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Of Poverty and Plenty: Reflections on Haiti

Mahatma Gandhi said that poverty is the worst form of violence. Nowhere is this truer than in Haiti.

A country in which eighty percent of its people live in abject poverty, one out of nine babies dies before her fifth birthday, life expectancy is 51 years, and unemployment hovers at around eighty percent.

While Haiti may be only an hour away from Florida, it is a universe away from the privileged world that most of us in the States inhabit.

This June I was given the opportunity to visit Haiti with Anne Wisda, IHM, and Therese Terns, IHM Associate, and the trip was an eye-opener on many levels.

Although I had studied the history and politics of this unique country, the first black-led republic and first Caribbean state to achieve independence, it was only after visiting Haiti that my abstract understanding of economics and politics was concretized in the faces and stories of Haitians who bear the brunt of economic policies that are deliberate and deadly.

From crippling odious debt to sweat shops to the dumping of subsidized U.S. rice on a population that traditionally grew its own good rice, Haiti has emerged from a history of colonialism, revolution, coups, military incursions, and economic exploitation alive but struggling.

In Haiti, over 8 million people live in a country that lacks any kind of basic infrastructure. Food and water insecurity, limited access to education and health care, an inadequate sanitation system, and environmental degradation are but a few of the daunting challenges that Haiti faces.

And yet I return from Haiti deeply humbled by a nation that, while buffeted by both natural disasters and economic disasters of design, refuses to bow.

Humbled by school children who walk three hours through the mountains each way to attend school. Humbled by the young man from the slum of Cite Soleil who is multilingual and runs an artists’ collective. Humbled by the Haitians we met who are struggling to build a new society within the shell of the old.

If Gandhi is right in his analysis that poverty is the worst form of violence, then the work of peace in Haiti must focus on economic development and community empowerment.

While the poverty we witnessed was horrific, the hope we encountered left an equally strong impression.

The primary purpose of our ten-day trip was to celebrate the twenty graduates of the first graduating class of Haiti’s first and only rural university, the University of Fondwa (UNIF), especially Genese S., a management major whose university education was sponsored by the IHM sisters. Sr. Anne’s heart is in Haiti (this was her seventeenth trip), and, not surprisingly, it was she who wrote the grant proposal requesting IHM support for Genese’s education.

It was a sign of great hope on the morning of June 20th when over 400 people made their way to the mountainous region of Fondwa about two hours southwest of Port-au-Prince to celebrate a spirited mass and five-hour graduation ceremony held at Fondwa’s Guest House.

In addition to management, degrees were awarded in agronomy and veterinary medicine, all areas of studies designed to offer rural students opportunities to serve their communities.

Before students were accepted into the university, they had to present detailed project proposals, and before receiving their degrees they had to complete their projects.

As a business student, Genese ‘s project involved opening a wholesale shop on the streets of nearby Carefour Dufort, Le Sang de Jesus Provisions (Blood of Christ Provisions), a tiny cement store that sells staples in bulk including oil, sugar, flour, rice, and detergent.

These products are purchased by peasants from the mountains who then resell them in smaller quantities for a modest profit. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Genese’s business on our way down from the mountains and witnessing the good fruit of the partnership between this hard-working student in Haiti and the IHM sisters here in Michigan.

The university is only one piece of the work going on in the Fondwa region.

Since 1988, the Asosyasyon Peyizan Fondwa (Peasant Association of Fondwa) or APF, spearheaded by a visionary priest, Fr. Joseph Philippe, CSSp, has labored to build community and develop a sustainable infrastructure in this mountainous region.

Some of APF’s projects include a soil conservation and reforestation project, St. Antoine Primary and Secondary School and feeding program, a bakery, a radio station, a guest house, and health clinic.

Much of the day-to-day work in Fondwa is carried out by Sisters Carmelle and Simone, foundresses of the Sisters of St. Antoine of Fondwa, an order that embraces Franciscan poverty and joy. In addition to overseeing the school and convent, the sisters run the orphanage in Fondwa and offer hospitality at the guest house.

