Sustainable Development in Haiti

May 05, 2010

Fourteen days ago, I arrived in Haiti to help teach some trauma relief courses under the auspices of the International Association for Human Values. The arrival area in the airport strongly reminded me of Chennai airport: the sweltering heat, the people pushing forward to "help", the slight scent of salt in the air.

The local "tap taps" are like our Indian phat-phaties, an elongated idea of an autorickshaw- real jugaad. The crowd, the chaotic traffic reaffirmed the feeling that I had indeed stepped into a 1970s India that spoke French and Creole.

People were "back to business" as usual. Unemployment has been around for so long now, that most people are just "waiting"- waiting for Godot. So, regular business is doing nothing, just sitting under their tarp homes, en attente. The eyes just stare off into space and the bodies sit still.

I dropped off my luggage at the house we had rented where 16 Haitian youth along with 4 trainers. I was warmly welcomed by all the kids who sang a sweet song of welcome in French. That evening, our team went up the hillside along Port-au-Prince into a verdant area, away from the hotter lower elevations, called Campskoff (spelling?!). We saw an unfinished building of the current president's home. We returned late evening, ate a simple dinner of rice and vegetables and went to bed.

The next day, I was introduced to the largest survivor camp in Petionville, an upscale neighborhood. A golf course has been converted to a camp. About 50,000 refugees were huddled under small white tarp that made the entire hill slope look like a perfect quilt of small white rectangles. "Lanes" were steps made out of sand bags with a gutter running alongside to keep the tarp homes dry in case of rain.

Surprise of surprises, the first two people I met, as I entered the campsite were two Indian jawans of the Indian Army. They were surprised to see me there in my Indian clothes and were thrilled to bits. Seeing those tiny patches of the tricolor on their sleeves brought tears to my eyes. I really felt I had come home. They are part of the UN security forces stationed there since October. The Nepali army was also there as were soldiers from Turkey, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Canada and other countries. I was treated like Aishwarya Rai, with everyone wanting to take a photo with me!

Our first course started with 62 people and by the time we were an hour into it, owing to the laughter and joy in their faces, more people joined in. The next day the numbers swelled to 80. We played games, clapped and sang and danced and breathed and did yoga and chanted Om.

By day three, they had understood the value of responsibility and cleaned up a large area of the camp as part of seva, service. Four kids of the 16 youth leaders going through training for Nouvelle Vie from different parts of Haiti, had accompanied me to facilitate the program in Creole.

The J/P (Jenkins, Penn) Haiti Relief Fund were in total control ensuring the slow process of moving 500 people per day to safer environs before the rains fell. The Catholic Relief Services were busy tagging people with wrist bands to facilitate their movement away from camp.

Plastic water sachets were strewn all over. I was strongly reminded of the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace where the "bad guy" talks about making money by controlling the most precious resource. Ironically, the film was set in Haiti. It was so. People were desperate to get a sachet or two free. All these huge organizations bought in bulk locally packed reverse osmosis water.

For the number of relief organizations around (about 3000 or so), I did not see a tremendous amount of impact. It is a small country, small population. In Port-au-Prince with its 2 million population and a majority of them living in urban slums (tarp homes- I call them pods), we ought to see some results. Sadly, the work is not coordinated. I got to see their "homes"- some lucky ones have a dome tent under the tarp and it is slightly cooler for them. We reached out to almost 1000 people in 2 weeks.

The youth is inspired, enthusiastic, ready to serve their country. Much work is needed. Haitians need to regain their sovereignty, away from the invasive economics of the US. The youth leaders who were trained in teaching these trauma relief programs along with Permaculture (sustainable agriculture models) methods should carry the work forward. Sustainable development is possible only with empowerment- not the "aid in a bag" model where we keep feeding people fish and never teach them how to fish.

London reinvented itself after the Great Fire. I hope Haiti does the same after this earthquake. I wish them the very best for a nouvelle vie.

Blokes aka Meenakshi enjoys writing along with being a mom, a school teacher, a musician and an Art of Living teacher (of meditation and breathing)
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