I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve always been a community mobilization skeptic. It’s easy to comprehend the importance of providing people with food, water and shelter in desperate situations, and helping them gain access to skills, training, capital and opportunities so that they can help themselves in the long term.
In contrast, community mobilization has always seemed a little squishy to me. But this week in Haiti, I saw that it can mean the difference between life and death.
Today, several colleagues and I visited a sprawling camp near the airport — a cluster of 2,000 people living in tattered tents. We walked in and were promptly greeted by two of its three main leaders, gentlemen who’d been selected by the camps’ families to organize, lead and protect them.
The camp contains 800 children, they told us, several of whom gathered around us in parade-like fashion as we walked. Like most children in Haiti, they were gorgeous and playful. We were told that a number of kids in the camp were injured in the earthquake — one had had brain surgery and almost immediately been sent back “home” — and the camp had received no food, water or other kinds of assistance.
The camp leaders were very organized and protective. They had just finished compiling names and data on all of the residents — critical information for any organization working to provide aid. There were frequent reports of gangs attacking women and girls, so camp leaders worked in three shifts to guard the camp 24 hours a day. They also advised us than any food aid should be brought in quietly during the day, and it would be stored for a late-night distribution so as not to draw the attention of potential looters.
The camp, despite enormous needs, was calm and orderly, and people seemed well informed. Maybe that doesn’t seem so remarkable. When you grow up in an American culture of scouting leagues, sporting leagues, PTA meetings and church committees, the mobilization of communities might seem a natural state of affairs.
But consider the situation of Port-au-Prince right now: about half of the city is homeless, living in abject poverty, squatting in overcrowded camps with people they often don’t know, and left without consistent access to basics such as food, water or anywhere to go to the bathroom. In an atmosphere like this, it’s easy for chaos to reign.
That’s where community mobilization comes in. As one of my colleagues explained to me, we can’t work in a camp if residents haven’t come together and said, "we want Mercy Corps’ help and we’re going to organize ourselves to get it, whether that’s by providing lists of residents, or maintaining order during distributions, or working to create and maintain child-friendly spaces for Comfort-for-Kids activities."
In short, if communities don’t mobilize, they’re sunk.
After almost one week here, I’m amazed that Haiti is holding itself together. And make no mistake, it’s not any military force or humanitarian organization or government that’s doing it. This country is still intact because its people are gentle, resilient souls who have — dare I say it — mobilized to save themselves.