Stories of Tragedy, Trust and Transformation? Learning from participatory community development experience in post-earthquake Haiti

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Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake of 2010 left some 200,000 people dead, 1.5 million homeless and most government buildings destroyed. Even pre-disaster, Haiti’s outcomes on the UN Human Development Index were among the lowest in the world, and since the quake the country has fallen into further decline. Today, most Haitians continue to lack basic services, struggle with daily survival, and confront daunting obstacles to change. Paradoxically, the disaster may present a window of opportunity to build communities and societal institutions differently. The aim of this PhD study is to investigate cases of participatory community development in the post-earthquake period, and to expose in what ways the development processes underway and early outcomes are having an impact on community life and change, and whether they are opening pathways to transformation.

The main research site is an earthquake-affected, peri-urban and growing area of Bellevue-La- Montagne, located in the mountains south of capital city, Port-au-Prince. An education- centered community development effort is underway in partnership with residents, Haiti Partners and other organizations, and local government. Beyond studying the development projects focused on education and social enterprise, I undertook participatory research with a group of residents in order to investigate their lived experience, perspectives, and meanings associated with the development processes. Methods included context-specific participatory photography to enable social learning and study of social change dynamics. A secondary case is Habitat Santo Village in Léogâne, located at the earthquake epicenter. Habitat for Humanity built a housing community on a tent camp site and then invited residents to collaboratively design a self-governance system. That process and early results are the focus of the study.

Case findings reveal a number of tension points, such as lamentable state-society relations, a sense of powerlessness regarding prospects for change, and local development outcomes that exceed those of individual households. A synthesis result is that community transformation is occurring and signs of social change are apparent, but the latter requires longer term study. Evidence points to the community level as a site of transformation to the development paradigm operating in Haiti. Activating ‘levers of transformation’ — including improved education, social entrepreneurship, place identity, and state accountability – would support new narratives for Haiti, consistent with policy priorities to: (re)build the social contract, create greater economic opportunities and better jobs, and reduce vulnerability and build resilience.

This thesis is scholarly work, and it is also, quite practically, a call to action. It is an invitation to policymakers, funders, and others to recognize the community level as a site of transformation in Haiti and other marginalized settings around the world. This means recognizing and scaling promising initiatives such as these cases on three levels: 1) ‘scaling out’ to bring social innovations to more communities; 2) ‘scaling up’ to influence systemic and policy change, and 3) ‘scaling deep’ to affect cultural norms and patterns. Through highlighting, amplifying, and connecting community development innovations that are contributing to positive transformation, Haiti and places with similar challenges can forge new development pathways toward more inclusive societies where all people have opportunities to participate and flourish.

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