International aid must help Haiti sustain itself

After Hurricane Matthew, young men carry bags of rice they got from a food distribution center near Port Salut, Haiti. PATRICK FARRELL
After Hurricane Matthew, young men carry bags of rice they got from a food distribution center near Port Salut, Haiti. PATRICK FARRELL

Hurricane Matthew devastated much of Haiti. The storm killed more than 800 people and leveled entire communities. Those who have visited have described scenes reminiscent of when the earthquake hit the island in 2010. There are food shortages, and a cholera epidemic has reached an alarming level. The World Health Organization has sent 1 million doses of cholera vaccine in response. The Haitian Ministry of Health was to begin a mass vaccination program last week.

It will take time to recover from this latest disaster. Then Haitians and the international community will once again embark on a rebuilding program.

After the 2010 earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s urban society, the international community committed more than $1 billion to a rebuilding effort that was intended to set Haiti on the path toward sustainable development.

The international community once again will spend millions, or even billions, in Haiti. Government officials and humanitarian groups will return to the island to implement programs. Foreign investors will arrive to assess opportunities.

But this time, the focus can and should be more effective. There are important lessons from the post-earthquake effort. These lessons are reinforced by what governments and aid groups are learning about sustainable and integrated development in communities around the world.

Based on our decades’ long work in developing communities, including in Haiti, we have concluded sustainable development is guided by three concrete principles.

First, build on what already exists. Development projects are especially effective when they help people improve what they already do or what they already have in place.

In Haiti, this primarily means agriculture. Sustainability requires direct work with farmers, as well as infrastructure-based investments that expand market access and overcome constraints along the value chain. Smart and targeted infrastructure investment — roads, bridges, and the electrical grid — can yield impressive results for the development of market-driven economic activities of all kinds, including agriculture.

Second, development organizations must work with and through communities. Sustainable economic and social development only succeeds if it identifies with and engages local power structures by leveraging the knowledge and capabilities of local leaders and groups.

By living in and engaging with the community, development professionals help reconcile competing interests that impede work and develop the long-term commitment and resources to maintain economic and social institutions.

Third, development groups must build the capacity of local partners. As the USAID Forward initiative puts it, “Development organizations must build in sustainability from the start.” Development must be based on local knowledge, initiative and resources. External support can enable those and make them more effective. It cannot substitute for them.

An example of these principles in practice is fishponds that our organization has helped Haitian communities develop. These are simple and inexpensive innovations that have a measurable impact on incomes and resilience.

Here is how they work: Farmers dig ponds and fill them with water from local creeks or mountain run-off. Water is replenished through those sources and rainfall. Fish are fed household vegetable waste.

The water that drains from the ponds, rich in nutrients from fish waste, is used to irrigate crops. Households consume the fish they raise. Surplus fish is sold in local markets.

Given the minimal input costs, the fish-growing system has large profit margins. In addition, the production of organic fertilizer for crops reduces those input costs and increases margins for produce sold in local markets.

It also reduces the use of chemicals harmful to farmers and the environment.

The mishandling of agricultural chemicals is a large and growing cause of illness in developing countries.

Further, this easy and inexpensive innovation has proved its worth in increasing Haitian communities’ resilience to natural disasters. Hurricane Matthew disrupted food distribution systems.

The fish ponds survived the storm. They are currently a critical source of protein for poor families and communities.

Over the past decade, Haitians have suffered more natural calamity than any people in the world.

It is a sign of how far the world has come that it immediately mobilizes food, medicine and other resources to assist them.

The international community must take the next step and help Haitians finally get on the path to sustainable development that will lift millions from poverty and enable Haitians to manage these crises on their own. Yes, it will take money.

But more than money, real change requires the time and commitment to build on what Haitian communities know and have achieved. Ponds stocked full of fish demonstrate it can be done.

This time, let’s make sure we do it.

Kate Schecter is president and CEO of World Neighbors.

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