Sustainability was not yet fashionable in the development jargon when in the early eighties two Haitian brothers, Paul and Jean Thomas, born in Haiti and educated in both Haiti and the United States of America started with Christian development work in a remote Haitian mountain village: Fond- des- Blancs.
The rather surprising name of this village got its origin in the early 19’h century settlement of polish former soldiers who have fought for the Haitian resistance during the Napoleonic Wars, after switching sides from fighting within the French regiments. They were offered Haitian citizenship after the rebellion and located mainly to what would become Fond- des- Blanes in southern Haiti and Cazale, another town in the lower central plateau.
But back to the two brothers, founding fathers of The Haiti Christian Development Fund (HCDF). HCDF is a U.S. incorporated, non-profit, tax-exempt organization founded in 1980 for the sole purpose of Christian community development in a rural Haitian community. Its basic premise is to proclaim good news to the poor in word and deed, through reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution’
Based on their Christian inspiration and social engagement they built a considerable network in the United States and Haiti and were able to raise some funds for the realization of their dream turned goal turned reality.
In the same period ICCO, Inter Church Cooperation for development aid, a Dutch nongovernmental organization started funding projects in Haiti with money provided by the Dutch people through the co-financing program of the Dutch government.
Contact was established and in 1982 Wim Daandels, then in charge of partner relations in the Andean region and the Caribbean, made a field visit to Fond-des-Blancs with ensuing negotiations on the funding of a first project: an existing waterhole for both people and livestock getting water from a mountain well needed social and technical engineering in order to exploit the available water more efficiently and guarantee easy accessibility, distribution and assure hygienic surroundings. We would call it now a WASH project. Upon its completion in 1983, the occurrence of water borne diseases in the area dropped substantially.
We were still in the Duvalier “baby doc” reign and local structures, “Conseils d’Action Communautaires” community action committees were set up all over Haiti. These structures were heavily politicized and infiltrated/controlled by the infamous voluntaries of national security, “macoutes”, but they were also lying the bases for community participation, their officially declared purpose.
The approach used by the Thomas brothers, using the positive dynamics of community implication and responsibility made it possible to reach results in a relatively short period building credibility and engagement of the local actors, called beneficiaries in this period.
The water hole was sanitized, organized and linked to public fountains in the community and proved that water is the source of everything. A second endeavor financed by ICCO, a tree nursery ended up being a national reference of reforestation with over 5 million trees planted, and surviving in the wide surroundings of Fond-des-Blancs providing soil protection and a source of income for the peasants in the mountains (by ways of fruit trees and fast growing trees for charcoal making through selective cutting).
In spite of the extermination of all pigs, a staple of rural Haiti’s livestock production, livestock increased in the area, mainly by crossbreeding local goats with imported Nubians as well as artificial insemination of cows; these innovations helped improve the quality of life of the farmers. A complete cycle of education, from grammar to secondary school, provide the youth of Fond-des-Blancs with an education that is on par with the best schools in the city of Port au Prince. The Thomas’ belief in ‘relocation’, living and identifying with the people they serve, fostered a model of education where their own children were students. This is an example not lost to the people of the community. A major agricultural production to further improve food security in the area is in its early stages of development. It will utilize semi-modern agricultural equipment and methods to boost productivity and marketability in an area where water and land are plentiful. The first phase, currently underway, covers 100 acres of arable land. It hopes to double the acreage over the next couple of years.
It has been over thirty years since the Haiti Christian Development Fund landed in Fond-des-Blancs and made its initial contact with ICCO. Over the course of those years, the community has been transformed and HCDF has been at the center of each of those activities: water improvement and reforestation (with ICCO’s assistance), a pig repopulation program that has transformed Fond-des-Blanes into a major production market for pigs for the region, improvement of over 200 miles of road from Moussignac to Moullage Fouquette, from Carrefour 44 to Bainet and points in between, over 1500 students are enrolled in HCDF’s flagship school and its annexes around the Fond-des-Blancs community. All of the above with technical, material and financial backing from churches, institutions and individual friends from abroad and Haiti.
In September 2014 Es Hortensius, program officer in charge of Haiti in the ICCO-cooperation headquarters in Utrecht, the Netherlands, received an email from Jean Thomas, still based in Fond-des-Blancs with his American spouse to update him on what has been happening in Fond-des-Blancs since their last contact over twenty-five years ago. This renewed contact came about as HCDF was digitizing its documents and came across the correspondences from ICCO. Since ICCO was one of the first organizations to approve a grant for HCDF, Jean Thomas wanted to let them know that it had not been in vain. Interest was raised in the history of the 1982 financial contributions and two facts popped up: results of the water project and the tree nursery were still exponentially visible and no paper trace of the two projects was to be found in the ICCO archives. (We were later provided by modern means, email and scan, with an extensive original, Olivetti or Remington produced correspondences, project proposals and reports, among them a 1982 letter addressed to Mme Elsa Hortensius). A subsequent field visit by me and my spouse in early December 2014 demonstrated the results, effects and impact after 32 years of the early and humble support by ICCO. A 44 year old schoolteacher at the secondary school remembered that he helped his father plant trees around his house, 10 kilometers away from the nursery center, when he was a small boy. He since moved to the center of the village but the trees, and many more, are still there and everywhere.
One might indeed wonder what is more important at the end of the day: paper or getting things done in the field!
By way of conclusion: literature and theories about community development abound, exploring approaches and key concepts such as participation, ownership, ‘accountability’, etcetera. Individual and family success stories are manifold but it is harder to come by community success stories where notwithstanding technical mishaps and financial bottlenecks a whole series of realizations in multiple fields ( WASH, agriculture, livelihood, education and spiritual development) survives the years/decades and political regimes ( and Haiti is quite a case study in this field). Other interesting facts in this particular case are that there are no discernable political ambitions whatsoever by the leaders and that there is no sign of religious proselytism. ICCO-cooperation can be proud to have been a contributor in the early stages and a witness at the present time.
HCDF Website : http://hcdf.org/