I was an ambivalent teenager when I first followed my father to Haiti in the late 1960s; not sure that I wanted to visit a country smothered in abject poverty and even more unsure what on earth I could do about it. I have learned a lot since that fateful weekend trip. I have learned much about the complexities of Haiti and its people, of poverty, of why it is and why it seems to never go away. "The poor will always be among us," said Jesus. "So why do anything?" I once thought. However, I chose to act otherwise. My upbringing was one that encouraged analytical thinking, to source the cause before treating the symptom. It was this kind of thinking that brought my father (FIDA founder Jack Wall) to believe that the cooperative model was what Haiti needed.
He was (and is) right. The viability of the cooperative model as well as its essentialness in Haiti was brought home during a recent interview with Brett Fairbairn, Director of the Centre for Co-op Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. "Cooperatives exist," he says, "Where there are social and/or economic voids. They are a response to exploitation (or the fear of) and serve to correct economic disadvantages. When people intentionally yet voluntarily band together there is less risk of exploitation." Cooperatives are engines of change. They emerge in environments where 1) there exists no individual or 2) no political will to initiate or execute change. "Cooperatives," he says, "Are the third choice." He went on, "The successful cooperative is always bottom up. by its nature it is a developmental and educational process for people to be involved. Cooperatives nurture leaders who in turn become spokespersons for their communities on a wider (political) stage. Where coops exist there is greater social capital for individuals and communities to respond and engage."
As I was hearing this, I could not help but think of three cooperatives who have complied with the new protocols for credit, and of my visit to a classroom in the high mountain area of Delpeche beyond Fon Batis.
Against the outside door leaned the tools of their working day. Inside were the tools of their tomorrow. "And what has the cooperative done for you?" I asked the members. "It has brought us literacy," they all say. "And what have you learned?" "We have learned what coop is, how it started, what our rights are. We are stronger and know better how not to be tricked or cheated." I pressed on, "And what will you be able to do with this knowledge?" "We will have a chance to improve our family life, to plant a garden, to buy a chicken, an extra marmite of seed, invest in a business or in our community. We can send our children to school so they can learn a trade and be useful to society."
I couldn't resist one last question: "What would you like to become?" It was with this question that I was given the gift of hearing their dreams, the impossible dreams for them. But dreams that may now be realized for their children. "I would like to have been a nurse so my community would be given good medicine and good health. I would have been a teacher and have built a school. I would have been a lawyer in town so that people from my community would have someone who would receive them with heart. I would have been an agronomist." On and on they spoke. "We have cried and cried for literacy and we did not hope it was possible until the cooperative came," they said. "We do not have the economic means yet, but we will."
They were unanimous in their voice. Cooperative will bring transformation. From the bottom up, Haiti is moving beyond survival. We will do well to watch what will become of this people.