Haiti: Where Solidarity Means Survival

Perhaps more than anything today, Haiti needs a new macro-economy, one based above all on meeting the needs of its citizens. Post-earthquake economic restructuring could include equitable distribution of resources, high levels of employment with fair compensation, local production, and provision of social services.
In the meantime, what saved many during the earthquake, and what is keeping them alive today, is a culture and economy of solidarity, or mutual aid. Solidarity is an essential strategy through which on-the-margins communities, and their individual members, can survive and thrive. Today the generosity is on overdrive.

Yolette Etienne, a development worker, commented: “The tremendous chains of solidarity of the people we saw from the day of the earthquake on: that is our capacity. That is our victory. That is our heart.”
Gifting and solidarity are time-honored traditions in Haiti, as around the world.  The non-monetary transactions of services, care, and goods are both spontaneous and organized. They honor human relationships and attention to the well-being of the whole, not just oneself. They minimize the role of profit in economic and social relations, and thus keep respect, cooperation, and ethics thriving.
Sylvain Pierre, one of the national coordinators of Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, or Heads Together Small Haitian Peasant Farmers, described the tradition in Haiti. “When there were massacres [against Tèt Kole members] in Jean-Rabel and Piatte, when there were arrests, when there is work to be done, when there are political fights, there is always solidarity. When they know we need political pressure, they give it. Some people bring food.  Some bring wood, some bring water.  Those who have money, they give money.  Those who only have a little change put it into a sack as a collection for other members.”
What he described is not just organizational culture, it is in fact part of the national culture – many profiteers and crooks notwithstanding.
In the days following the catastrophe, community members pulled together to dig out survivors from collapsed houses, usually with only their hands or rudimentary tools. They unearthed corpses, set up brigades to clear rubble, and organized security teams in the streets and camps. Charles Arthur of the Haiti Support Group writes of an eyewitness report from outside of Leogane. "At the sound of the lambi [a conch shell blown since slavery to gather the community], people would gather from far and wide, picks and hoes in hand, to clear blocked roads, dig each other out, rebuild homes, and prepare to accept refugees."
Lina Jean-Juste, an unemployed community volunteer, told how she experienced the mutual aid the day the earth heaved. “It was a long night. Long, long, long. But you never felt alone. It was a huge collective grief without end. You saw people crying, then they’d sing.
“But it was sweet, too.  Everyone was working together. No one shouted at anyone. We all spent the night trying to get people out of their houses with our fingernails.  When we were finished, we’d go to another house and start over.
“One man who was by himself, all by himself, he went into a collapsed building 15 times to try to get people out.  It was so dangerous.  He pulled, he moved blocks, he found a saw and cut a steel door. He never did save anyone, but he wouldn’t give up.
“Someone asked for help to transport a fat woman. I remember a guy who said, ‘Okay, I’ll go. I don’t know what’s happening with my family, but I’ll help.’ I said, ‘But cheri, you have to go see about your own family.’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to help her.’
“My sister died when a house fell on her.  The man who she’d been visiting with, who was a friend of the family, wouldn’t leave her body until I got there. He didn’t even know yet what had happened to his own family, but he wouldn’t leave her.”
The Catholic lay worker Henri Mesillus recounted that, the day after the earthquake, he saw a young man on a street with four candies and a small plastic sack of water.  The young man passed the candies and the water bag to strangers who happened to be around him. Henri heard him tell them, “Don’t take too much water; it’s for all of us.”
Mesita Attis of the market women’s support group Martyred Women of Brave Ayibobo said, “We’ve shared our pain and our suffering. If you heard your baby in the ruins crying ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,’ fourteen people would run help you. If you don’t have a piece of bread, someone will give you theirs.”
Everyone, once asked, has a story to offer. Economist Camille Chalmers told of losing his diabetes medicines within his crushed house. No more were available in Port-au-Prince, and without them he could not live. The word got out, and solidarity came in from other countries. Friends sent new supplies from Cuba, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.  “Now I have a whole stock,” he laughed.
In areas both directly hit by the earthquake as well as those to which survivors fled, locals have organized themselves in the mutual aid tradition. Many have taken in others whose houses don’t have water, or who no longer have a house at all, to join those already sharing beds and filling up space on the floor and the yard. People have pooled their time, belongings, and funds to share food and tarps; look after the injured and ill; provide child care; give money for medicine; keep a protective eye out for women and children who are at high risk of violence; and take in orphaned and abandoned children.
Judith Simeon, an organizer with peasant and women’s groups, said that after the earthquake, “Everyone was helping everyone. What people had, they shared with others. It was truly those who had nothing who did that most.
“I put together a group of people; we each went and helped others. People didn’t have any food so we shared what we had.  The youth could get by, they could walk to get what they needed, so they weren’t my priority. I was interested in people who couldn’t get by. I used what I knew with dehydrated people, especially little children and elderly ones who were so weak.  I gave them oral rehydration serum with water, salt, and sugar.  I also used my knowledge of herbal medicines, how to use natural remedies with plants and leaves, to help people heal.
“During two weeks, two friends and I were taking care of a group of 14 children whose parents had died, while we tried to find their family in the countryside or other cousins and neighbors who could take them in. The kids were as young as three.
“No, I didn’t have any relation to them. It was our citizen obligation to take care of those who needed it.”
Gisner Prudhomme, an agronomist, and his wife have been hosting two adults and four children for more than two months. Only one is a relative; the others are neighbors who lost their houses.  Like Judith, Gisner seemed surprised when a visitor inquired about his hospitality. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You have to.”
At the conclusion of the funeral for her 87-year-old mother, who died in the quake and is now buried in the back yard of her crushed house, development worker Yolette Etienne told the group gathered, “From now on, let nothing we do be for the individual.  Let it all be for the collective.”

