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Originally published Friday, January 18, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: What will help Haiti recover from 2010 earthquake

Some of the large-scale top-down aid projects have failed in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, but there are signs of hope in bottom-up cooperation, writes guest columnist Peter Costantini.

Special to The Seattle Times

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THE earthquake that steamrollered Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, was the deadliest disaster in the Western Hemisphere’s recorded history. It killed more than 200,000, injured about 300,000 and left 1.5 million people homeless.

This devastation prompted an outpouring of support from people around the world. Since then, governments have pledged $13 billion in aid.

Less than half has been disbursed, however, and it’s not clear where much of that has gone. An estimated 347,000 people are still stuck in camps, while very little permanent housing has been built. A cholera epidemic has killed more than 7,600 people. Recovery has been agonizingly slow and patchy.

I’ve been to Haiti twice since the earthquake, both times working with small nonprofits. In May 2010, I volunteered with displaced people in a big tent camp to build a platform for a hospital tent. I also planted trees and built houses with a local youth group in the countryside.

Then about a year ago, I returned for five months as a network engineer. We built out wireless broadband Internet in areas of the countryside, installed solar computer labs in schools and trained young Haitians and small businesses to take over the operations.

These experiences revealed a rich ecosystem of Haitian grass-roots groups and businesses, sometimes with foreign partners, mostly operating under the radar of official aid. They range from a small but growing cadre of IT and telecom professionals, to dynamic rural and urban community organizations.

Much ink has rightfully been spilled about the failures of large-scale, top-down aid. But a few strategies for effective bottom-up cooperation are coming into focus for me.

We need to move from charity to partnership. Recently, a state-of-the-art teaching hospital opened in a rural town. Partners in Health, which built it in cooperation with the national health ministry and public medical school, calls its work “accompaniment.” Over 25 years, the nonprofit has trained numerous Haitian doctors and nurses, and sent many local health organizers back into their villages.

Aid should be used to build human capacities and communities, not just things. Let’s start by targeting the 90 percent of kids who don’t have access to public schools, and the 50 percent of adults who can’t read or write. Free education and universal literacy are indispensable for developing human capital, capturing value added from the economy and expanding democracy.

Encourage the Haitian genius for DIY and sweat equity. For 40 years, organizations of small farmers have mobilized hundreds of thousands of members to practice organic, sustainable farming and now to house earthquake refugees, building on deep traditions of lakou (community) and konbit (cooperation).

Keep aid projects simple and appropriate. Sometimes old technologies work best. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization mobilizes farmers to build rock terraces on steep hillsides and plant crops on them. This reduces flooding and deforestation, and expands arable land.

Newer technologies have also flowered. With generator fuel expensive, some Haitians are manufacturing and installing photovoltaic panels. The government has begun pilot solar programs in the countryside.

We should take the long view and measure effectiveness and sustainability over a decade or two. Once a road is built, it deteriorates fast. Where are the heavy-equipment operators and engineers? Where will financing for maintenance come from?

You may have heard the saying: “Give people fish and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” You quickly learn that a lot people are already fishing, but it’s tough to make a living.

So help them make better nets. Underwrite bigger boats so they can fish farther out. Incubate processing and cold-storage cooperatives. Support diversification into poultry and mangoes. Work with public and private sectors to improve transport to the cities and develop markets there.

Then, as soon as possible, slide into the background.

Solidarity also means learning from the guts, elbow grease and creativity of Haitians’ efforts to build durable economies and communities.

Peter Costantini has written about Latin America for three decades, while making his living in the technology industries. Before that he was a construction worker and community organizer.


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