Connecting with a voice from Haiti's grassroots

Manolia CharlotinManolia CharlotinEarly Tuesday morning I finally received the call I had waited anxiously for. “Koman ou ye, Manolia?” Melinda excitely boomed through the cell phone. “M’ap kenbe” I responded.  
Melinda Miles, co-founder and executive director of Konbit Pou Ayiti (KONPAY), had finally called to brief me on Haitian grassroots relief efforts in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.  She was actually in the States, preparing for her testimony to the U.S. Congress.  She hoped her testimony would shed a light on the ineffective practices that disable widespread distribution of aid in Haiti.  The international distribution system lacks the community building aspect that allows Haitian community organizers (also known as Animators) to effectively participate in relief efforts. 

KONPAY has helped put together the Haiti Disaster Response Coalition to address this fundamental challenge. The grassroots collective has created  an alternative distribution mechanism throughout Port-au-Prince and Jacmel by building relationships with smaller community-based organizations. Their goal is to strengthen these existing organizations to provide relief.  Some of KONPAY’s partners include: Mouvman Peyizan PAPAY, one of the most influential and effective peasant movements that trains Haitian Animators, AIDG, which is bringing a team of structural engineers to assess the Jacmel area and SOIL, an environmental agency assisting with a dry toilet project to improve sanitation.  
The need for a grassroots alternative is especially crucial in Port-au-Prince, where the U.N. has decided to concentrate distribution because of their inability to effectively work with smaller groups.  Therefore, KONPAY, an organization based in Jacmel has expanded its relief efforts to include several neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince.
When I asked Melinda what some of the pressing needs were, her first response was an urgent plea for more volunteers who speak French and  Haitian Creole, especially Haitian-Americans.  She explained that it has been quite challenging for Animators to participate effectively in the U.N. 
Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) cluster meetings. These meetings are conducted in English and facilitators lack the  cultural competence to maximize the presence of the Animators.  Participation in these meetings are extremely important because that is where crucial information regarding relief efforts is gathered and disseminated.  These meetings serve as the primary mode of communication for relief efforts throughout the country.
Next on Melinda’s list was the necessity to support local needs assessments.  A significant lack of understanding of needs in particular areas persists.  She illustrates this with an anecdote about smaller organizations in Jacmel having to re-pack kits donated by a larger NGO with inadequate feminine toiletries and child care products.   This challenge is manifested on a larger scale in different neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, where only a few small organizations have relationships with the large institutions.   
The third pressing need is access to warehouses filled with food and supplies.  One night, Melinda explains, a volunteer came to their gates with a  truck full of food and supplies.  This particular volunteer was able to gain access to a warehouse because of personal connections.  After this experience, the coalition has used every connection possible to gain access to as many warehouses as possible to retrieve items for distribution.  
The diaspora and friends of Haiti can be instrumental in raising awareness and applying pressure to the U.N. and large NGO’s to address both of  these systematic hurdles. In addition to these challenges, the necessity for supplies like mosquito nets, children’s medicines, and tents persists. However, the systematic  roadblocks surpassed only by a strong grassroots collective effort, is the message Konbit Pou Ayiti wants to convey.  Empowering the grassroots organizations in Haiti is one concrete way to assure effective distribution of aid, in addition to sustaining the Haitian people’s capacity to rebuild Haiti.
Manolia Charlotin is the co-founder of the organization Haiti 2015.