Solidarity as Economic System: Lessons for the Policy-Maker

“If it weren’t for solidarity, Haiti wouldn’t be alive today,” is an expression commonly heard here since the earthquake of January 12.


Haiti’s history is based on displays of gifting and solidarity – forms of sharing and cooperation – toward those surviving on the margins. These displays usually go unnamed and unnoticed.


Some are formalized systems. One is konbit, collective work groups, in which members of the community labor without any expectation of compensation or even return. Konbit is the equivalent of a barn-raising, for those without enough hands to accomplish the task alone or money to hire labor. Konbit are what has allowed farmers to harvest their fields and engage in other major work projects from time immemorial. 


In sòl, revolving loan funds, people put a certain amount of money into a common pot each week or each month; the total is given to a different member each time. That way, each woman can at some point have enough capital to allow her to make a significant expense: hospital care for a sick mother, a carton of soap bars which she can buy on discount and thus increase her profit on, a new cooking pot for a fried dough business on a street corner. She doesn’t return the allotment. There is no interest to pay, so no one profits off of anyone else. The exchanges are bases on trust and human relationship.


Sabotaj, practiced among market women, is like sòl but occurs each day. The term implies sabotaging poverty.


Mèn ansanm, hands together, is another system of community-generated financial assistance. Unlike sòl and sabotaj which occurs among individuals, mèn ansanm occurs through organizations. Here, everyone contributes money to a common pot on a schedule that they determine, and then lends it to one member.  That person keeps it for a period to bolster his or her income-generating activities. He or she then returns the principal, but keeps the profit.  Again, no one makes a profit from another member. 


Trok is another common form of exchange which does not involve currency.  It happens informally, with a woman giving milk from her cow for another woman’s baby while the other gives back beans from her garden.  It also happens in organized ways, such as through the story of the peasant group, below.


Some organizations say that solidarity should be recognized as an explicit part of an alternative economy, and that the mutual aid, without expectation of return, creates a model of what domestic and international economic policy could look like. Ricot Jean-Pierre of the Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA) says, “Our work is to show that we can enter into another development logic that’s not just via the market but that is through the community, especially with a solidarity economy.” 


During the ten weeks since the earthquake, solidarity has formed a critical part of the international rescue, recovery, aid, and support operations. Community organizations, peasant farmers, churches, and townspeople are housing and feeding hundreds of thousands of homeless and displaced people.  They are relying on their own resources, contributing their own slim reserves of food, income, and time, since very little outside help has come to underwrite the initiatives.


Judith Simeon, an organizer of women’s and peasants’ groups, shared this analysis. “People are in solidarity in their misery. They are also in solidarity with their capital.”


Here is one example of gifting and solidarity systems at work in the earthquake-damaged town of Jacmel and surrounding villages. In one of those villages, Cap-rouge, the peasant organization Long Live Hope for Development of Cap-rouge (VEDEK) sent out a call to others to help survivors. The week after the disaster, VEDEK collected 10,000 gourdes (US$257) and brought it to Jacmel’s general hospital to buy basic medicines and water for the wounded.


Meanwhile, in their own village, more than 2,000 people were resettling from Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. So peasants brought roots and fruits from their gardens to feed the survivors.


Cap-rouge farmer families also did trok, exchanges, with fisher families. They shared grains and vegetables for seafood to substantiate the food that they could offer to the displaced.             


In the midst of the Cap-rougeoises’ mobilization of generosity, the villagers were also trying to address the damages and losses they themselves incurred. Research led by the youth of VEDEK found that 155 houses had been destroyed, 602 houses were damaged, and 150 water reservoirs were destroyed. To clear the land and demolish the houses that posed a danger, they organized konbits of about 40 people each.


VEDEK also mobilized a campaign to get bean seeds and organic compost so the farmers could produce, and even increase their yield, both to help themselves get back on their feet and to help them feed their guests. VEDEK members contributed 9 kilos of bean seeds and 800 sacks of organic compost, which they distributed to 1,400 families.


A statement by 17 progressive Haitian organizations read,"These spontaneous organs of solidarity must now play a central role in the reconstruction and planning of our national space… [A] collective approach in seeking common responses to our problems" could "build a real and viable alternative based on popular democracy."[1]



Thanks to Jean Jores Pierre, who provided research on VEDEK.

[1] From “Haiti: After the Catastrophe, What are the Perspectives?” Port-au-Prince, 27th January 2010.


Beverly Bell first went to Haiti as a teenager. Since then she has dedicated most of her life to working for democracy, women’s rights, and economic justice in that country. She founded or co-founded six organizations and networks dedicated exclusively to supporting the Haitian people, including the Lambi Fund of Haiti. She worked for both presidents Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Rene Preval and wrote Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance (Cornell University Press, 2001). Today she is associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and runs the economic justice group Other Worlds.