First Person

How a recent visit changed my understanding of Haiti

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Phervil St Juste carries rice through a field in Haiti's Artibonite Valley. Photo: Shiloh Strong/Oxfam America

I thought I knew all about Haiti. But a recent visit changed everything.

By Lauren Hartnett, humanitarian press officer at Oxfam America

When I landed in Port-au-Prince recently, I thought I knew what to expect. I had seen and read endless photos and accounts of the unbelievable devastation that this city had incurred when a massive earthquake struck here five years ago. I remembered the hopelessness of the images we saw on the news, and the generosity of the Americans who reached out to help in the aftermath of the disaster.

I thought I knew all about Haiti. But what I saw on my visit was completely different.

Weaving through traffic from the airport to our hotel in Port-au-Prince, I was surprised by how swept the sidewalks were, how freshly-pressed the schoolchildren were as they headed to school, and just how much energy was pulsing in the air.

The palpable energy is what really stuck with me during my visit. We spent most of our time in the Artibonite Valley, where Oxfam’s local partner organizations are doing two types of work:  first, supporting farmers and other entrepreneurs, and second, helping communities prepare to respond to future disasters. As we sped along the highway through this rice-producing region, I was taken with the unbelievably lush, natural beauty–saturated, green rice paddies stretching for miles with mountains looming in the distance.

When we met with the local organizations, I saw truly inspiring leaders who knew what their community members needed and how to get it to them. We also spoke to several of the farmers, entrepreneurs, teachers, students, and others who are participating in these efforts. Each person we interviewed was juggling several projects–one woman we spoke with grows rice, raises goats, and also sells clothing at her own second-hand store. Another man raises cows and goats and was hoping to expand his rice production in addition to his corn and bean crops.

Matillia Robert in her rice field  in Artibonite Valley in Haiti
Matilia Robert is a member of a group of women farmers who received training from Oxfam on a new, more efficient rice-growing method. “I’m just expanding, expanding, expanding,” said Robert. “Now we’ve beaten all the men. Our rice is always more beautiful than the men’s rice.” Photo: Shiloh Strong/Oxfam America

So many people I spoke to were bursting with ambition. They had the ability to do more and to take ownership of this process of recovery and development. Some of the most exciting work I heard about was that of local groups teaching their fellow Haitians how to grow more rice, earn more income, and prepare for future disasters–and seeing real results.

But as energetic as the people I met were, there also seemed to be a common presence of issues in their way: a lack of affordable transportation to bring rice to be milled, for example, or a lack of understanding of how to apply for and repay credit.

These issues sometimes felt so easy to solve, but in reality, they are really symptoms of the complicated and frustrating issues Haiti must overcome. The government’s underinvestment in agriculture and other vital infrastructure and services was a problem long before the earthquake, and the crisis only magnified these shortfalls.

I left Haiti with conflicting emotions, which continued to reveal themselves as the experience set in back at home. There are some significant and systemic roadblocks in the way for Haiti to make progress, but I was encouraged by the people I met and their desire to overcome them.

I also left feeling that the answers lie with Haitians, and that Oxfam is taking the right approach: to provide guidance and capital and then to try to get out of the way. Haiti’s national and local governments must do more to help, too. Then, with the proper support in place, we can leave the work of rebuilding to the most qualified experts–Haitians themselves. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+