Hydroelectricty and Haiti (Development for Whom?)

  • Posted on: 11 January 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

I was reading an article on Carribean 360 concerning the International Development Bank's $760 million plan to renovate the Peligre Dam, in order to increase its capacity to provide electricity to the portion of Haiti south of the dam.   Hydropower can be an asset to countries, but not at any cost.  The Peligre Dam is a cautionary tale about the horrible things sometimes done by governmental and international organizations in the name of development.  Development for whom?  At what cost?  


When Haitians won their independence, they utterly demolished the plantations and a great scattering took place. Having won their freedom, people wanted land.  Flying over Haiti, you will see very few places that are not claimed.   Valleys were desirable as they were often fertile.  The body of water you see above was not always there.  It was once a fertile valley occupied by Haitians since the scattering took place.  It was a village.



Why is the water there now?  The World Bank financed the creation of hydroelectric dam in order to provide electricity.  An American contractor built it.   Dominicans were brought in from across the border as manual labor.  Who was this electricity for?  Did the village need it?  The electicity was for those in Port au Prince with the resources to enjoy it.  In the name of development, of course.



The elders can tell you themselves what happened.  No one believed they would be forced off land their ancestors had occupied since independence.  But when the water was up to their ankles, they knew they had to flee.  So they grabbed what they could, and headed up the mountain to where the land was so poor, noone had claimed it.  They became, in a day, internally displaced - vulnerable, poor, and at risk for infectious diseases.



I once heard it said that the village was sacrificed on the altar of development.  Development is a rorschach drawing.  What you do is what you see.  What you want is how you describe it.  Dictators, Peace Corps Volunteers, governments, activists, non profits, for profits, companies all talk about development - but can we agree on what it is?    



There was no excuse for the displacement of the village.  The upside of the story was that Father Lafontante, a Haitian priest, started a school, church, and small clinic for the water displaced.  Paul Farmer expanded their health programs and this is how Partners in Health came to be, an organization which has greatly benefited Haiti and other countries throughout the world.



What is done is done though the repercussions continue for the survivors and their families.  The upgrade will continue.  Undoubtedly, the electricity is needed.  But it is my hope that individuals and villages will not be made to suffer, in Haiti and abroad, in the name of development.


There are many solid organizations, governmental, non-governmental, and international implementing projects with solid developmental principles.   But there is a darker side as well.  If you want to read more about it, start with Lords of Poverty.  Haiti, often the testing ground of ill conceived and occasionally malicious projects, is featured throughout.  


That having been said, one reason we created this website was to raise awareness about organizations that we know are having a positive impact in Haiti because we have seen it close up.  They have been and continue to do heroic work every day.


Thanks for reading.


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