Haiti Innovation at Five

  • Posted on: 16 October 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Haiti Innovation was founded five years ago by four Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Haiti.  We wanted to do this because we felt Haiti had given us more than we were able to give back during our two and a half years of service.  This website has been a way for us to repay a debt - to Haitian colleagues, friends, and family who we learned from and have not forgotten.   Haitians like to say that their country has teeth - it bites on to you and it doesn't let you go.  Haiti has changed, we've changed, and the website has changed.  But five years and 527 blogs later, Haiti still hasn't let go. 


When we returned in Haiti, we were struck by the lack of positive coverage about Haiti.  With a few exceptions, we found most writing about Haiti to be extremely lazy.  How many times have you read an article that sounded like this: "Haiti, the poorest county in the western hemisphere, is in turmoil.  The country has X problem, Y problem, and Z problem.  Nothing is working.  Oh, and they eat clay biscuits and practice Vodoun."  We all had (and still have) day jobs, and none of us had a background in journalism, but we thought we could do better.  We knew the culture, had travelled the country extensively, and all of us had seen many community level successes throughout Haiti.  So why were these successes never appearing in the media?  It was important to us that other people understand first that there was hope for Haiti and second that they could be a part of it.


We wouldn't have this website without Development Seed, a socially conscious web design firm and online communications consultancy that believed in what we wanted to do.  Development Seed has gone on to design websites and online tools for the World Bank, the United Nations, USAID, Human Rights Watch, Interaction, and leading domestic organizations like the New America Foundation and the Knight Foundation. 


At first, we put most of our energy into being an online forum through which Friends of Haiti could review effective, accountable organizations making a difference at the community level.  On the side, we had a blog.  The feedback we received from users was that they considered having a balanced, constructive coverage of Haiti's development challenges and solutions to be much more important to them.


We began to devote more time to writing.  We started to get emails on a daily basis from people asking how to volunteer, where to give money, how to get involved with Haitian issues.  Sometimes groups from Haiti wanted advice or help with project proposals.  Most of the emails we get are from people who want to make a difference in Haiti, and that is in large part what this organization is about - helping people to help Haiti.


Two of the original Board of Directors have moved on.  That leaves myself in Washington DC and Matt in Port au Prince.   Going forward, we'd like to see this website become more of a community.  Are you working in or have you worked in Haiti?  Do you have experience in a development related sector that gives you a unique perspective on Haiti's developmental challenges?  Or maybe you had an experience travelling through Haiti that you wanted to share in order to help others understand the country better?  If so, send us a blog and a photo, and we can post it on the site. 


Alternatively, you may know a Haitian or Haiti expert whose experiences and perspectives would be beneficial to the rest of us?  Consider interviewing that person.  We could post the transcript in blog form as well.  Finally, feel free to post your feedback and perspectives in the comments section of any blog on the website. In this way, the website will become more of an online community, a virtual lakou.


For our part, we will be doing more outreach.  We need to be reaching out to journalists in order to shape the narrative about Haiti - not whether there is hope for Haiti, but on how to harness its potential.  We also want to collect more Haitian perspectives on Haitian development challenges, something we would like to see more often on the website.


Clearly, Haiti is not the same as it was five years ago.  What was once an orphaned West African country, isolated by history, instability, and racism is increasingly integrating with the other countries of the Western Hemisphere.  Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and even the Dominican Republic are working closely with Haiti now.  Canada and the United States have productive relationships with the Haitian government.  The regional organizations - World Bank, Inter American Development Bank, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Organization of American States (OAS) are investing significantly in Haiti.  Bill Clinton and Paul Farmer are keeping the pressure on the international community to not forget about Haiti as has happened so many times in the past.  The government is slowly getting better at governing, having demonstrated that it has the will to provide essential services, even though it lacks capacity.  Capacity can be fixed more readily than indifference.  The Diaspora is more empowered than it has been in years.  Investors are cautiously optimistic that Haiti is a place where they can do business.  While there is much more work to do, infrastructure is getting better.


While many of the pieces are coming together for Haiti, enormous challenges still demand the full attention of the government, civil society, and the international community.  Nothing short of a nationwide, coordinated effort will halt deforestation, let alone reverse it.  If deforestation is not addressed, agriculture, livelihoods, nutrition, health, and vulnerability to natural disasters will be further impacted.


Agriculture must become a viable livelihood again. The government needs to play a leadership role in the education and health sectors, which are provided by a large patchwork of non governmental, faith based groups, and local groups.  There is also a strong need for legal reform - when Haiti's laws protect the poor and vulnerable, and not just the privileged and powerful, when the rights of women and children are considered as important as those of men, then we will now Haiti is maturing as a democracy.


Some things will always be the same in Haiti, though.  The music is great, the art is the best in the Western Hemisphere, the stars above the countryside are brighter than you can imagine.  Next time I go, I'll stop in Port au Prince for one night - exactly long enough to see RAM and spend a night at the Hotel Oloffson with the other eccentrics.  Then off to the countryside, where life is lived on the streets, where the rum and the jokes flow.  Where everyone knows each other, life is the same day after day, and people take care of each other.  If you need me, I'll be out hiking around the countryside, coming back to some goat stew and some klerin (I like mine with herbs), and then to the Vodoun peristyle at night, celebrating that lifeline to Africa that is in all of us, even if we may have forgotten about it.


We appreciate all the feedback and encouragement that you've given us throughout the years.  And it is still welcome!  We hope you've enjoyed reading the blogs for the last five years, and hope that you will still be reading five years from now.




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