Sabina Carleson is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Community Health. She has worked in Southern Sudan and three years ago co-founded RESPE, a community-led research and development project in rural northern Haiti under the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL).
Some 4 years ago, I began an oral history project chronicling the Haitian Diaspora here in the Greater Boston Area, and lines of the powerful stories still linger in my mind: “Haitians have always known hardship, and will always know hardship,” an elderly man told me in our mixed dialogue of French, Creole, and English somewhere in the basement of a community housing project. “But the Haitians always have been strong, and always will be strong.”
In the 4 years since, those observations have been confirmed, but layers of complexity added to them. In 4 years of working with the Diaspora, I saw a community that had been through hardship in Haiti, faced new hardships in America, and had no illusions that their community would face hardships in the roads ahead. But I also saw a community that in acknowledging the persistent nature of hardship in Haiti had had developed an equally persistent approach to innovation.
Haitian civil society has always been among the most organized and cooperative in the world. On the ground, community cooperatives are the backbone of day to day life, and informal networks of communication stretch across the most remote areas of the countryside. Outside of Haiti, the Diaspora sends the most remittances home per capita of all migrant populations worldwide; however the flood of money is more of a metaphor for the flood of frustrations and dreams and intentions the Diaspora is channeling across the Caribbean.
That innovation expresses itself in many ways: in my life, that innovation expressed itself in the Diaspora mentoring a poverty alleviation initiative I was helping to develop between Tufts University and a rural community called Balan in northern Haiti, helping us nurture new models of community-led research, exchanges, and project development.
That experience on the ground allowed me the gift of seeing firsthand the elaborate human infrastructure that is what makes Haiti, contrary to popular portrayal, a strong country. I passed a baz every day, a brightly-colored gazebo that serves as a community center in good times, centers of community defense in bad times, and centers of community communication across the ages.
The principal way the Diaspora organizes itself here in the United States is different but still impressive: in locally- and regionally-based “Hometown Associations”, which are groups of Haitians who collectively support individual towns in Haiti by pooling remittances for small- to medium-scale development projects. In recent years, Diaspora groups have accelerated their search for ways to maximize their impact on the development of their country by using the technology that is spreading from Montreal to Miami to Mirebalais.
And this is one of the primary reasons why the Ushahidi-Haiti platform can function as a revolutionary tool for both Haitians on the ground and in the Diaspora to direct the flow of aid and influence the reconstruction of their country. Ushahidi in the long term can serve as a communication tool to create new links between the Diaspora and the ground that are dynamic and quick and close as word getting passed from baz to baz.
In the current crisis, I have seen the faith of a people tried time and time again by crisis battered in a way I have never seen: even our partners on the ground in Balan in the north by Cap Haitian told us they were safe but “shaken” both literally and figuratively. And I have seen our partners in Boston shaken to their feet at a speed that was remarkable for a community already so quick to stand up for its home country.
And if that flood of frustrations and dreams and intentions was formidable before, it has truly been unleashed now. But it has been unleashed at a time when the airports are clogged, the ports destroyed, the roads crumbled, and the human infrastructure that is what Haiti was truly built on has been torn asunder.
But at the moment, perhaps one of the best channels for those frustrations and dreams and intentions is the one that was perhaps the least shaken: the technological one. Ushahidi can one day become a long-term platform that Haitians can continue to construct the future of their country on; however at the moment, it is the immediate bridge that is attempting to link the communities in America with the communities in Haiti and communities in the humanitarian sphere.
And hopefully, if this bridge between these communities holds during the crushing weight of the current crisis, it will prove itself strong enough to stand under the shifting pressures of reconstruction and development. And the more frustrations and dreams and expectations are moved across this bridge between the three communities now in the form of goods and ideas and services, the more solid of a platform Ushahidi will be when the dust settles and it is handed over to an innovating Haitian community.