Development is about people not stuff

Since coming to Haiti, I have been consistently reminded of how important relationships are when working in community development.  Although we all would like there to be quick solutions to huge problems, this just is not the reality especially when dealing with people.  And development is all about people.  It seems obvious but it can be easy to forget when success is determined by numbers–canals repaired, latrines built and drought resistant seeds distributed.  Simply put development is about people not stuff and since it is about people, relationships are key.

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The road to La Plate–treacherous in spots but plenty of beauty for your eyes to feast on.

Most of World Concern’s work is in rural areas throughout Haiti.  One of the perks (and joys) of my job is getting to travel and visit World Concern’s projects.  Not only does this give me a break from the computer and the busyness of the city, I also get to see firsthand how World Concern is investing in relationships and working to empower people.

When visiting a community, it is almost guaranteed that there will be a meeting with key leaders and others from the area to discuss the project and to get their input.  Such meetings often occur under a tree, in a church or school or inside someone’s home.  The hospitality is top notch.  In preparation, chairs may be neatly set up and organized or a handful of flowers placed in a jar on a table.  Attending are often local World Concern staff, pastors, teachers, farmers and elected community leaders called the Casec and Asec.  I have learned heaps during these meetings about all kinds of stuff: planting seasons, small town drama, weather, faith, struggles, joys, and even how to ‘properly’ eat a mango.  They are fascinating and crucial to the process of encouraging, strengthening and building the capacity of people in Haiti.  These meetings are also an important way that World Concern builds relationships.

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The stunning high ceilings and interior of the Catholic Church in La Plate where we met with the community.

I have been wanting to share about these meetings for some time and the fruit they produce but honestly was having a hard time figuring out how to do it.  How do I show the impact of a two hour meeting?  The pictures alone don’t clearly tell the story.  And meetings don’t have a reputation for being fascinating or intriguing.  Well, on a recent trip to northwest Haiti I had an idea.  While we were sitting in a beautiful old church in the village of La Plate and listening to community members and the local civil protection committee talk about the hazards and risks they face and how a World Concern project was helping them become less vulnerable, I wished so badly that you could be there too to witness what was happening.  Although there are some pretty serious logistical barriers to making that happen, I wanted to try and bring the meeting to you.  So here is the ‘play-by-play’ of our day in La Plate and specifically our meeting with the community.

Oh, a little context–in La Plate World Concern (with funding from Tearfund UK) has built a canal that directs flood waters away from homes and prevents erosion, and is working to train and equip the local civil protection committee who is responsible for keeping the community safe.  On this trip we traveled with colleagues from World Concern as well as three Tearfund UK staff.

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No confusion about where you are.  This sign greets you as you approach La Plate and is the last thing you see as you leave.  

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A portion of the canal built by World Concern and the community.  Water can now flow more easily across the road and into the ravine on the other side, making the road passable during the rainy season.

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A local artist painted this plaque which explains how the mitigation project was realized by the local civil protection committee (CLPC) with the help of World Concern and Tearfund.  He even managed to fit in the World Concern logo (bottom left)!

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La Plate’s Catholic Church–a place of worship and gatherings.  One man guessed that the church was built in the 1950s.

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There were about 18 people in attendance, not including World Concern and Tearfund staff.  Here, David from Tearfund introduces himself.  Most meetings I’ve been a part of in rural Haiti begin with introductions–which have been known to take awhile!

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Starting with prayer (left) and then the World Concern project manager for the work in La Plate greets everyone and thanks them for their participation (right).

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“The local committee’s function is to work in disaster to protect the population and help people,” explains Naissance Frantz, the Casec (elected leader) in La Plate.  

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“What’s going on in there?”

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“We receive many training and now we know lots of things to help the community.  We could write a book,” said one community member regarding the trainings about reducing risk given by World Concern.

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“The first priority is training; to know what is coming.  We now can do something to be protected,” shared another man.

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When asked what resources the community has Petit-frére Christian, the Asec (another elected leader) in La Plate responded, ““We have water, land, people, rocks.  People can climb the trees to make charcoal, we have teachers, farmers, small business owners, health workers.”  It was powerful to hear the community share their strengths and what resources they possess.   

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A house near the church where we met.  You’ll notice a solar panel leaning up against a small chair.  We learned that this is how many people in La Plate charge their mobile phones.  It costs 2 Haitian Gourdes, about 5 cents, for a full charge.

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A couple car fulls of people visiting La Plate drew a lot of attention!  After our meeting finished we got a quick tour of the village before leaving.

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A common Haitian proverb says, “Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.”  Behind the mountain, there are mountains.

Our visit to La Plate reminded me that development is about investing in people and then allowing them to make their own decisions about how to improve their lives.  In La Plate we saw how these investments are paying off as the local civil protection committee is now better prepared to identify risks and take steps to reduce their vulnerability to natural disaster.  No model or strategy or organization is perfect but I can say that World Concern’s desire to build relationships with communities and help them succeed is genuine and effective. 

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