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Solidarity as Economic System

In Haiti, sharing communities are proving more shock-proof in the wake of disaster than market-based economies.

Haitian fish market, photo by Lee Cohen

Haitians in villages that saw less earthquake damage share fish, grains and vegetables with displaced residents of Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.

Photo by Lee Cohen.

“If it weren’t for solidarity, Haiti wouldn’t be alive today,” is an expression commonly heard here since the earthquake of January 12.

Haiti’s history is based on sharing and cooperation—expressed with gifts and solidarity toward those surviving on the margins. These displays usually go unnamed and unnoticed.

Some are formalized systems. One is called konbit—collective work groups in which members of the community labor without any expectation of compensation or even return. Konbit is the equivalent of a barn-raising, an option for those without enough hands to accomplish the task by themselves or enough money to hire labor. The cooperation of konbit has allowed farmers to harvest their fields and engage in other major work projects from time immemorial.

In sòl—revolving loan funds—a group of women puts a certain amount of money into a common pot each week or each month; the total is given to a different member each time. That way, each woman can, at some point, have enough capital to allow her to make a significant expense: hospital care for a sick mother, a carton of soap bars that she can buy on discount and sell for profit, a new cooking pot for a fried dough business on a street corner. She doesn’t return the allotment and there is no interest to pay; no one profits off of anyone else. The exchanges are based on trust and human relationships.

Sabotaj, practiced among market women, is like sòl but occurs each day. The term implies sabotaging poverty.

Mèn ansanm, hands together, is another system of community-generated financial assistance. Unlike sòl and sabotaj, which occur among individuals, mèn ansanm occurs through organizations. Here, everyone contributes money to a common pot on a schedule that they determine, and then lends it to one member. That person keeps it for a period to bolster his or her income-generating activities. He or she then returns the principal, but keeps the profit. Again, no one makes a profit from another member.

Trok is another common form of exchange which does not involve currency. It happens informally, with a woman giving milk from her cow for another woman’s baby while the other gives back beans from her garden.

Some organizations say that solidarity should be recognized as an explicit part of an alternative economy, and that the mutual aid—without expectation of return—creates a model of what domestic and international economic policy could look like. Ricot Jean-Pierre of the Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA) says, “Our work is to show that we can enter into another development logic that’s not just via the market but that is through the community, especially with a solidarity economy.”

During the ten weeks since the earthquake, solidarity has formed a critical part of the international rescue, recovery, aid, and support operations. Community organizations, peasant farmers, churches, and townspeople are housing and feeding hundreds of thousands of homeless and displaced people. They are relying on their own resources, contributing their own slim reserves of food, income, and time, since very little outside help has come to underwrite the initiatives.

Judith Simeon, an organizer of women’s and peasants’ groups, shared this analysis: “People are in solidarity in their misery. They are also in solidarity with their capital."

Inuit elders, photo by John HasynWe Are Hard-Wired to Care and Connect by David Korten
Our brains are made to support caring, cooperation, and service.

One example of gifting and solidarity systems at work is emerging in the earthquake-damaged town of Jacmel and surrounding villages. In one of those villages, Cap-rouge, the peasant organization Long Live Hope for Development of Cap-rouge (VEDEK) sent out a call to others to help survivors and brought it to Jacmel’s general hospital to buy basic medicines and water for the wounded.

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 displaced Haitians were pouring into Cap-rouge from Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. In response, peasants brought roots and fruits from their gardens to feed the survivors.

Cap-rouge farmer families also did trok with fisher families. They exchanged grains and vegetables for seafood to substantiate the food that they could offer to the displaced.

In the midst of the Cap-rougeoises’ mobilization of generosity, the villagers were also trying to address the damages and losses they themselves incurred. Research led by the youth of VEDEK found that 155 houses had been leveled, 602 houses were damaged, and 150 water reservoirs were destroyed. To clear the land and demolish the houses that posed a danger, they organized konbits of about 40 people each.

VEDEK also mobilized a campaign to get bean seeds and organic compost so the farmers could produce and even increase their yield, both to help themselves get back on their feet and to help them feed their guests. VEDEK members contributed 9 kilos of bean seeds and 800 sacks of organic compost, which they distributed to 1,400 families.

A statement by 17 progressive Haitian organizations read, "These spontaneous organs of solidarity must now play a central role in the reconstruction and planning of our national space… [A] collective approach in seeking common responses to our problems" could "build a real and viable alternative based on popular democracy."


Beverly Bell bio picBeverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Thanks to Jean Jores Pierre, who provided research on VEDEK.

Interested?
Read more of Beverly Bell's blogs from Haiti here.

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