While the vision is breathtaking and the progress impressive, it is obvious that in order to fully implement and sustain this work, the peasants will need support and solidarity from partners from outside their own community.

In addition to friends like the IHMs, the peasants of Fondwa work closely with other organizations, including Partners in Progress (www.piphaiti.org) whose executive director, Dr. Richard Gosser, was part of our travel group.

Listening to Fr. Philippe, Sisters Carmelle and Simone, and Sister Judy, an American nurse who runs the health care center, we came to understand the enormity of the need and the importance of building deep and long-term partnerships with our brothers and sisters in Haiti.

While needed tangible items such as vitamins and baby layettes may seem inconsequential and a mere band-aid in the face of so many challenges, these are real and immediate needs that must be met while the long-term work of building a sustainable society continues.

Another highlight of our time in Haiti was spending time at the Fonkoze (www.fonkoze.org) office in Port-au-Prince. Fondasyon Kole Zepol or Fonkoze (Shoulder to Shoulder Foundation) is Haiti’s Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor, another dream of Fr. Philippe’s that began in 1994 during a tumultuous time in Haiti’s history.

Created to empower the rural poor, especially women, and foster democracy through economic development, Fonkoze is Haiti’s largest microfinance institute with branches in all of the country’s rural provinces.

Fonkoze takes a holistic approach to economic empowerment by offering programs in literacy, health, and investment that help life women out of poverty. When women are ready to take on a small business loan, they borrow as a group of five, with each member committed to fulfilling the terms of the loan. These small groups form the backbone of larger clusters of small entrepreneurs who meet regularly to discuss their progress.

Currently, over 55,000 loans have been issued (with a 98% repayment rate)and over 175,000 savings accounts have been established with Fonkoze. Fonkoze also offers money transfer services, larger loan programs for individuals ready to take on more substantive projects, and recently added a program for Haiti’s poorest of the poor who are not yet in the position to take on debt.

This program provides the basic subsistence required to help move women out of profound poverty and positions them to take the next step toward economic independence.

During our visit to Fonkoze, we were told that the most important work of peace in Haiti today is the work of building democratic institutions.

From our short visit there and the reading I have done, this makes sense. The violence in Haiti is primarily the economic violence of which Gandhi speaks. The violence of poverty.

There is, of course, political violence, the violence of the UN occupation, and the kind of street and gang violence that springs from despair, but undergirding it all is the incessant, grinding violence of poverty. Poverty that is the result of history and human choices.

As American doctor Paul Farmer writes in The Uses of Haiti, Bad things certainly happen, and frequently, in Haiti—but rarely in isolation from an international social and economic system of which Haiti is a part . . . More guns and more military may well be the time-honored prescription for policing poverty, but violence and chaos will not go away if the Haitian people’s hunger, illness, poverty, and disenfranchisement are not addressed.

While we in the States are feeling slapped by the invisible hand of the omnipotent market, the people of Haiti are reeling under its fist.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I take away from Haiti snapshot impressions of poverty that I will never forget: an emaciated women imploring passersby to purchase five old onions spread before her on the ground, piles of garbage and streams of sewage in the streets, orphan children who dance to the menu of bell tones on a discarded cell phone, a baby dying in a Port-au-Prince hospital.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This is not God’s will.

Haiti does not need our sympathy or our expressions of despair on her behalf. She needs our conversion and our solidarity and our resources (that are not ours anyway). We in the wealthier countries suffer our own form of poverty – the poverty of affluence, of indifference, of ingratitude.

What we offer our brothers and sisters in places like Haiti is really so little in comparison to what they offer us. In a very real sense, we are all Lazarus at the gate needing to be fed from the table of the other.

In Haiti, a table is being spread that needs everyone’s offering before the banquet can begin.

Peace Connections, Summer 2009 (Pax Christi MI)