By Demeter Russafov, Executive Director – AMURT – Haiti
The women stand proudly in a circle clapping hands and singing in melodic voices a Creole song that exudes captivating dynamism, telling a story of collective female power and awakened social consciousness. The women will go back to their mud homes scattered in a grassy savanna in the isolated and impoverished Northwest of Haiti, confronting alone their day-to-day struggles with stoicism and devotion to their families and to God. In this small circle they find the support and inspiration that human connection and collaboration can bring, and a hope for a new beginning.
The women are members of a Self-Help Group (SHG) they have aptly called “Women Together For a Better Tomorrow”, part of a network of more than 5,000 mostly women members who meet every week in their villages to discuss commonly shared problems, and put together their contributions into a collective savings and micro-credit bank that supports their economic activities. The song weaves powerful themes that tell in a very direct and touching way the story of women standing strong as pillars of society and agents of change, in a language full of symbolism and charged with emotion that only people who have endured so much could express.
A tall woman with a shining face stands up and leads the women in series of stretches and breathing yogic exercises comfortably adapted to the limitations of the space. The trauma-informed mind-body skills they have learnt will help them come to terms with conflict and stress of all sorts, and the solidarity they have come to build amongst themselves will help carry them through the ups and downs of a turbulent existence in a nation which has been tossed in a whirlwind of political, environmental and socio-economic upheaval for decades on end.
The humanitarian and disaster response sector is constantly evolving in order to respond in an efficient and timely manner to an ever expanding and changing scope of environmental and human-caused crisis events. Whether related to climate change or socio-political instability, millions of people around the globe find their lives uprooted and their hopes for an equitable and bright future cut short. Humanitarian actors find themselves responsible for meeting gaps in needs such as basic hygiene, water, food, health, and education, helping communities recapitalize their resources and rebuild their society in a new way. It is exactly this possibility for a shift in perceptions and relationships that makes this sector a potential incubator of social change, and increasingly organizations around the globe are adapting their missions and methodologies in order to encourage innovation, collaboration, human rights and resilience amongst other factors. Linking a disaster response to long-term regenerative development has become an important goal and strategic milestone when responding to humanitarian crises, and most humanitarian partnerships nowadays have to be accountable to both funders and communities and prove their coherence, relevance, efficiency and effectiveness, impact and durability.
AMURT/AMURTEL’s development model in Haiti has aimed to adapt the evolving humanitarian trends and themes as well as its own unique principles and methodologies to the complex local context of the rural communities it serves. The tantric yoga philosophy which has informed its approach and philosophy has given the organization a certain capacity for innovation and resilience which becomes particularly apparent in
extremely hostile and difficult situations to which many other NGOs have a hard time to adapt. Its team in Haiti has intervened in every single disaster providing crucial services with a long-term vision orienting its intervention and guiding the evolution of the programs towards durable and transformative development processes. Rather than following the Call for Proposals which determines the parameter of projects according to outside funders, AMURT/EL has maintained a steady yet constantly evolving set of strategies which have sought to radically transform society through step-by-step bottom-up replicable systemic processes and programs that address the root causes of the challenges at hand.
The women’s Self-Help Group circles multiplying in numbers and growing in economic and leadership strength is one of the practical examples of block-level planning which traditionally has been the domain of Prout, the alternative economic theory which P.R. Sarkar proposed to restructure society using equitable and humanist principles. The rotational leadership of the structure, with every single group sending representatives to the Association and finally to the Federation level sets a vibrant grassroots model of a community transformed in a very real way by the Prout theory of change. And the hundreds of SHGs planting and transforming the highly nutritious leaves and seeds of newly-planted moringa trees, stabilizing watersheds and eroded ravines, or helping protect and regenerate endangered mangroves highlight the fine interconnections and inter-dependencies between service, block-level planning, Neohumanism, and environmental stewardship.
Yet another example of a systemic solution to the root cause of poverty and malnutrition is AMURT/EL’s approach to modernize the salt value chain in Haiti. Haiti is one of the last countries in the world to yet overcome Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD), which plagues more than 30% of Haitians and is linked to developmental health problems affecting wellbeing a capacity to learn in children. Most institutional approaches had focused on resolving the problem from the top down, by supporting expensive and unsustainable ways to provide iodized salt at the end level of the value chain. Over the past 15 years AMURT/EL has utilized its Prout philosophy to gradually introduce innovative interventions from the bottom to the top of the value chain – from the organization of the salt harvesting communities in SHG structures, to transforming the modes of traditional salt harvesting into modernized salt production facilities of significantly higher efficiency and quality that invest all revenue in local initiatives, to building a maritime shipping and ports allowing the processed salt to supply the Haitian market and finally lead to reduction of IDD rates in the country.
AMURT/EL has sought to transcend the stereotype that it is solely a service-oriented organization not only by helping build economic democracy models using Prout principles, but also by helping transform the traditional learning paradigms that have stifled the development of the education sector in Haiti. The Vibrant School approach which it first developed in the Child-Friendly Spaces of the post-earthquake response evolved to include child-rights distance learning and radio programming, teacher professional development, curriculum creation and professional development of hundreds of schools organized in model networks, and guiding government policies and curriculum towards a child-centered Neohumanist approach.
The experience of AMURT/EL in Haiti over the last 15 years has highlighted the importance of interconnecting the often-fragmented parts of the social puzzle, testing in very real scenarios sublime yet often theoretical and abstract principles and helping create agents of change using systemic and gradual transformation processes.