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Why we chose Haiti !

We choose Haiti for several reasons.

First, Haiti has the most desperate need for clean water in all of the world. Second, the vast majority of the Haitian people live in extreme poverty. Third, the Haitian government and the international community as a whole are not effectively addressing the water and sanitation needs of the people. Finally, Haiti is in the backyard of the United States and these people are our neighbors. Unfortunately, the US and other foreign nations bear substantial responsibility for the calamity that has befallen the Haitian people.

The Need for Clean Water

When one visits Haiti, one immediately knows that the lack of clean water is a pressing issue. Water tankers prowl the streets of Port au Prince providing water to the cisterns of relatively well to do families because there is not any running water or the water is contaminated. On the streets, 20 gallon jugs of water and stacks of bottled water are sold to those who can afford them. Water of questionable origin sold in dirty, reused glass bottles is available to those who can't afford bottled water. And, believe it or not, rural areas have even less clean drinking water available for there are no water tankers or bottled water. Instead, people drink from nearby rivers and streams, all of which are heavily contaminated with bacteria and viruses from human and animal excrement and sediment from eroded hillsides. Indeed, on the Water Poverty Index devised by international water scholars, Haiti ranks 147th out of 147 countries on availability of clean, safe drinking water. Roughly half of the rural population has access to any improved water source and community water taps are the most common form of access to clean water. This means that an estimated 2 million Haitians in rural areas rely on unprotected water sources, jeopardizing their health as evidenced by very high levels of disease and death among children. In addition, significant time is spent fetching water, which affects in particular women, children, and the poor.

Access to sanitation is also the poorest in the Western hemisphere and rivals sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere for the worst in the world. Only 16% of rural Haitians have access to any improved sanitation, including adequate basic latrines, another 28% use facilities that provide only partial protection from fecal contamination, and 56% have no access to latrines at all and resort to open defecation.

As a result, Haiti suffers extremely high death rates among its children, on the same level as those of similarly poor countries. Haiti’s child mortality rate of 118 deaths per 1,000 is far higher than the Latin American regional average of 31, and far closer to sub-Saharan Africa’s average of 171. Try to imagine that: one child in every 8 dies before they reach 14 and most of these deaths come from diarrheal or other water borne diseases.

Extreme Poverty

A second reason for choosing Haiti is that its people live in extreme poverty, which prevents them from investing in water and sanitation improvements. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Average per capita income is comparable to the poorest countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, and Haiti ranks 154 out of 177 countries) in terms of the Human Development Index. About 78% of its population of 8.6 million lives below the poverty line, with 54% in extreme poverty. The rural areas exhibit the highest rate of poverty in the country. Of the roughly two-thirds of the population who live in rural areas, 86% live on less than US $2 a day and 69% live on less than US $1 a day. Just imagine trying to survive, trying to house, feed, and clothe your family of five, on US $5 a day!

Inadequately Addressed by the Haitian Government or International Agencies

(more forthcoming)

Security and economic conditions in Haiti deteriorated beginning in 1989, when the stable terror of the Duvalier dictatorships was swept away by a series of military dictatorships and civilian governments of questionable legitimacy and competence. The military coup that deposed Duvalier gave way to a civilian democratic government, which was almost immediately deposed by another military coup. That military dictatorship was eventually deposed by the US threat of invasion and the original civilian government was restored. Although the next three governments (1996-2004) were elected, elections were hotly disputed and allegedly ridden with fraud and corruption. A civilian democratically elected government was again overthrown in 2004 by a military coup. UN peacekeeping forces occupied Haiti and an interim government was recognized by the international community from 2004-2006. During the last three years, relatively peaceful democratic elections have been held for the national Presidency and Parliament, and democracy has regained a foothold.

During this tumultuous period, the international community imposed economic sanctions on Haiti in order to create democratic government, the international financial institutions declined to provide aid without conditions such as the structural adjustment program that exacerbated poverty, and the international community fled Haiti, including the diplomatic corps and international humanitarian agencies. In particular, agencies traditionally involved in water projects such as CARE, World Vision and Church World Services abandoned Haiti because of inadequate resources.

