Mideast Briefing: Israeli Development Aid: Small Lights Make a Mighty Illumination

Israeli Development Aid: Small Lights Make a Mighty Illumination

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC Jerusalem

December 27, 2011

I recently flew to Haiti to inspect AJC-supported projects run by IsraAID, the Israeli Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, and Tevel B’tzedek an Israel-based non-profit organization that promotes social and environmental justice. As I stepped out of the ramshackle airport at Port au Prince, day workers jostled each other to offer a taxi, to carry luggage, and to supply any other service mesye (“monsieur” in Creole) may require. We drove to the town of Leogane, where IsraAID/Tevel Betzedek projects are based.

Leogane is the epicenter of the earthquake with 80% of its buildings either destroyed or damaged. The focus of considerable rescue efforts at the time, the city’s reconstruction proceeds sluggishly. The 10 Israelis who staff the IsraAID-Tevel B’Tzedek programs explain to me that most of the other NGOs are gone, having completed their programs of emergency aid. They add that local government is often ineffectual.

After three days on the ground, I draw some tentative conclusions:

  • Haiti is in awful condition. Even before the earthquake, it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Unemployment and underemployment are chronic, but the challenges go beyond material deficits. Indicators like family coherence, education, health, sanitation, urban development, violence … all dismal.

  • Since Haiti needs a hand up much more than a hand out, social capital will be the key to developing the country. It so happens that Israel is one of the few countries created since the end of World War II that made the transition from “developing” to “developed,” and as a result of that experience, Israeli thinking tends to be down to earth and holistic, viewing development as a social phenomenon and not just a matter of introducing technology. Young Israelis are used to working with limited financial resources in ways that can address the predicaments of peasants in third-world villages.

  • The Israeli experience also brings the principle of voluntary cooperative effort leading to incremental growth. The “Haiti Grows” project exemplifies these advantages. The Israelis work to build small-scale, cooperative farming that can raise the skill level of members of a community, elevating their living standards in small strides. Over years these can make a revolutionary difference. It begins with the fact that 75% of Haitians support themselves through agricultural work, but practice labor-intensive, soil-depleting, inefficient methods dependent on very short growing seasons. “Haiti Grows” trains these workers in simple, cheap but effective new technologies like drip irrigation (adapted to a village without running water!); simple green-housing of seedlings in cheap structures made of netting; micro loans to purchase disease-resistant varieties of vegetables; and expert advice from local and foreign agronomists. The result: several high-quality crops a year. The first stage was to create a model community in one village called La Kolin (“La Colline” means the hill). Building on the Israeli experience of the cooperative community called the moshav, the villagers are encouraged to create similar cooperatives that can make capital investments in equipment that none of them can afford on their own. The economic efficiencies of sharing an expensive piece of equipment like a small tractor are then spread across the community. After 18 months, the plan is to expand to a few more villages. Slowly, without fanfare, the simple steps taken in La Kolin may prove desirable to other villages. For them, a two-hundred-year cycle of poverty—and its accompanying lack of accumulation of social and financial capital—could be broken.

  • Another Israeli advantage lies in community-building. Jews through the ages have excelled in setting up communities. In Israel, the challenges of development led to the creation of a nationwide network of community centers. The IsraAID/Tevel B’tzedek team in the Leogane organized such a network on a smaller scale. In Port au Prince a small, dedicated Israeli group working in the refugee camp made famous by the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, led by actor Sean Penn, created a youth program called “Dream Team.” In Leogane and the surrounding area, IsraAID/Tevel B’tzedek found and trained a wonderful group of Haitians who recognize the potential for communal work to build their country. Run on a shoestring, the project now includes Leogane and nine centers in villages around it. The original plan was for about half that number, but the Haitians are eager to push forward and expand their reach on a volunteer basis. With a grant from an American aid organization, a modest building is going up that will serve as a regional center for the activities. Regular classes on basic computer skills already run in the villages even in the absence of computers on which to practice. AJC-financed computers will soon be installed there, and the students will be able to move to higher skill levels. Young Haitian peasants understand that computer skills are key to meeting the challenges of development. Add youth programs, young mother and infant activities, pre-school, elderly programming, and the community center becomes a focus for that ephemeral commitment we call community. In Leogane another element is the community clinic. In Haiti, all medicine is private. Now, an Israeli doctor and nurse join with local physicians and nurses to provide care to the poorest. The Israeli model of a cooperative-based yet competitive national health system may offer an alternative for developing nations.

  • The experience of Israel shows that a land without significant natural resources can create a development culture in which human potential is a major resource. Working with IsraAID/Tevel B’Tzedek, an Israeli artist created a magnificent project called “Damdam” (madam in Creole) that gathered 67 women from the Leogane region, taught them to identify raw materials that cost nothing (often discarded cardboard, glass, etc.) and to create artistic bowls, dolls, and masks using Haitian craft traditions. A major New York department store ordered two thousand units! This project, so reminiscent of similar Israeli internal efforts at an earlier period, empowers women, generates community and creates a modest amount of income for the participants.

Set against the dismal current reality of Haiti, these efforts shine all the more. Modest contributions made to scalable, practical programs, can create beneficent cycles of development that vastly multiply their impact.

As I write these lines, we are preparing to light the fourth candle of Hanukkah. The IsraAID/Tevel B’tzedek effort in Haiti that are supported by AJC and others, alongside the efforts of the international community and the remarkable contributions of the dedicated Haitians with whom they work, call to mind the traditional Hanukkah song:

“We come to drive out the darkness, in our hands light and flame. Each is a small light and together we are a mighty illumination.”

Date: 12/27/2011 12:00:00 AM
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