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Celebrating a success in Haiti

Haiti, October 26, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Dan Barthmaier/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Waiting in line to buy in the local market using the new voucher system. Photo: Dan Barthmaier/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Dan Barthmaier/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Beneficiaries showing their Mercy Corps ID cards. Photo: Dan Barthmaier/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Dan Barthmaier/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Big Mama is proud. Photo: Dan Barthmaier/Mercy Corps

In Haiti, as might be expected, nothing ever comes easy. Here, the simplest of activities become a challenge and the best laid plans can go awry, which means that introducing something new and different can take on a whole new degree of uncertainty.

Mercy Corps' new Kenbe-La (which means "Hang in There" in Haitian Creole) Food For Peace, Local and Regional Procurement program is something new and different. We're using a voucher system and the local market in Haiti's rural Central Plateau region to deliver desperately-needed food aid to families and simultaneously strengthen the economy. And I'm the person in charge of setting up the whole program.

We spent weeks in preparation: explaining the program to the community; designing and redesigning the forms; negotiating with the banks to redeem our vouchers; and painstakingly building of the confidence of the vendors to join our program and trust that they would receive money in exchange for the vouchers. Finally, all the pieces were in place and it was time to distribute the vouchers to families and officially set the program in motion.

Hold your breath and tip the first domino.

The small community of Colladere, a 45-minute ride from the market center of Hinche, received their monthly vouchers for $40 of food staples on a Thursday evening with the instructions that they would only be allowed to being buying food the following morning.

By 7 a.m. I was getting phone calls from vendors: the community members were already forming lines outside their shops! The vendors were overwhelmed and requesting help to make sure they were redeeming the vouchers properly. Rushing to the scene, the Mercy Corps Kenbe-La staff spread out across town and began assisting vendors in accepting the vouchers and filling in the forms we needed to track the process. By noon, more than half of the entire community had made the journey into town and had happily purchased bags of rice, cooking oil and beans.

I, for one, didn’t think it possible that the remote village of Colladere had enough access to public transportation to move half that number of people over the course of an entire day. But they had. Many of the families in this area have chronically struggled to feed themselves. And, for many, the earthquake sent them even more mouths to feed. They have taken in homeless family members and friends who fled Port-au-Prince.

Vendors beamed with enthusiasm and the sudden explosion of business they were receiving. Vendors who the day before were too wary to join the program were already asking how they too could sign up.

"Big Mama," the owner of a prominent shop in town and program vendor, was so excited she broke into the 'Kenbe-La Dance’ she invented on the spot. At that moment, gone were the big questions and worries — it does work!

Tomorrow can wait. Tomorrow would bring more challenges: when we would begin rolling out the program to a total of 20,000 families across the Central Plateau and Artibonite departments. But today was a rare moment to step back and enjoy the scene — Big Mama's dancing and all.