Sunday, March 20, 2011

Speakers: Foreign Aid Should Involve Local People

Andy Ambrose
Our 2011 Offering of Letters offers us four points to bring to our members of Congress when we write our letters about foreign aid reform.  While all four are important, I believe one deserves special attention, especially after listening to the three guest speakers at our Offering of Letters in Albuquerque on March 12.

Chuck McCune chats with Cathy Pfefferle
All three speakers--Chuck McCune of the Prizm Foundation, Adolphe Pierre-Louis of Racine Kreyol Cultural Arts, and Sarah Nezzer of Oxfam Action Corps--underscored the need to ensure that any changes to foreign aid place a high priority to empower the people of the host countries.

As you know, there are four points of emphasis in our foreign-aid reform efforts in 2011, and what our speakers addressed was primarily the fourth point:  U.S. aid that meets the needs and wants of local people.

Chuck McCune took the issue one step further.  Foreign aid, whether relief or development assistance, should go toward job creation at the local level.

Mr. McCune offered some powerful criticism of current relief efforts, not only on the part of government entities, but also by international nongovernmental organizations such as The Clinton Foundation.  In his experience, there has been very little effort to consult and involve the local grassroots organizations in reconstruction efforts.

Much of the aid, he says, is handled by large organizations that devote only a small amount of the donations directly to assist the people in need.  "Haiti does not want handouts. Haiti wants the jobs they lost, the industries, they lost, the farming they lost.  They want what we all want in our lives," said Mr. McCune.

This could be attained if foreign aid reform places a high priority on empowering the grassroots so that funds focus on local job creation. "Reform the system so that the money goes to where it needs to go.  That means it has to go to Haitians," said Mr. McCune, whose organization, Prizm Foundation, employs local people to build disaster shelters for people living in refugee camps outside Port Au Prince.  "Our group is not a Haitian organization, but we support a 100% Haitian grassroots organization in Haitian," said Mr. McCune.
Haiti does not want handouts. Haiti wants the jobs they lost, the industries, they lost, the farming they lost.  -Chuck McCune
In September 2010, the New Mexico Business Journal wrote a nice feature about Mr. McCune and The Prizm Foundation's efforts in Haiti.  "He he has created numerous designs for affordable, sustainable housing that can be used in disaster zones. His latest prototype, the Vertex (which he has trademarked and for which he has a patent pending), is what he is planning to send to the island nation," said the article (Read full piece).

Adolphe Pierre-Louis chats with Ellen Buelow
Adolphe Pierre-Louis, a native of Haiti who came to the US as a child, now works as a photographer for the Albuquerque Journal.   In the aftermath of the earthquake in January 2010, Pierre-Louis traveled to Haiti twice last year.  In the first trip, in February 2010, he went with a friend to bring $10,000 worth of medical supplies donated by a local donor.

Two things struck him as he arrived in Haiti.  The first was the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake.  "I've seen the images on TV...You have absolutely no idea unless you've been there, until  you've smelled the dead bodies inside those buildings, until you get to witness things that you couldn't have even imaged," said Mr. Pierre-Louis  (If you have subscription to the Albuquerque Journal, you can read the piece he wrote in February 2010, entitled Journal Photographer Returns To His Devastated Homeland)

Another problem that stuck out like a sore thumb was the extreme lack of coordination among the three powers at the site on how to distribute the relief aid. The first power is Brazil, which comprises the majority of the UN Peacekeepers that have been there for the past seven years.  The second power is France, which at one time counted Haiti among its colonies.  The third power is the U.S. Armed Forces.
You look to the right, all along the tarmac, huge stocks of supplies just sitting there...just sitting there. Meanwhile, three entities are fighting to find out who is in charge here.  -Adolphe Pierre-Louis
As Mr. Pierre-Louis arrived into Haiti by land via the Dominican Republic, one of the first things he noted as he was driving by the airport at Port au Prince were the huge amount of supplies sitting on the tarmac at the airport.  "You look to the right, all along the tarmac, huge stocks of supplies just sitting there...just sitting there," said Mr. Pierre-Louis. "Meanwhile, three entities are fighting to find out who is in charge here."

In contrast, Mr. Pierre-Louis and a traveling companion were able to hand-carry  $10,000 of donated medical supplies  directly to a camp where they were needed.

There was also a discussion of why there were people living in shantytowns in vulnerable areas of Port au Prince when the earthquake hit in 2010.  Haiti was fairly self-sufficient in rice production in the 1970s.  In the 1990s, the polices of ex-President Bill Clinton, promoted the export of cheap US rice into Haiti, greatly reducing the amount that local farmers could receive for their own crops.  "A bag of rice was selling in Haiti for $10 (in the 1970s).  The farmer was able to sell that rice, put his kids in school and take care of his family," said Mr. Pierre-Louis.  "When those big American companies moved in the price was cut in half.  All of a sudden, many farmers found themselves homeless."

And this is a huge part of the reason for the exodus Port au Prince, where people built fragile homes in very vulnerable areas.  "These people started building homes on hillsides, ravines," said Mr. Pierre-Louis, who pointed out that it is no coincidence why Mr. Clinton is currently involved in Haiti.  Read more in The Huffington Post.
Sarah Nezzer, grassroots organizer for Oxfam Action Corps in Albuquerque, said Oxfam has a three-pronged approach: Immediate action in times of disaster, a long-term approach to determine the causes of poverty (be it the political or economic system or climate change), and a campaign to create system changes.

"What can we do so that (local people)can have ownership of the political system of their land and we can step out?" said Ms. Nezzer.  "What can we do to give them a hand and not to control."
One single hand-written letter is worth 15 e-mails -Sarah Nezzer
Ms. Nezzer also endorsed Bread for the World's push for hand-written letters.  "I've worked for a couple of local campaigns. I can tell you that one single hand-written letter is worth 15 e-mails.  Some of these folks get them from the thousands," she said.  "A single lobby visit by one person--not an organization, not a lobby visit--is worth 10 letters.

Photos From Workshop
About 20 people gathered at this year's workshop at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church to learn about this year's Offering of Letters and hear about relief efforts in Haiti and foreign reform in general.

Debbie Ruiz leads worship

Bob Riley chats with Lynette Rose

Ellen Buelow & Gladys Delgado
Alicia Sedillo & Patty Emord

1 comment: said...

Good and interesting blog. I liked the observations about 1 letter better than 15 emails and lobby visit being the best of all!