assessments once we are able to obtain them.   Clearly, key elements of support will include the ability to produce local and sustainable food, and to distribute that food to those in need. Haitian farmers have made great strides over the last few years, setting up cisterns and replanting trees to protect themselves from flooding during the rainy season. Most of the agricultural production occurs outside of Port-au-Prince, but the organizations that provide support to these projects have been affected by the earthquake. We also anticipate that some of the infrastructure required may have been affected, although it’s too early to say that definitively.   One thing is clear: Many of the gains that took Haiti years to accomplish have been shaken to the ground in a matter of minutes. But the spirit to rebuild and work for food sovereignty remains strong.

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