The following is a guest post by Nathan Yaffe who works with the Haiti Justice Alliance. For questions about partner groups or the work of the Haiti Justice Alliance, feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
Last week, Tom highlighted three exciting internally driven aid organizations contributing to the famine relief effort in the Horn of Africa. This week, he graciously invited me to discuss the work of a few established internal aid efforts in Haiti.
I came to know these organizations through my work with the Haiti Justice Alliance (HJA) over the past two years, which partners with the groups discussed here (among others). The goal of this post is not simply to promote the work of these grassroots organizations, but to discuss their work in light of the broader dialogue about best practices in aid and development.
SOPUDEP: On the Responsiveness and Flexibility of Internally Driven Aid
SOPUDEP is a grassroots social organization that was founded by Réa Dol in 1994. It currently focuses on two main projects: providing free education and micro-credit services to the residents of Pétionville, Port-au-Prince.
The education project, initiated in 2002, has grown from a small adult literacy program to an accredited K-12 school serving more than 560 students. As an example of successful grassroots organizing in an environment that would challenge any organizer, this effort deserves recognition and support.
What I found uniquely inspiring about Réa Dol’s work through SOPUDEP, however, is her ability to respond to evolving community needs. The sequence of events following the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010 illustrates this perfectly.
As Réa reports in this NYT video on her post-earthquake work, her neighborhood in Pétionville, Morne Lazarre, was receiving no aid after the earthquake. She stepped up to fill in the void.
This demonstrates one of the potential strengths of internally driven aid. As these actors establish networks of social and economic resources, they can rapidly respond to negative shocks. What began as post-earthquake food distribution evolved into a whole new SOPUDEP program: a women’s micro-credit initiative that has helped 150 women find jobs in 10 months. Réa described her motivation for the program to us as follows: “I told the women who came to me, you can either have another bag of rice or you can have a loan to start doing your own business.”
Invoking the parable about “teaching a man to fish…” may draw a yawn from seasoned aid workers. However, I believe the evolution of SOPUDEP to include food distribution and then micro-credit highlights another potential strength of internally aid efforts. That is, aid actors closer to the ground are likely to be more flexible than external aid actors.
Although internal aid actors may not be best positioned for all aid activities, they don’t capture a big enough share of aid flows.
The What If? Foundation and BAI/IJDH: External Actors Supporting Internal Efforts
This brings us to the work of three organizations that demonstrate a novel approach to shifting the balance of resources toward internal aid actors. The first is the What If? Foundation, a feeding and education program. The latter two, both human rights law organizations, are the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).
The What If? Foundation arose from the vision of Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest and social justice activist. He inspired a visiting American, Margaret Trost, to return to the US and fundraise for him to start a feeding program in 2000.
The feeding program has grown to distribute more than 3,000 meals per week. In the meantime, it added a scholarship, summer camp, and after school program to its mix of community development activities.
In contrast to widely criticized external food aid efforts both before and after the earthquake, the Foundation’s approach to food sourcing reflects awareness of its market impact. What If? therefore uses its purchasing power to support local produce farmers, and is attempting to transition to all-local rice acquisition as well (at 5,000 lbs. per week) to help rejuvenate Haiti’s struggling rice industry.
BAI was formed in 1995 by a network of human rights lawyers in Haiti led by Mario Joseph. Their most prominent case was the Raboteau Trial, which saw the prosecution of 57 individuals who committed crimes as part of Haiti’s paramilitary government of 1991-1994. In 2004, however, a US-backed coup led to the opening of the prison doors, at which point all the Raboteau prisoners were released. Brian Concannon – an American and one of the lead lawyers working on the Raboteau prosecution – made a decision about how he could most effectively engage.
He returned to the US and founded IJDH, which still partners on major projects with BAI, but which focuses on reforming US policy toward Haiti. As Mr. Conconnan tells it, his thinking went: “If the US can step in and undo all our work with a single stroke,” then the best way to support BAI was by targeting US policy. Also, because the coup government saw the return of many former paramilitary to power, BAI stopped receiving funding from the government. IJDH stepped in to pick up the slack: almost all of BAI’s funds today come from IJDH. Since the earthquake, IJDH and BAI have been the best resource for IDPs in the tent camps whose rights have been violated.
In that sense, Brian Concannon does through a separate “affiliated” organization what Margaret Trost does from within the What If? Foundation. They’re both funneling resources toward internally driven aid efforts.
I’m not suggesting that internally driven aid is a panacea. Aid is complex, and doing it well is difficult whether the actors involved are local or foreign. Yet the narratives associated with these are instructive, because they illustrate some of the potential benefits of, and creative approaches to, supporting internal aid efforts.
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