Development & Aid, Global Governance, Headlines, IBSA, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Haiti Is Here

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 9 2011 (IPS) - In the powerful verses of the song “Haiti”, Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil described similarities between two countries at different ends of the development spectrum in Latin America, summed up by the words “Haiti is here”.

Viva Rio's Aochan Kreyol Danse Haitian dance troupe won third prize at the 10th youth dance festival in Santo Domingo.  Credit: Viva Rio

Viva Rio's Aochan Kreyol Danse Haitian dance troupe won third prize at the 10th youth dance festival in Santo Domingo. Credit: Viva Rio

One after another, the verses offer day-to-day images of the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by blacks in Brazil, so similar to the situation in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, and so different from the life of middle-class whites in South America’s powerhouse, which is now one of the world’s largest economies.

“Look at the rows of soldiers from above, almost all of them black/beating the backs of black criminals/of mulatto thieves and others who are almost white/treated like blacks/just to show others who are almost black/(and who are almost all black)/and to show the almost white, who are as poor as the blacks/how the blacks, the poor and the mulattos/and the almost white, who are so poor they are almost black/are treated/” says the 1993 song.

“We all liked to sing that song,” Rubem César Fernandes, executive director of Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO active in Haiti since 2004, told IPS.

Viva Rio was founded in 1993 in response to the growing urban violence in Rio de Janeiro. Its mission is to promote a culture of peace and development in poor communities, and it first became active in other countries in 1999.

“We liked the idea that our experience could be useful in other parts of the world,” said Fernandes. “We thought maybe Rio de Janeiro could evolve if it was seen as having gone from a source of problems to a source of solutions.”

As the song says, “we have similar problems in terms of extreme inequalities, parallel power structures in vulnerable neighbourhoods, environmental problems in poor urban neighbourhoods,” he said. There is also a common Afro-American cultural heritage, “that makes us similar, in our feelings and the way we are,” he added.

Fernandes said these factors, combined with Brazil’s “history of overcoming problems” and its new level of development, make a special kind of cooperation possible, by “combining resources and effectiveness.”

Viva Rio began to support Haiti as a consultant to the MINUSTAH U.N. peacekeeping force on the issues of disarmament, demobilisation and reinsertion, building on what the organisation has learned in the national campaign for voluntary disarmament that it organised in Rio. In 2007, it became more active in Haiti, in the Port-au-Prince slum of Bel Air.

Viva Rio has earmarked a 10 million dollar budget for Haiti this year, with the support of the Brazilian government, as well as financing from Norway, Canada and United Nations agencies.

A central focus of the work is reconstruction and upgrading in Bel Air, “an area that is becoming a source of political risk and violence,” Fernandes said. Experience accumulated in the Rio neighbourhood of Lapa and in Pelourinho in Salvador, capital of the northern state of Bahía, has been useful in that task.

What has been learned in conflict mediation in Rio has served as a foundation for helping to forge peace agreements between rival gangs in Bel Air.

“We are carrying out an integrated action programme that combines security, development and psychosocial work, targeting mainly children and young people,” the director of Viva Rio said.

Like in poor urban areas in Brazil, art is a useful tool for promoting personal development in Haiti. Viva Rio is teaching youngsters in Bel Air capoeira, a blend of martial arts and dance developed by African slaves in Brazil.

“Capoeira is spreading incredibly fast among youngsters in the ghetto,” Fernándes said.

After the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that claimed an estimated 220,000 lives in and around Port-au-Prince and left at least one and a half million people homeless, the NGO had to adapt its activities to the new situation in which most of the population of the capital was living in camps. The group moved part of its operations to Bon Repos and Arcahaie, towns located to the north of the capital.

Brazil’s presence in Haiti is also felt in other ways.

This South American country has commanded MINUSTAH since June 2004. In March of this year, the multinational force had 12,318 members – 8,740 soldiers and 3,578 police from more than 50 countries – deployed in Haiti, a country of 9.7 million.

According to the authorities, Brazil provided nearly 340 million dollars in 2010 to the MINUSTAH stabilisation mission and to contribute to reconstruction of infrastructure, public health, food and basic sanitation.

Development aid from Brazil often draws on this country’s own successful experiences. The assistance that Brazil has provided to Haiti’s school lunch programme has included training of Haitian professionals and the installation of kitchens in schools.

Authorities in Brazil report that the government has donated 244,000 dollars to Haiti’s school lunch programme in the last two years, while India has carried out technology transfer missions, so that cook stoves that operate on solid waste can be produced in Haiti.

The project, carried out under the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) development fund, is for now importing stoves from India to help meet the needs of school lunchrooms and of other solid waste recycling and sanitation projects, a press officer at the Brazilian foreign ministry told IPS.

Brazil’s foreign policy is attempting to forge a place for this country in the world of development aid – or cooperation as the Brazilian government prefers to call it – in keeping with Brazil’s global ambitions, although the amounts dedicated to that purpose are still small.

The country’s South-South cooperation seeks “to always be in line with the priorities established by the government of the beneficiary country,” the foreign ministry source said. The initiatives of the IBSA development fund emerge from “good practices already tried and tested” in the donor countries.

Haiti’s school lunch programme was inspired by one of Brazil’s most outstanding initiatives: Fome Zero (Zero Hunger), an ambitious strategy that combined a number of policies followed by the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

One component of Fome Zero, the national school meals programme, serves 47 million schoolchildren in this country of 190 million people, and links food security with incentives for family farms, Gemmo Lodesani, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) office in Brussels, told IPS.

In collaboration with the WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Programme (FAO), a 5.5 million dollar loan from Brazil went towards a programme to purchase food – rice and dairy products – produced by some 6,000 Haitian family farmers.

And a Brazilian delegation from Via Campesina, the international small farmers movement, visited Haiti to work directly with young farmers in sustainable agriculture practices and popular education on food sovereignty. They also helped build more than 1,000 rainwater collection and storage tanks, distributed agro-ecological seeds, and carried out reforestation efforts.

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