Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Bottom-Up Transformation

BY: Leonie Hermantin

In August 2008, while working in Haiti's upper Artibonite region, I visited the village of Rivye Blanch as the deputy director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which supports the community's sustainable economic development and reforestation projects. The people of Rivye Blanch, represented by their leader, requested that I convey their message of support to then candidate Barack Obama.
``When you go back to the other side of the water,'' said Eddy, president of the Association of Peasants from Rivye Blanch, ``please tell Barack Obama that the people of Haiti support his candidacy. Please tell him that his victory will also be ours.''
Last week, I attended a special ceremony organized by President Obama at the White House in honor of President René Préval's visit to Washington. As Obama pledged his country's support for Haiti's reconstruction, I could not stop thinking about Eddy and the people of Rivye Blanch. I wish that Eddy could have heard Obama speak of his strong commitment to Haiti and to the Haitian people.
I would have also loved to see Eddy's reaction to President Préval's inclusion of ``decentralization'' in his government's list of priorities for a new Haiti. According to Préval, the government plans to rebuild Haiti through the decentralization of major institutions by providing basic services such as healthcare and education to areas where about 60 percent of the Haitian people live.
Eddy and the people of Rivye Blanch would have been pleased to know that such plans were on the drawing board, but their reaction would be one of guarded optimism. They have heard these promises before, in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters; promises that quickly evaporated when the funds were extended elsewhere and the attention of the world waned.
The people of Haiti, both rural and urban, understand that it can no longer be ``more of the same.'' But as the Haitian government and the international community are poised to discuss plans for reconstruction the voice of the majority has been muted. While we have heard from the Haitian government, the international community and Haiti's business interests, we have not heard from the people themselves in an organized and coherent manner.
In order to address this gap, the Lambi Fund convened regional assemblies of dozens of Haitian grassroots organizations to define and prioritize rebuilding needs. They focused in their conversations on how to sustain the needs for the mid- and long-term to rebuild and strengthen Haiti.
In their statement about the reconstruction process, peasant leaders asserted that Haiti was a sovereign nation and that the vision and articulation of a new Haiti should come from the Haitian people themselves. They also proposed that the government make decentralization a priority by ensuring through investments that cities and towns in the provinces and rural communities become vital centers for national productivity.
Moreover, grassroots leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the environment, acknowledging that deforestation represents one of the greatest threats to Haiti's food security. Pointing to international relief strategies, they asserted that some of the activities adopted by the international community are threatening to disrupt the local economy if they continue to plan relief under the assumption that goods must be imported.
The earthquake, they argue, offers a unique opportunity for the international community to work in partnership with Haitian peasants to increase their capacity to feed the country and support the local economy.
If President Obama had the opportunity to speak to Eddy and to the people of Rivye Blanch, they would have reminded him that supporting Haiti's successful bottom-up transformation would be one of his most memorable legacies. Haiti's victory would also be his.

Leonie Hermantin is deputy director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti. She lives in Miami. You may contact her at