Even before the Jan. 12 earthquake brought much of Haiti’s infrastructure tumbling to the ground, many people wondered how sustainable communities could ever be built in such a poor country.
Now the question has become even more urgent. Our hearts break at the devastation we see in Haiti, but when we think of rebuilding the country we wonder how it can be done in a way that also addresses the country’s endemic poverty.
How can we respond to the needs of the earthquake survivors in a way that builds communities and helps them to become strong and self-sufficient? The lessons learned by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) in its 48-year history and applied during its five-year response to the devastating 2004 tsunami can provide some insight.
Rely on God
First and foremost, we need to rely on God. When people experience a disaster of this magnitude, they think seriously about their worldview. How they hold to their faith and express it in the wake of such a disaster speaks to those around them.
In Haiti, the vibrant faith of Haitian Christians was evident in the days immediately after the earthquake. Believers marched through the streets, singing praises and trusting God to care for them.
If the rest of the church can model this kind of faith and can also reach out to meet people’s physical needs, it can play a key role in rebuilding Haiti.
This was the case in Indonesia, where predominantly Muslim communities were hit by the tsunami. In responding to the needs, Christian churches had an opportunity to explain that they were doing it as an expression of Christ’s love. Muslims and Christians learned to trust each other and work together.
Fostering a sense of community is also important. Many Haitian neighborhoods have lost large numbers of people. This includes the thousands who were killed by the quake and many more who left to stay with family elsewhere.
These losses can shatter the sense of community. On the other hand, those who remain have shared the experience of surviving this disaster and can unite around common goals.
If people in Haiti can intentionally share their stories, cry together, and reach out to each other, a new sense of community can be built.
Taking ownership of the rebuilding process is the third important lesson to consider. Instead of seeing themselves as victims, it’s important for the earthquake survivors to be active contributors in the planning and the work.
CRWRC used this community-centered approach in Indonesia. Staff invested a great deal of time in community planning meetings and encouraged homeowners to participate in selecting the housing designs and making other important decisions. Homeowners also participated in the reconstruction.
Since they invested their own sweat and resources in the rebuilding, the people of Aceh have a sense of pride in what they accomplished.
Find New Leaders
Very little will happen without solid leadership. In Haiti, many community leaders perished in the quake. Their knowledge and skills perished with them.
Haitians must select new leaders, who must be given plenty of support and on-the-job training. They, in turn, can equip their communities to respond on their own to future needs.
For example, in parts of Indonesia, CRWRC diswtributed rice seed following the tsunami. First, however, it helped farmers organize themselves into groups and elect leaders.When people needed more seed, they went to their group leader. As a result, the seed was used where it was most needed, and the community had a system in place for addressing future needs as well.
With these lessons in mind, Haiti and the international community will be able to tackle the tough challenges ahead. This will include rebuilding Haiti’s infrastructure—roads, markets, health centers, and schools.
It will also include strengthening people with programs in areas such as literacy, improved agriculture, small business development, and health care.
If the rebuilding is handled well, it may actually provide Haiti with an opportunity to overcome poverty in a real and lasting way
About the Author
Leanne Talen Geisterfer is the Latin America team leader for CRWRC and currently lives in Honduras. Previously, she lived and worked in Haiti for 12 years.