Helping Haiti

As the disaster in Haiti enters its second week, it is time to start changing gears. Aid can help, but at some point Haiti needs something else. One WSJ editorial by Bret Stevens argues that

For Haitians, just about every conceivable aid scheme beyond immediate humanitarian relief will lead to more poverty, more corruption and less institutional capacity.

“Just about” is the key phrase here. Stevens pans most long-term aid as ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst, but his focus is primarily on government based aid. He unfortunately ignores cooperatives as a promising approach. In a nation with a weak and corrupt government, there are obvious problems with simply shoveling money, and co-ops can address these problems.

A few years ago, I wrote my own op-ed piece in the Seattle Post Intelligencer on the need for local cooperative economies to help get through disasters, and also assembled a manual on community-based disaster recovery. I was writing with New Orleans in mind, but my thoughts are even more relevant to Haiti.

Another problem reported today is that many of the country’s community leaders (and some governmental leaders) have died. CNN reports that the women’s movement has been particularly devastated by the loss of three great advocates. There is now a dire need for grassroots leadership development to accompany economic assistance. Assistance must be designed in ways to lessen dependency while rebuilding community leadership. Cooperatives can excel at this, and they are already at work in Haiti.

The International Cooperative Alliance is rallying cooperative movements from around the world to help cooperators in Haiti. Its Haiti earthquake page serves as a clearinghouse for information about what responses are already coming from the global co-op community.

Meanwhile in the U.S., the Cooperative Development Foundation is channeling its Cooperative Emergency Fund toward Haiti. Funds raised will be channeled through other cooperative groups with “boots on the ground” in Haiti, to build on the economic successes and relationships that have already been cultivated.

For example, ACDI/VOCA has been working for years in Jacmel, Haiti’s fourth-largest city. It has 50 staff in the city, and is the largest NGO presence on Haiti’s southeast coast. In addition to ongoing economic development, ACDI/VOCA is also distributing emergency aid.

The U.S. based National Rural Electric Association (NRECA) has an international division, whose projects have included a decade-long effort to organize Haiti’s first electric co-op in Pignon, with 500 members. This village was not seriously damaged, but is certain to see an influx of people attracted to a modern power grid that has transformed the town. NRECA is sending staff to help with aid and help begin the process of rebuilding Haiti’s electric system. This continues and expands a long tradition of electric co-ops helping each other out when disaster strikes in the U.S.

The World Council of Credit Unions has also shifted its focus from a three-year program to extend credit to Haiti’s rural poor, to providing more immediate aid. It has already pivoted toward assessing the damages to Haitian credit unions, and plans to launch a rebuilding program to help extend credit for the recovery.

Fonkoze, the local partner for the international microfinance cooperative Oikocredit, is currently assessing damage to its 40+ branches. They are urgently working to relaunch their system so members gain access to funds at a time when prices are skyrocketing due to scarcity.

There has also previously been work  underway with help from non-cooperative supporters.  USAID has supported the creation of credit co-ops for coffee growers, and supported launching a federation of credit co-ops. Alcatel-Lucent and other partners have provided technological assistance to coffee co-ops. Given the country’s effective decapitation and a growing exodus from the capital, this sort of rural development is going to be more important than ever.

The achievements of cooperatives in Haiti are admittedly dwarfed by the enormity of the problems even before the quake. However, it seems that a small effective approach is better than a large ineffective one. And co-ops working in specific communities in ways that can provide models for the rest of Haiti.

Also, co-ops don’t have to stay small. The absence of effective government provides an opportunity to build something that is more connected to the needs of communities and hopefully less prone to corruption.

There are a lot of organizations clamoring for aid, but before you send your money to buy more bottled water that will sit in a warehouse somewhere (or be turned back in midair) consider the longer view. Immediate aid and cooperative economic development can work hand in hand to build a new Haiti.

But without a more cooperative economy, Haiti will always need more aid.

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2 Responses to Helping Haiti

  1. erin says:

    Thank you Andrew. Well spoken, timely and crucial like always.

  2. coopgeek says:

    Here’s something else to consider: The Economist just reported on lessons learned from the 2004 tsunami in Asia, and it turns out that large amounts of money donated were not spent for a long time (one agency even stopped fundraising). So if you think that more money means quicker relief, think again. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of immediate aid or the valor of those who try to provide it; there are nonetheless limitations

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