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Rethinking Aid: Hurricane Relief Rooted in Sustainability

August 2009

I stopped in Gonaives to follow up with last year’s hurricane victims while traveling with Grassroots International’s partner the Peasant’s Movement of Papay (MPP) from Port-au-Prince to Haiti’s Northwest last week.  Last year, hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hannah, and Ike ravaged the entire island causing immense suffering. The coastal low-land city of Gonaives — which was almost entirely underwater during the disaster – witnessed more loss of life and livelihood than anywhere else during the storms.  

Grassroots International, with the generous help of institutional and individual donors was able to grant more than $40,000 in emergency rebuilding grants to our Haitian partners – in this case MPP and the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development (PAPDA). (I will travel to the North to learn about PAPDA’s relief and rebuilding efforts later this week.)

As soon as MPP received word from Grassroots International that we were raising money for rebuilding efforts, they met with the community to determine their most urgent needs and put together a solid plan. The community was particularly impressed with this approach, finding it a fresh change from what some other international organizations were doing. “We were glad to see your support being filtered through the Haitian people,” said Jean-Jacques, an organizer. “People often come here with money and tell us what to do without knowing our situation,” he continued, “so we don’t see the results and those organizations do not accomplish their purpose.”

Everyone I met with was directly affected by the hurricanes. They told me heart-wrenching stories of being stranded of their roofs for days in the sun, losing children, and experiencing gnawing hunger that made them “feel crazy.” Some were pushed out of food and water lines by local police and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) soldiers. One woman described losing her home and what it felt like to not be able to provide for her children.

Gonaives representatives and organizers working hand-in-hand with the MPP saw their work as four-tiered, ranging from the most immediate needs (sending children back to school), to the interim (providing families with a bit of money and setting up commerce programs for women), to the long-term (organizing a fruit tree nursery to ensure access to food). MPP split the money accordingly. Although their situation is far from perfect these days, they have accomplished major strides.

“We can’t prevent hurricanes in the future,” said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, MPP’s leader. “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 catastrophe. Central American governments post Hurricane Mitch, for example, have successfully lessened hurricanes’ impact on the ground since that time.

Emergency relief is sometimes inevitable, in situations like last year’s hurricanes in Haiti. 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. Gonaives’s now-thriving nursery is a testimony to the impact this kind of work a year after Haiti’s worst hurricane season. “We suffer but we work together,” said one of the representatives while standing in the garden, “Just look at what we have done.” It is still hard to imagine how far they have come.

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