International development comes to Haiti

Despite Haiti’s rich cultural history and prime Caribbean beaches, the country remained trapped in a perverse web: poverty, natural disasters, political instability and environmental degradation. In the mid-2000s, over half of its 10 million people lived on less than $1 per day, and 80 percent lived on less than $2 per day. [4] Forty-six percent of Haitians didn’t have enough to eat, fewer than one in 50 finished secondary school, and less than 4 percent of the nation’s land remained forested. [5] While the international aid community had sent millions of dollars to Haiti, critics argued that the aid had limited effectiveness. Corruption, mismanagement, international politics and Haitian political instability combined to keep the majority of Haitians in severe poverty. [6]

MDGs. Reducing poverty in the developing world was a major United Nations goal. As early as 1966, the world body created the UN Development Program (UNDP) to help poor countries develop the institutions and infrastructure needed to withstand crises and lift people out of poverty. UNDP gave international aid donors a framework for contributing to a country's improvement rather than simply providing crisis relief. The UN also addressed environmental concerns, establishing in 1972 the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to coordinate environmental activities and provide member countries with relevant information.

The UN recognized that fighting poverty required a multi-pronged approach. In 2000, it announced eight Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, an ambitious set of targets for the world community to achieve by 2015. They included:

1.     Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

2.     Achieve universal primary education

3.     Promote gender equality and empower women

4.     Reduce child mortality

5.     Improve maternal health

6.     Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

7.     Ensure environmental sustainability

8.     Develop a global partnership for development

Tatiana Wah

In 2002, the UN Secretary-General commissioned a design for achieving the goals and, in 2005, an advisory body recommended that programs to reach the goals be implemented first in individual villages, and then scaled up. The Millennium Village Project (MVP) was created to target a small number of impoverished African villages with multi-sector programs—in health, education, the environment, and the economy. This integrated approach addressed the reality that all sectors were interconnected. For example, schools often delivered nutrition and health care services, while reliable energy and clean water were critical to health clinics. As of 2012, there were 14 so-called Millennium Villages across sub-Saharan Africa. [7]

MDGs to Haiti. As early as May 2006, Haitian President René Preval had asked Earth Institute (EI) Director Jeffrey Sachs to advise his government on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Specifically, Preval asked Sachs to help create the first Millennium Village in the western hemisphere. [8] EI collaborated on a design for a Millennium Village Project on Haiti's Central Plateau and, in June 2009, founded the Haiti Policy Program (HPP) to bring the Millenium Goals approach and a village to Haiti. [9] Sachs recruited Tatiana Wah, a Haitian-born Creole speaker, to lead HPP. Simultaneously, the government retained Wah as a senior policy advisory to ensure that lessons learned from the Millennium Village Project translated into policy initiatives to help Haiti achieve the Millennium Development Goals nationwide.

Wah was a regional development and urban planning scholar who specialized in Haiti. Raised in Port-au-Prince, she moved to Brooklyn, NY at 13. She held advanced degrees in urban planning and policy development, and had worked in and taught about development. She had also written a book about tapping the Haitian diaspora for development efforts. [10] Reaching the Millennium Development Goals required governments to undertake projects across sectors—health, education, energy, agriculture, environment, and jobs. "So you would have to take an integrative approach to planning," explains Wah. [11]

That is one thing the [Haitian government] did not have any experience in. [They] did not understand how health is related to education, how education is related to energy and job creation, etc. All the ministries existed in silos so, even during budget time, before the operational plans were done, [the problem was] how to link the budgets for attaining these goals together.

Regeneration. Meanwhile, the Earth Institute was involved in a separate UNEP project. In 2008, UNEP Deputy Executive Director Angela Cropper called for an initiative to put Haiti on a track of sustainable development. [12] Cropper’s proposal was a radical departure for UNEP: it had never before created projects in the field. But in the beginning of 2009, UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management branch began work on what it called the Haiti Regeneration Initiative (HRI). [13]

Alex Fischer

HRI aimed for comprehensive sustainable development in southwestern Haiti, an environmentally damaged area vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes. [14] Four hurricanes struck the region in 2008 alone. [15] With a 20-year horizon, HRI wanted to address the root causes of extreme poverty, including environmental degradation, vulnerability to natural disasters and limited access to social services. It proposed to take a science-based, long-term approach to watershed management that encompassed agriculture, ecology, economics, education, forestry and healthcare. The Norwegian government was the project's primary funder.

