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Solidarity, not Charity: Distribution of COVID Aid in Haiti Offers an Example of Effective Solidarity

Photo by Ellie Happel.

A Haitian-led response to aid distribution in Haiti demonstrates how those closest to the problem are best positioned to address it. This should encourage solidarity with, rather than aid for, communities in the wake of disaster.

By Vincenot Diedo Vixamar* and Ellie Happel

In the days and weeks after a 7.2 earthquake struck the Southwest of Haiti in August 2021, U.S. based NGOs and Human Rights Watch were among those encouraging a right-based approach to delivering aid. There is broad agreement that after the earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince more than 11 years ago, the approach to aid distribution needs to change.

During the early months of the COVID pandemic, a Haitian organization, Sosysete Kiltirèl Jen Ayisyen, the Haiti Cultural Youth Group (SOKIJA), developed a solidarity effort to distribute money and emergency sanitation supplies to families living in rural communities in northern Haiti. In the summer of 2020, SOKIJA provided assistance to over 180 families in 6 of Haiti’s 10 departments. The financial support came from a $53,000 U.S. grant from Avaaz, secured with the help of the Global Justice Clinic staff and colleagues in Port-au-Prince. SOKIJA developed and implemented an economic solidarity methodology that respected, rather than undermined, the dignity of those who received assistance. This small example may inform future efforts to aid distribution and poverty alleviation in Haiti and beyond.

COVID in Rural Haiti

Haitians call rural people moun andeyò—literally, “people outside.”  They are outside of major cities, outside of access to government services, and, unfortunately, often outside of conversations about how to build the country’s future. A community activist who lives in a remote village in the Northwest department, which is many hours by foot, motorcycle, and bus to Port-au-Prince, once said:  “We live in a State that has never integrated us into the political life of the country.”

The first known case of COVID in Haiti was detected on March 20, 2020. Partners in Port-au-Prince were concerned about how kamarad (comrades) in rural areas would weather the economic shock. They knew that people in remote communities did not have access to hand sanitizer, masks, and other items to prevent the spread of the virus. If they fell ill, then they did not have access to reliable health care. The partners in Port-au-Prince began collecting information about how families within their network of rural community leaders were faring. This network was established by the Kolektif Jistis Min, the Justice Mining Collective (KJM), which was founded in 2012 to monitor Haiti’s emerging gold mining sector and defend the rights of affected communities. One of the enduring achievements of KJM was creating a network of well-regarded community organizations and leaders in rural areas. SOKIJA was founded in the Northwest of Haiti and is part of the KJM network. 

Lessons: Solidarity, not Charity

1. Implementing Participatory Decision-making

SOKIJA established two teams: one was an executive team who was responsible for planning and distributing the funds and the other was a field team consisting of 30 community organization leaders. The field team was part of the core decision-making group. SOKIJA distributed support only in areas where they had a local point person who served as a member of the field team.

2. Respecting Dignity

SOKIJA wanted to take a different approach to aid distribution in Haiti. Often, international NGOs  rely on photos of “beneficiaries” for fundraising. Sometimes the photos emphasize or even exaggerate peoples’ needs. SOKIJA knew that taking pictures of people and giving them handouts often made them feel more vulnerable and violated their dignity. This meant that SOKIJA would not take photos of anyone who received support or was part of the distribution process. It also meant that SOKIJA provided cash support instead of food kits and emergency supplies so that those with money could make purchases based on their own needs and priorities.

3. Buying Locally

SOKIJA encouraged cash recipients to purchase locally grown food to support the local economy and promote healthy consumption.  Although many international NGOs distribute food aid, SOKIJA noted that sometimes in rural areas crops—including mangoes, breadfruit, and beans—spoil because supply is greater than demand.  Farmers often have no way to transport their produce to population centers.  This is one of the many consequences of a total lack of investment in agriculture.

4. Promoting Konbit

The konbit is the traditional form of collaborative agricultural labor in rural Haiti. Konbit is part of Haitian culture.  The word is used to describe other collective efforts such as building community libraries or developing a group advocacy plan. SOKIJA encouraged the families who received money to share it in konbit, meaning to put some of it toward the well-being of neighbors who did not receive the benefit. Through their evaluation, SOKIJA learned that many more people benefited from the distribution than the families who received the money and supplies.

5. The Importance of Transparency

SOKIJA and the field team members spoke frankly and openly with all of the people who received money: the total amount distributed, the number of families that received support, and the amount that each family received. This transparency may have led families to share what they receive when they are well-informed about the aid effort.

Solidarity

Efforts to provide aid and to undertake community building must be informed, if not led, by those closest to the problem. Solidarity requires that affected people are part of the problem-solving and that outsiders avoid imposing solutions. This applies to the larger challenge of addressing systemic oppression in Haiti—the centuries of exploitation and the exclusion and intervention that produced structural violence and inequality. A recent article discusses solidarity on a systemic scale, and suggests using abolition as a framework with reparations as a key component for transformative justice in Haiti.

In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti’s southwest region, images on Twitter and in the press have showed Haitian people digging for survivors in the rubble, organizing emergency rations, and hiking to reach remote communities. This is Haitian mutual aid which is done in the spirit of solidarity and with the goal of self-determination and liberation. All of us must support it.

* Vincenot Diedo Vixamar was trained as a psychologist.  He works with a number of Haitian social movement organizations and serves as the Executive Secretary of SOKIJA. He is based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 

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