Young Haitian girls study in temporary quarters prior to the opening of their new Immaculate Conception School in Port-au-Prince.


Young Haitian girls study in temporary quarters prior to the opening of their new Immaculate Conception School in Port-au-Prince.

February 27, 2012

Several revolutions are going on in post-earthquake Haiti and one of them is changing how Canada's Catholic development agency thinks about its work.

Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace's core development work had always been long-term. Agreements with partner agencies usually spanning four or five years, with some partner relationships that have extended over 20 years.

Now the problems in Haiti have Development and Peace thinking in terms of generations.

"If you are going to make fundamental and systemic change it does take time," said Michael Casey, Development and Peace executive director. "It's not something you are going to accomplish in a two-year timeline. It is generational. But you've got to start somewhere."

So rebuilding a school run by religious sisters educating mostly middle-class girls turns out to be as valid a development project as organizing peasants to demand land reform.

"You've got to work with the human capital that is there because it's the human being who is going to make the difference. The transformative process that takes place is from the individual to the collective," said Casey.


In rebuilding Immaculate Conception School in Port-au-Prince, Development and Peace is betting on the next generation of Haitian leaders.

That doesn't mean Development and Peace is about to abandon Mouvement Paysan de Papaye, a 60,000-strong peasant organization that gives Haiti's easily ignored peasant farmers a voice, or its other partners.

Development and Peace didn't go into Haiti with a plan to transform its development model.

"It certainly wasn't any deliberate strategy to do this. We were responding to identified, immediate needs, to contribute toward solutions," said Casey.

"The whole continuum of development, from emergency relief to long-term development, is being revisited by almost all of the development agencies."

It isn't just Haiti, but the mounting crescendo of natural disasters around the world that has the international NGO community re-examining how it does its work. Already the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere before the quake, Haiti provided a perfect laboratory for Development and Peace to try new approaches.

With $20 million in post-earthquake donations, Development and Peace has done things it once considered out of bounds. It poured money into rebuilding schools, gave money to religious orders for social services and sent a Canadian, Yves Lacourciere, to live in Haiti to co-ordinate efforts full time.

It's not that Development and Peace ever thought there was anything wrong with building schools, or assisting missionaries and religious orders. It simply wasn't its job.

The little Catholic NGO from Canada got better value for donor money by investing in people and the organizations those people choose for themselves. A typical partner would be some form of citizens' coalition or peasant organization, often with Church ties.

These organizations are political. They bring ordinary people together, usually the most marginalized, to exercise their rights and demand basic services from governments – governments with a habit of ignoring rights and diverting its resources.


Emergence of an effective civil society, capable of engaging the government, has been the very measure of development.

As for sending a Canadian to be the full-time representative of the agency, there were two reasons Development and Peace has considered that a bad use of donor money in the past.

First, the idea of white men wearing khaki who show up with chequebooks, telling the locals what's good for them and how they should run their country, has a history of being insulting, paternalistic and doomed to failure. Instead, Development and Peace has cultivated partnerships encouraging local NGOs to take the lead.

The other reason is that Development and Peace keeps its staff at home in Montreal as it doesn't have the money to maintain offices in more than two-dozen countries around the world. Trying to maintain a network of field offices, as the American Catholic Relief Services does, would subtract money from actual development work.

After Haiti's earthquake, it became obvious that even very effective peasant organizations were not going to magically enable Haiti's government to live up to its responsibilities.


"The state of Haiti proper is a weakened state," said Casey. "It's more than symbolic, the collapse of the presidential palace. It really reflects the problems in the structure and the functioning of the state."

Development agencies have always been wary of filling the vacuum left by corrupt politics and inept bureaucracy. But in Haiti's case, waiting for the government to do its job would be the equivalent of writing off another generation.

Disaster response has gone from being a minor part of Development and Peace's efforts globally to an activity that rivals long-term development and community organizing.

In Haiti, Development and Peace learned to make its disaster relief efforts flow into development work, and vice-versa. Mouvement Paysan de Papaye was funded to deal with the cholera outbreak that swept through Haiti 10 months after the quake. The peasant organization was effective because it was already organized, thanks in part to years of Development and Peace support.

At the same time, the work Mouvement Paysan de Papaye did distributing water purification kits and educating people about how to avoid cholera also deepened the movement's relationship with farm families in rural Haiti.


Instead of seeing disaster relief as the kind of short-term intervention that is the opposite of real development work, Development and Peace now sees a seamless continuum between the two.

"Looking at the success of our interventions over the last couple of years, it's certainly something that will inform our approaches in other situations," said Casey. "There are lessons to be learned from this type of intervention."

Meanwhile, Development and Peace continues to study Pope Benedict's encyclical on development, Caritas in Veritate. It's a process that must engage the organization's 12,000 members in Canada.

Chances are the lessons of Haiti show a way forward that Canadian Catholics will support.

In recent years donors have responded generously to disaster relief appeals for Haiti, floods in Pakistan and the Philippines, drought in the Horn of Africa. Canadians have also shown that they believe in education as the instrument for shaping a better future.