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My Prescription for Haiti
By Peter J. Wampler, PhD
In Creole kapab means "can" or "can do". I firmly believe that “Ayiti kapab”, Haitians can solve their problems, and the people of Haiti are capable of great things. What they need is to be empowered to achieve their potential through education, environmental restoration, sustainable agriculture, reliable infrastructure, consistent food sources, and clean water. I have visited Haiti numerous times to research clean water and assist an NGOs working in rural Haiti. I have spent many hours during and after my travels to Haiti thinking about how to most effectively help Haiti. I am concerned that too much emphasis is placed on large programs, government intervention, and short-term relief efforts. My experience tells me that this is a mistake and it will not produce change that will last. Sustainable, and culturally compatible, solutions in Haiti must come from the people of Haiti with diminishing input from outside agencies and NGO's.
My prescription for helping Haiti is to help the Haitian people, one person at a time, through 1) immediate medical, financial, logistical, and humanitarian assistance to help them get back on their feet from the earthquake and cholera epidemic; and 2) through long-term help focused on building and encouraging strong, confident, educated, and accomplished Haitian people. Only after the Haitian people are educated and strong can they elect and support a national government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is crucial that changes in Haiti rise from the hearts, minds, and hands of the Haitian people, not its government or our government. This process will likely take decades – but it must begin immediately.
Infrastructure in Haiti is very poor and does not support healthy citizens, business development, freedom of movement, or education. There are a few large-scale infrastructure improvements that should be undertaken such as a building a rail line from Port au Prince to Cap Haitian and building another major airport in Cap Haitian or the Artibonite Valley (perhaps a green electric train system powered by roof-top solar).
However, the majority of our efforts should be focused on rural Haitian households and villages that do not have running water, power or sanitation. Rather than construct large power and water infrastructure projects I propose smaller projects on the village and even single-dwelling scale. For example, rather than provide power lines and large-scale alternating current power production facilities let us encourage direct current-based home systems that can be powered by solar or wind. A one-meter-square solar panel could provide enough direct current (DC), stored in a high efficiency lithium battery, to power LED lighting, thermoelectric refrigeration, radios, cell phone and portable light charging, and perhaps ultraviolet light for water decontamination. This home-based infrastructure would facilitate education and communication and a spirit of self-reliance that I think would resonate with rural Haitians.
We take it for granted in the United States that we can spend some of our time after the sun goes down reading, listening to the radio, or watching television. None of these luxuries are available to rural Haitians. After dark they are limited to what they can accomplish in complete darkness or by candle-light. Providing rural DC electrification will allow Haitians to read and learn in a way not currently possible.
We also need a system of scholarships funded by U.S. grants to bring promising Haitian students to U.S. schools for education and to support universities already in Haiti. My university, Grand Valley State University began raising funds for just such a scholarship in 2011 (www.gvsu.edu/haiti). Scholarships must encourage students from all economic backgrounds and be based on student excellence, preparation, and potential. Scholarship recipients should be required to return to Haiti and teach for 3-4 years to help teach the next generation of gifted students and leaders. However, all the education in the world will not help if the land cannot produce food and clean water for the people of Haiti.
Country-wide efforts to restore the environment and encourage sustainable agriculture are needed. These efforts should be directed at individuals, encouraging them to conserve forests and soils through monetary incentives and alternatives to the tree cutting and charcoal-based economy that currently exists in rural Haiti. My research in Haiti has demonstrated that most springs used by rural Haitians for water are contaminated due to poor sanitation and lack of a functioning ecosystem to cleanse water before it enters shallow aquifers. Environmental restoration in Haiti is achievable, but until rural Haitians have a resource that can generate income to replace deforestation and charcoal production environmental restoration efforts will be an uphill battle. We should fund programs to encourage construction and maintenance of biofuel production facilities based on sugar and corn waste. Biofuels could then replace charcoal as a cooking fuel for Haitians.
Empower individual Haitians by helping them with education, environmental restoration, sustainable agriculture, reliable infrastructure, consistent food, and clean water; and a stable government will naturally grow and flourish. I do not believe it will happen in the reverse order - two hundred years of Haitian history makes this clear.