Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.
Two years after the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, with the nation’s infrastructure still in ruin, then-President Michel Martelly stepped out of his mud-flecked SUV in the distant community of Dos Palais to view a new school built, improbably, among remote hills.
He’d been touring the country, assessing reconstruction efforts following the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of more than a million. He made the bumpy two-hour drive north to the Central Plateau Region from the capital of Port-au-Prince for the opening of the school, a rare event in the mountainous area bisected by dirt roads where foreign funding rarely reaches.
There, Mr. Martelly toured École Marie Educatrice de Dos Palais, a new school campus. Designed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes, it stood ready to welcome 400 students, including dozens that had been displaced from the capital. Flanked onstage by community leaders, he addressed parents, students and WE Charity staff, declaring he had not expected to find a school that could serve as a model for the nation so far from its centre.
Underlying Mr. Martelly’s surprise is the untold story of rural Haiti’s development. As we mark 10 years since the earthquake and lament the poverty, hunger and unrest that is still a reality for too many Haitians, that story – and those of the women and men who’ve rebuilt their lives beyond the capital – serves as a reminder of what is possible when Haitians set their own course.
In 2010, while aftershocks rippled across the country, nearly 100,000 people made their way north from the capital, walking or hitchhiking to safe ground. The eyes and wallets of the world focused on the epicentre, where the human toll was greatest. In the Central Plateau Region, we saw a different type of need.
WE Charity had been working in Haiti for a decade, and I joined our team on the ground within days of the earthquake. In Hinche, we sat with dozens of families to learn how we could best work together. Many people assumed if they spoke of hopelessness, they’d get assistance. That was the dance many Haitians had been forced to do for decades, trapped in cycles of aid and dependency.
We didn’t aspire to change the whole country. We wanted to work at root causes of local issues by investing in long-term rural partnerships. We planned to go small, but deep. When we explained this, aspirations poured forth.
Today, most of the communities we work with are within an hour’s drive of each other. It’s a small-impact area, but those communities challenge the story we’re so often told about stunted development countrywide. The truth on the ground – in Port-au-Prince as much as in the countryside – is much more complicated. There was waste, yes. There were difficulties shipping supplies and problems coordinating with the government. But there was also progress enabled by countless dedicated organizations, from the building of a state-of-the-art teaching hospital to drastic improvements in access to education.
And in rural communities we’ve worked alongside, Haitians are doing far more than merely recovering from the earthquake. Many are creating long-term sustainable change.
The new campus in Dos Palais was the first community project we supported, helping transform a school made of tarps and metal sheeting into a vibrant community centrepiece. It afforded Haitians like Martellus Belony an opportunity to take up the mantle of self-sufficiency.
Mr. Belony builds with a hands-on approach, earning him the nickname “digger foreman.” His nieces and nephews from the capital relocated to Dos Palais after the earthquake, and he didn’t want them – or his own children – to fear entering a school. With no way to transport materials up to the steep site, he dug out an access road by hand, with other men following his lead. He picked up his shovel again to carve out a pit for the school’s latrine, so the students had sanitary flush toilets and handwashing stations amidst the country’s cholera epidemic.
Using a pickaxe, machete and shovel, Mr. Belony and his neighbours laid the foundation for their future. Similar efforts have revitalized nearby villages of La Chanm, Terre Cassée, Manac, Marialapa and Kabayi. There, schools and farms designed and staffed by Haitians to educate and nourish students and teach them sustainable farming tactics, along with parental groups learning financial literacy skills to boost household income, have ignited new horizons of possibility.
Common wisdom holds that Haiti is a case study in bad aid. There are lessons to be learned, to be sure, including the need for beneficiaries to be involved in decision making at every step. But there is also incredible promise – not just in Canadians’ persistent support of Haiti, but also in the courage of Haitians charting a new path.
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