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Building capacity in Haiti, one community at a time

Haiti, July 15, 2010

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    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Mercy Corps

"Haiti needs everything," declared Mark L. Schneider, senior vice president of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, during a visit to the Mercy Corps Action Center in Portland last month.

"Most of all," continued Schneider, who by his own count has visited Haiti more than 100 times, "Haiti needs help regaining the capacity to meet its needs independent of outside support."

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was a failed state. Only 15 percent of children went to public schools. The country ranked 13th from the bottom on Transparency International's corruption index. And four out of five residents were classified as poor, with half of those destitute enough to be considered "extremely poor."

The quake weakened Haiti’s already ineffectual government. Nineteen administration buildings collapsed and a quarter of Haiti’s civil servants died. More than 900 police officers were killed or did not return to their jobs.

"Haiti’s government, already weak, does not have the capacity to reconstruct the country," said Schneider. But true disaster recovery includes helping Haiti meet its own needs.

Mercy Corps is responding to Haiti’s need with relief programs designed to help communities become self-reliant.

For example, to supply families in tent camps with water, Mercy Corps encourages the development of local water economies, instead of giving water away.

Mercy Corps staff seek out vendors who already sell water and then make a deal: we’ll purchase large quantities of water, and then distribute vouchers to families, which they can redeem weekly for a portion of that water.

Sure, we could arrange for tankers to deliver water, or erect a pipeline to pump it in. But, after we leave, communities would be left high and dry once more. This way, families receive water, water vendors earn an income, and the local economy creaks into gear. We hope that once we leave, the water enterprises should remain and prosper.

Another capacity-building activity relies on one of Mercy Corps’ core values: letting locals lead. Mercy Corps allows communities to decide which infrastructure-improvement projects, such as road building or clearing away rubble, would be beneficial.

Mercy Corps starts by contacting local leaders, calling a meeting, and offering to fund a project to revitalize the area. Then, the staff leaves and lets the locals hold their own meeting to decide what project they prefer. Through this process, communities learn to cooperate, leaders emerge and an ad hoc decision-making structure is born.

The project that the community selects has the additional benefit of boosting economic activity, in addition to improving local governance.

Reviving Haiti’s economy and nurturing community governments won’t happen overnight, says Schneider. "Still, all I can hope is that we stay the course." He adds, "The Haitian people are desperate to see their lives improve. They are willing to make incredible sacrifices to see that happen -- but first, they need our help."