In early 2009, HRI Manager Andrew Morton contacted Marc Levy, deputy director of the Earth Institute's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), about partnering with UNEP on the Haiti Regeneration Initiative. [16] The two organizations agreed to collaborate and, on March 15, Levy and Alex Fischer, a CIESIN research associate, began a tour of Haiti’s south coast to assess the impact of the 2008 hurricanes and floods. In April, Fischer was appointed program manager.

Levy on taking baseline measurements.

Marc Levy

Levy and Fischer recommended focusing on a single watershed, with a program to collect baseline and ongoing data in order to implement an integrated, multi-sector development project based on that data. To select a watershed, Levy, Fischer and the research team looked at several key factors: population, size, environmental hazards, local organizations and existing investment. Despite limited information about watersheds in Haiti’s south, they were able to zero in on the Port-à-Piment watershed, a 102-square-kilometer area about 200 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince with an estimated population of 30,000 people. They first visited the watershed on June 15, 2009. In September, UNEP published a preliminary concept note for HRI. The document summed up the initiative's scope and ambition:

The Haiti Regeneration Initiative is being developed on the principle that large scale, chronic problems need ambitious, innovative solutions. The vision is both simple and bold—to build and support a national movement in Haiti that understands the underlying issues and tackles them in an organized and integrated way. Well-planned, concerted action will be required over the next 20 years and beyond. The Regeneration Initiative aims to reduce poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters—including climate change—through the restoration of ecosystems and livelihoods based on sustainable natural resource management.

© Columbia Earth Institute
A 3D map of the Port-à-Piment watershed.

That fall, the Earth Institute team set up a remote office in UNEP's Port-au-Prince office and began planning the data collection phase of the project. The project set ambitious goals to develop new approaches to the intertwined challenges of social, economic, environmental and political fragility in Haiti, and to document the work through comprehensive monitoring. Levy sums up the challenge: “It’s not applying best practices. It’s not translating mature science to a new place. It’s inventing something that people don’t know how to do yet.” [17]

[6] Timothy T. Schwartz, Travesty in Haiti , BookSurge Publishing, July 5, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4196-9803-3

[7] The Millennium Villages attracted controversy, in part because the expected benefits would not materialize for a decade or more, which made it difficult to measure success. Moreover, researchers disagreed on how to assess the projects' impacts. Some wanted to compare Millennium Villages to "control" villages in the manner of scientific trials. Others argued that would be both ineffective and morally indefensible. See: Michael Clemens, Why a Careful Evaluation of the Millennium Villages Is Not Optional , March 18, 2010, Center for Global Development

[8] Sachs, an advisor to the Haitian government, had led the advisory group that recommended the creation of Millennium Villages.

[9] EI’s partner in the design phase was the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. The HPP was funded by a November 2008 grant from the Green Family Foundation.

[10] Tatiana Wah. Haiti's Development Through Expatriate Reconnection: Conditions and Challenges. (Pompano Beach, FL; Educa Vision Inc.), 2003.

[11] Author’s interview with Tatiana Wah, September 10, 2013, in New York, NY. All further quotes from Wah, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[12] Author’s interview with Marc Levy on September 11, 2013 in New York, NY. All further quotes from Levy, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[13] Ibid.

[15] Jeffrey Masters, Hurricanes and Haiti: A Tragic History , Weather Underground. See:

[16] CIESIN collected and analyzed interdisciplinary data on people and the environment, and integrated the information with geospatial data. See:

[17] Author’s interview with Marc Levy on September 11, 2013 in New York, NY. All further quotes from Levy, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.