Grassroots uprisings like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ are springing up across the world. An important country to add to the list is Haiti, where grassroots change is sorely needed. Long after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, more than 600,000 Haitians still lack access to safe, affordable housing. Seventy-seven percent live on less than $2 per day.
The poor and most vulnerable are rising up in social movements to claim their constitutional rights. One example is the ‘Je Nan Je’ Platform, composed of a dozen grassroots movements representing more than 800,000 Haitians advocating for land and housing rights.
The timing for this movement could not be better as Haiti moves beyond an emergency relief phase and into a focus on longer-term development. President Martelly, Prime Minister Conille, and new Ministers have their hands full in implementing plans for camp relocation, housing and agricultural development, among a long laundry list of needs. In order for change to be effective, grassroots movements need to be involved.
This is one of the reasons that the ‘Je Nan Je’ platform held a ground-breaking symposium on land and housing rights last week that included over 300 participants. Their goal was to bring together peasant movements, women’s groups and camp leaders with high-profile decision makers, including the Haitian government,the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the Inter-American Development Bank,the UN and the US government to find collective solutions to current land and housing challenges.
A significant number of US officials and congressional staffers attended, including USAID Haiti Mission Director, Dr. Carleene Dei, representatives of the US Embassy in Haiti and six congressional staffers representing the offices of Senator Ben Cardin and Representatives John Conyers, Yvette Clarke, Barbara Lee, Frederica Wilson and Donald Payne. As a result, open and honest dialogue took place on issues ranging from US investment interests in Haiti to the needs of women at risk of rape in IDP camps.
One thing became clear: these peasant farmers and displaced camp members, many of them women, are ready to boost themselves out of poverty, and they have some clear ideas on how to get there. They are calling for an end to shelter strategies that put vulnerable people at further risk and a renewed commitment to free up land and aid dollars for permanent housing. They are speaking out for the government to increase investment in agriculture from the current meager three percent and for international NGOs and governments to prioritize the needs of smallholder farmers, not just export interests.
‘Je Nan Je’ Platform members also used the symposium as an opportunity to speak out against development efforts that exclude grassroots’ participation. This includes the development of the Northern Industrial Park, a private-public endeavor approved by the Haitian Ministry of Finance and IHRC and financed by the IADB, USAID, OAS and Korean firm, SAE. The goal of this collaboration is to create 25,000 initial jobs and build capacity to serve up to 65,000 workers.
To farmers, who make up 70 percent of Haiti’s economy, this is a prime example of how even well-intentioned leaders trying to help revive the country’s economy can inflict even greater economic divides when they fail to consult communities. Farmers in the north did not have a say in negotiating where the park would be located and therefore lost a great deal of high yielding agricultural land. They will not have access to the new jobs being created at the park, a recipe for migration similar to the rural flight of the 80’s and 90’s that helped create many of the overcrowded slums in Port-au-Prince.
If Haiti wants to rebuild effectively, government officials, international donors and international relief agencies need to listen to the voices of the poor, who constitute the majority of the population. The grassroots movement represents a way to change the failed ideas of the past and strengthen Haiti’s redevelopment process in a way that gives ownership to the Haitian people.
The ‘Je Nan Je’ Platform and the Land and Housing Rights Symposium provided an opportunity to build back better. Now is the time for Americans who care about Haiti’s future to work with grassroots movements like ‘Je Nan Je,’ and insist that our government do its part.
– Elise Young, Senior Policy Analyst and Haiti International Campaign Coordinator, ActionAid USA