In Haiti I am learning how crucial it is to work through existing channels, whether government or non-government partners, when implementing a project. The sad reality is that in Haiti some (not all) projects fail to achieve the long term impact envisioned at the beginning. This happens for a variety of reasons however one is that organizations and ministries often do not put the effort into understanding what channels or systems or initiatives already exist within a given community and then working through and alongside them.
Since Haiti is impoverished it may be tempting to assume that functioning channels do not exist but this just isn’t true!
One example is a local organization in the village of Lavaneau in south east Haiti.
I first visited Lavaneau in June 2012 on our initial trip to Haiti with World Concern before moving here permanently. The community’s irrigation canal had been destroyed during hurricanes in 2008 and they were left to rely on rainfall for all their water needs. World Concern offered materials and technical support but the organization was responsible for the construction and management of the canal that brought water down from the source and for four newly built water fountains.
A couple weeks ago Martha and I had the opportunity to return to Lavaneau and were pleased to see the irrigation canal and four water fountains still serving the community. But I was more pleased to see the quality of this local organization which World Concern worked with on the project and how they are still active, with no plans to slow down.
The organization is headed by a man named Jean Metelus. He commands respect but is not intimidating. When we arrived on this particular day he and other members of the organization, including the secretary, greeted us.
As we reached the canal and began chatting, Jean instructed the secretary to take notes of our meeting.
“The organization will celebrate its 23rd year of existence in 2014,” Jean shared.
Continuing he said, “Our organization has farmers, engineers, teachers, masons, pastors. We work on projects in agriculture, small business, buildings.”
What tremendous human capital! It was encouraging to hear the organization speak of the skills and resources that exist in the community and it was particularly impressive that these have been so clearly identified. Although each community possesses certain strengths and resources, not all know exactly what those are and who has them within the community.
In addition to constructing a new irrigation canal that is 92 meters in length and four water points, the organization established a system for collecting fees which are used to help maintain this infrastructure and fund other projects in the community.
Farmers pay a small annual fee and in return can have access to two hours of water a week. The water is disbursed by small gates that are built into the canal. When a gate is lifted, water flows from the canal into the farmer’s field. When we visited, some of the gates were not working properly but the organization says they plan to fix them.
The water collected at the four water points is free however a family can pay a fee of almost $2 a month if they want water piped directly to their home.
One thing that caught my eye was how clean the canal was. I saw very little leaves or rubbish in the canal. In Haiti canals are often used as dumping grounds. I asked one community member about the cleanliness and he responded, “People are responsible for cleaning the section of canal in front of their house.” This is an example of the far reaching impact this organization has had in the community.
When we were leaving Lavaneau I asked Marseille, World Concern’s project coordinator in south east Haiti, what it was about this organization that made it work.
“The strength of this organization is its history and that its members equally represent all 18 localites [small villages] within Lavaneau,” he said. “Everyone in Lavaneau has a say.”
What do you think the outcome of this project would have been if World Concern came to Lavaneau and began work how they saw fit without consulting and working through this local organization? At best the physical work would have been completed and may have lasted for a couple years before deteriorating. At worst the project could have completely flopped early on leaving the community disempowered, disenchanted and still without consistent access to potable water.
I am not so naïve to believe that this local organization in Lavaneau is without flaw or that World Concern always does things well. However I will say that World Concern in Haiti does understand the importance of community based action and the need for working through and supporting existing channels and Lavaneau is an example of this.
As we were preparing to leave Lavaneau one representative from the organization asked, “What do you think of our work?”
“It is good. It is very good,” I said.