by Linda Espenshade
Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) response to Haiti’s devastating earthquake will gradually shift from the capital city of Port-au-Prince to rural communities that are expected to play an integral role in rebuilding the country.
By 2011, MCC’s work will center in the Artibonite Valley, about 1½ hours north of Port-au-Prince. Eight MCC staff members live in Desarmes, a town in the Artibonite Valley, where MCC already has program.
The Haitian government estimates that 162,500 of the 600,000 people that fled Port-au-Prince after the earthquake sought shelter in the Artibonite Department, where the Artibonite Valley is located. The movement of displaced persons to the rural areas puts an economic strain on those communities, but it also presents an opportunity to change some of the underlying problems that made the earthquake so devastating.
MCC Haiti staff and international program development leaders embraced the decentralization approach when they met in Haiti in late March to develop a long-term plan for MCC’s earthquake response. They were acting on the advice of MCC’s partners, MCC Haiti national staff and international workers and Haitian political leaders.
“The majority of our work needs to be outside the city,” said Virgil Troyer, an MCC regional disaster management coordinator, “so the rural areas can have the infrastructure to support the people migrating there and to keep people from moving back into the city.”
Decentralization is a concept espoused by the Haitian government and many international aid organizations, Troyer said. According to The Miami Herald, Haitian President René Préval told President Barack Obama in a March meeting that Haiti needs to adopt decentralization by offering healthcare, education and jobs across the country to avoid overcrowding in Port-au-Prince.
The infrastructure in Port-au-Prince was never set up to handle the population that was living there, Troyer said. Even before the earthquake, the systems for water, electricity, roads and housing could not handle demand. People built houses in ravines and hillsides and on top of each other, which resulted in massive damage during the earthquake, he said.
Yet the capital city has been the center around which the country revolves, Troyer said. It’s the primary place Haitians go to conduct government business, attend universities and good secondary schools and get care at respected hospitals.
As a result, the essential services kept enticing people to move to the capital — until the earthquake. Then about 600,000 people fled the city to find shelter in the country, the Haitian government estimates.
“What the provinces lack is the services of the state,” said Garly Michel, an MCC worker who is from Haiti and works in Port-au-Prince. “If they can get roads, health centers and schools, people could stay there.”
To encourage people to stay there, the government is appealing to international governments and nongovernmental organizations to help establish that infrastructure.
Yoline Jules, a resident of Desarmes, lost three daughters in the earthquake because they were in Port-au-Prince for education.
“There must be decentralization in each region, in each neighborhood so the youth that are still here… can go to school and at least find something to learn about so they don’t leave home,” Jules said in an MCC video interview. “If this was done already, many people that died wouldn’t have died,” she said.
The provinces already have resources for work, said Michel, who is always called Garly. They have water, land and a labor force.
However, in recent years production has dwindled because trade agreements have made imported food cheaper to buy than food grown in Haiti. MCC is focusing some earthquake response money toward increasing profitable production and encouraging local production and consumption.
“For the long vision, there must be a development plan that allows for more food in the provinces,” said Jean Remy Azor, an MCC staff member in Desarmes. “If there is no such vision to augment local production, there will come a time when we depend too much on imports…. Our stomachs will be in the hands of foreign countries.”