With national Haitian governments focused on overwhelming security concerns and seeking to satisfy macroeconomic policies of international financial institutions, the national government has given lip service to the plight of the poor and has not focused its limited financial resources on providing the poor with basic services such as water and sanitation, electricity, education, or even passable roads.

More recently, the World Bank has embarked on a $5 million rural water and sanitation project. Properly administered, this amount would probably be sufficient to meet about 10% of the rural need. However, the $900,000 invested through 2008 had only identified 8 communities requiring water and sanitation (a task that could have been accomplished by local experts for $5000) and trained a handful of water technicians.

Under the circumstances, there is no reason to believe that the national government, international financial agencies such as the World Bank, foreign governments, or international humanitarian agencies will mount an effective campaign to assure water and sanitation for Haiti's rural poor. The only effective means to give Haitians clean water and sanitation is for relatively wealthy natural communities in developed countries or rapidly developing countries (schools, churches, service clubs, youth groups) to fund one thousand (or perhaps 5000) small community projects conducted by indigenous Haitian local and regional non-profit organizations.

Foreign Responsibility for the Economic Conditions in Haiti

(more forthcoming)

A Last Word on Personal Safety in Haiti

You can visit water and sanitation projects that you fund in Haiti, despite US government travel advisories. For a number of years, the US advised citizens not to travel in Haiti unless travel was essential. This discouraged everyone except a limited number of foreign diplomats and missionaries from visiting Haiti. However, due to improving security conditions, the US changed its advice in July 2009 and now simply suggests that its citizens exercise extreme caution in traveling to Haiti.

Don't allow official advisories to discourage you from visiting or make your visit unpleasant due to paranoia about the level of crime and political violence. Crime and political violence in Haiti is similiar to or even less than that experienced in other politically volatile developing countries. Indeed, the crime rate is not appreciably different from that experienced at times in large US cities. Thus, similar precautions should be taken.

Understand and assess current conditions in Haiti before traveling. In particular, personnel from the organization responsible for the project should meet you at the international airport in Port au Prince and escort you throughout your visit to the project site. In general, follow standard travel precautions. Do not travel at night. Do not travel alone; travel in a small group, if possible. Travel in more than one vehicle, if possible, so that assistance will be immediately available in the event of a breakdown. Avoid particularly dangerous places such as urban slums. Do not wear expensive jewelry, carry expensive cameras, dress or conduct yourself in a way that would make you a target of crime.

Understanding the underlying reasons for crime and political violence may help demystify the situation in Haiti. Rural education and economic opportunities are extremely limited,and basic social services are severely lacking. Basic rural infrastructure (e.g., water and irrigation, serviceable highways and feeder roads, electricity, and sanitation) is virtually absent or severely depleted, isolating and excluding rural people from any of the benefits of modernity, except perhaps cell phones. These conditions contribute to rural migration to urban areas, especially into the capital, Port-au-Prince. Urban areas, however, suffer from unemployment rates that exceed 80% -- as a result, those who fled the grinding poverty of rural subsistence living end up in trying to survive in extremely overcrowded and dangerous slums where they cannot earn a living and cannot fall back upon the land to feed them.

The violence and crime engendered by these slums affects all urban areas and permeates the entire city of Port au Prince, contributes substantially to political instability in Haiti, and until recently led the US and other countries to discourage all but essential travel to Haiti. These conditions together with the travel ban compounded the problem of expanding and diversifying the Haitian economy to provide stable economic conditions for Haiti's growing population. Political instability and violent crime made it extremely difficult to attract any foreign investment and utterly impossible to revive Haiti's once flourishing, but now defunct tourist industry. However, in the last two or three years, UN peacekeeping forces have provided some relief from crime and political violence and democratic elections have proceeded on a relatively peaceful basis. These improved security conditions led the United State in July 2009 to lift the non-essential travel ban. In reality, travel in Port au Prince still requires great caution, but travel within the rest of the country is relatively safe.